26 September 2014

Third Day of Retreat: Question On Matters of Focus

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, If you are on retreat how can your attention be focused outward to "the wider world" as you recently wrote? That's not my idea of retreating!]]

 Well,  you are entirely correct that some of my attention has been so focused and that is mainly because of two things: 1) my heart is profoundly engaged here and that naturally includes people who enrich my life by loving me and allowing me to love them, and 2) this is a natural rhythm for me at this time. I can certainly focus inward and there are times that I have done and in fact must do that to the exclusion of really thinking much about people outside the hermitage (or my room here at the mission), but going on retreat is a sort of paradoxical reality for me. It is a time when I leave the hermitage, meet and interact on  a limited basis with others, worship with those I don't really know (yet), and to a very limited degree when I am out of my room and somewhere else in the mission, answer occasional questions about this vocation, my own ties to Franciscanism and my journey from there to Diocesan Eremitical life and Camaldolese Benedictinism. While my time here is no different from the annual retreat taken by any religious, whether ministerial or not, it is the case that it is a bit more relaxed in some ways (not least that I can check email at noon time if I choose to and read questions like yours!) and that it frees me from some everyday concerns which are part and parcel of my life at Stillsong. Still, it is very much retreat time and I will do my best to simply allow it to be what God wills and thus, what I need it to be (and vice versa!).

Perhaps the first reading from today's liturgy captures this sense of rhythm and the appropriateness of flexibility best (it was because of this that I actually chose to answer your question today rather than next week some time): [[To everything there is a Season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. . . .a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. . . .A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. . . .a time to be silent, and a time to speak. . . .He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into [our] hearts]]

You see, I understand retreat as a privileged time to honor what is in my heart because the heart is that place within me where God bears witness to Godself. I do that by allowing myself to be taken hold of by what dwells therein in ways which may differ from when I am home. The different context assures that I perceive things from a different perspective because different things trigger meaningful associations for me and because it is all differently illuminated. I hear texts and prayers proclaimed or recited with new voices and so, in new ways. Similarly, I am vulnerable in different ways, that is, all of this and more serves to open my heart in fresh and surprising ways to our living God who is always new. 

You must admit that superficially at least there is a bit of irony or something just a little "mind-bending" in the idea of a hermit "going on retreat". In any case it hardly makes sense to go from "sitting in one's 'cell'" to sitting in another one and paying for the privilege of doing so --- unless, of course, there is something meaningfully new or different about the situation. You see, most people take retreats to break from their usual surroundings. It's important to do this and I do the same. What may be a bit different is that where "retreat" in the mind of most folks implies a move from busyness or routine that militates against prayer, from the world of noise that prevents silence, from relative superficiality, and so forth, in order to turn or return to God at a greater depth, for me it does not mean these things, at least not generally. (I can certainly relate to the need to move from a routine that can become stultifying or at least less than helpful sometimes in terms of prayer, and also to becoming caught up in some forms of busyness! I can also relate to the need to respond to God more deeply at almost any time or place so retreat does mean an opportunity for that for me.)

But for me retreat generally means an opportunity to take a step back and look at my everyday life from a new vantage point. (It is amazing the way daily struggles and the battles with the demons of our own hearts become less huge and intransigent when one can do this.) Of course it does mean taking time apart from directees and some limited parish commitments, but above all it means providing a new space  in which my heart can breath according to a different time signature and be stretched and sing itself in a new key. In that way I gain more perspective on living my life and hear more clearly the song I am called to be --- free of the muddle and  facile embellishments which sometimes accrue to and detract from it.. When I return home from retreat, I tend to see everything there with fresh eyes and a more truly grateful heart as well. In any case, retreat provides me with the opportunity to better honor all the ways God bears witness to Himself within my own heart.