The Spiritual Discipline of Retreat

Last Tuesday's upi - I am going to catch up - really I am

So There I was...
In the convent chapel. Listening to the sisters of the Queens of Angels Monastery singing the evening praise. Tonight I was just listening. This is hard to do because the sisters are so hospitable that if you do not take a book of prayer out of the rack, they will assume that you don’t know where they are and will get you one. If you have a book and do not open it, they will assume that you cannot find the right page and they will try and help you. As a Quaker, a severely unliturgical heathen, I do have trouble with the book. Sometimes, the seasons, the days, songs and psalms and magnificats, get a little overwhelming. I do ok with the “Our Father,” I have even picked up the “Hail Mary” although they don’t seem to use that one so much in group worship. I once said a full Novena, just to see if I could do it, and to see how it felt.

But sometimes I just like to close my eyes and listen. The sisters read a piece of the Book of Psalms out loud every day. The service has a brief reading from somewhere in the New Testament, but a big chunk of King David’s lyrics daily. I wonder what he thinks of their rendition. I wonder if he wishes he was getting residuals – well maybe he is.

There is something eerie about the voices of a couple of dozen gentle, kind, often elderly women, intoning the imprecatory psalms. They put very little emotion into the words. David used many of his words to curse his enemies; swords in their hearts, destruction, wrath, revenge. The sisters give voice to these sentiments rather unsentimentally. I have never seen them flinch at even the most embarrassing parts – smashing the heads of the enemies’ babies on rocks, etc. To their credit they do not seem very inflated when they read David’s words making the tenuous case for his own righteousness, either. They just speak these words out into the air, a display of the best and worst of the human condition, as if to say “Hey, God, look at us – this is what we are – what are you going to do with us?”

Due to a trip to Africa, an illness, and a few other things I have not been out to the monastery for six months. This has been the longest lapse in ten years of mostly monthly visits. I try and get out for a 24-hour retreat. I spend an hour or two with a Benedictine Spiritual Director, trying to take an honest look at my own spiritual condition and whatever notion God is attempting to squeeze into my feeble heart, brain and soul at any given time. Then I spend the rest of the time resting, or praying, or doing anything except my normal work and worry. It is good for me.

They don’t like to let me work, although there is work to do out there, and they all work as part of the Benedictine Rule. My Spiritual Director thinks that I am rather bad at Sabbath, and she is right, so I rest. She also doesn’t ask me to keep silence as often as some. She thinks that as a Quaker I am probably good that this – which is not quite so true. But some of the sisters enjoy my dinner table tales of modest adventure, so I serve in my own way.

This trip out, after such a break, I was itchy. The American allergy to stillness and disconnect had me all but in hives. No ipod, no computer, no phone, no TV. No to-do lists, no calendar book, no demands on my time or attention. It is exactly what I wanted and needed and it about drove me crazy. What happened next was predictable. I crashed. Right after dinner I laid down on my bed for a minute and fell asleep, in my clothes on top of the bedcovers, and I slept like that for fourteen hours. I was not sleep deprived, I am a good sleeper – nine hours almost nightly, but My brain just couldn’t stay conscious and do nothing. It was a shock to my system. My dreams were vivid, and many, but confused and mildly disturbing.

I woke up, had coffee and did some praying and writing. Then with my Spiritual director’s blessing, I took off a couple of hours early. I got back on my motorcycle and tripled the miles between the Monastery and home. The sisters like it when I bring the bike. They get a kick out of seeing it parked in front of their home, makes people wonder, I guess.

I left so much better than I came. It is kind of a Roto-rooter for my soul. Sometimes I fly out there desperate for the break. Sometime I have to pull myself away and make myself go. It is a discipline. The Spiritual Discipline of Retreat. I have found that no matter how good I get at listening to God’s Spirit in everyday life, that I regularly need to completely disconnect in order to reboot my hard drive. Stuff just runs better.

I recommend disengagement. You cannot spiritually advance without some kind of regular retreat. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is true. It can take many forms, and you don’t need the vocational religious,

fun though they are.

But you need it. Ask your soul.

Oooh, after a too-busy Sunday at San Francisco meeting, and more leisurely hanging out with the wife and kids afterwards, this just gives me the shivers. You are sooo right! Amen. And thank you!

-- Chris M.
Yes, it is so hard to be Mary when Martha never ceases calling from the kitchen. Why is it so difficult to accept that Mary chose the better part?
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