A retreat, done well, can be a time of deep reflection, observation and integration. And one in a desert can be grounding.
As I think back on the retreats I took as a monk, they were as much a success or failure as any I take now. By that I mean that being a religious did not make me more spiritual or even a better person though for some, it is the only container they can manage and for others it is a calling…or a choice were one not to believe in God’s call, in favor of God’s hopes. For me, the relational deprivation and sexual repression could be so mind and soul numbing that it made a retreat nothing more than a vacation from unkindness with prayer. I suppose I left the monastery because I could so clearly see that the men whose monastic life was authentic were abused and maligned, while the powerful monks tended to be walking time bombs of repressed energies which did terrible violence to the people around them, usually in exponential relation to their power. And the powerful men outside the monastery they seduce, tend to become made in their image. Women seem immune thankfully.
So here I am, a self-exclaustrated ex-monk, in recovery from ecclesial abuse and manipulation. I am not terribly spiritual any more, but I am becoming authentic and kind. I am not terribly pious, but increasingly free and courageous – especially against manipulation and cruelty in the church. I forgive but I do not forget. We forgive. We do not forget. And when we regain our equilibrium, we speak truth which shakes ecclesial foundations and can leave a headache, at least.
On my hike yesterday, I was in the Arizona desert with a friend. We were at about 6,000 feet and the land was rough. Plants stood their ground against the arid wind. Each tree, each soon-to-be-flowering plant stood its ground and faced off life in a determined stance of existence. The land seemed to sing a lenten chant but not a sad one. The song was not lamenting, nor complaining, nor longing. It was simply quiet and determined not to be destroyed by the climate in which it found itself.
Perhaps I was projecting, but the land and its mystical vegetation seemed to become an icon to the church today. Not our parish church. Not the Cathedral. The parish I have chosen, I have chosen for its tremendous health, vitality, authenticity and potential. But the whole church is at a rather low place between the authenticity of the great/silent generation and the emerging Gen X and Gen Y generations. There are many very fine boomer clergy – excellent in their devotion, study, prayer, Rule of Life, and caring for their flock. And there are, not least because of the sad state of the Boomer Generation’s general spiritual depth, so many clergy and Bishops who are not fine clergy. Not at all. They suck off the church’s resources, unemployable in virtually any field in which accountability and effectiveness are the means by which they would have been measured.
Hiking in the Arizona desert reminded me of the hardness of being a leader in the church today. But it also reminded me of the strength we have and the resiliance. As the church becomes what it is destined to become, we wait; hunkered down with enough water to survive; but also with more gorgeous sunlight from God’s gaze than the lush plants of New England which wilt at the first frost and die with the least little deprivation of water.
Lent is such a good time to see how courageous we are and the desert vegetation a fine metaphor for it. This is a good season in which to let go of the cages in which we lock ourselves through un-forgiveness, grudge-holding and judgementalism. We can moan about the lack of rain or we can look around us and see life, and the church, and each other at our most courageous – most resilient. And we can tilt our faces to the sun and, in that bright warmth, no that all manner of thing shall be well.