retreats: demons and desert


Yesterday, day three of my retreat, I spent most of the day here, looking out at this desert space. After a long hike, I sat on a smooth rock, looked out into the desert and listened to Life and to MY life for three one-hour periods, punctuated with water, stretching and some excellent chocolate.

It was like sitting on the edge of one’s own psyche, looking about – asking some questions about what one sees. At times, I saw a beetle here, a shrub there, a stone the colors of peach and yellow, a chunk of hurled, black, bubbled lava. At other times I saw anger left over from a conversation, regret from a lost relationship, joy at a new friendship, an unexpressed resentment needing to be lanced, a delight from some intimacy experienced, gratitude for a courageous moment, awareness at a troubling under-bounderied relationship, mindfulness at God’s love for me and mine for God.

On day four of my annual retreat, things are beginning to break apart.  My chiropractor (usually my first stop on a retreat, so that my body has been adjusted for so many hours of sitting meditation and…well, so that I am more comfortable in my body will full ranges of motion) says that when he adjusts my neck (a quick, hard yank with cracking sounds!) he is breaking apart calcium which has formed from calcified muscle where stress has caused scar tissue.  As soon as the appointment was over on Friday morning, I found that when I turned my head to pull out of the parking lot, I turned my head so far that I saw parts of my back seat I had never seen before!  I felt like an owl. If that can happen to the body, that can happen to the soul.

Things in my soul (scriptures call this, in Hebrew, our “nefesh”; translated as our “everythingness”) which are soul-calcified are beginning to break up in day-four of an authentic retreat.  My use of the word “authentic” feels, and may indeed seem, judgmental.  It is.

A spiritual leader must take a long, uninterrupted, silent retreat regularly so that they can see what they need to see and make the adjustments needed to protect the people they serve from projections, unidentified negative feelings and the mindlessness of un-identified self-anthesthesia.  I know too many clergy and Bishops who spend their retreats so filled with words – the daily office, confessions, spiritual readings – that they never have the silence they need to really see the things they need to see inside themselves.  There is little more tragic than a religious leader who uses words to so quickly fill empty spaces that they need not see the hard things inside themselves which they need to see – need to face – need to adjust. The same thing happens on Sundays in some Episcopal Churches.  There are so many words – recited, read, read at us, sung – that the open fire-hydrant of words creates its own form of anesthesia, numbing our soul to awareness.  It is an ecclesial tragedy similar to what I find when I eat at an all-you-can-eat food bar – moving on my plate from delicious food to delicious food – fried shrimp, crab souflee, corn pudding, prime rib – tan and brown foods all – delicious all.  And yet, my body is craving broccoli, almonds, asparagus, kiwi, kale and salmon – healthy, clean foods packed with what my body really needs to function.

Generally, on a retreat, I like to combine body work and soul work.  My body is so important.  It is a vessel which carries something holy.  It is the tool with which I touch, smile, caress, hug, hold, communicate and listen.  The stresses of life and the toxins we ingest need to be physically worked out and well as spiritually worked out.  Tending to the soul and ignoring the body is a time bomb. So I build into any retreat daily time for deep, full sleep, time for silent meditation (three one-hour periods), time to connect with a loved friend for gentle conversation and touch, time to walk outside, time for spiritual direction and a chiropractic session (each once in the week), time to write and time for some gentle, slow, spiritual reading; and, when possible, time for deep-tissue massage (assuming I have saved up some money for this valuable and expensive body-work).  Some days, some of these things will not occur – with the exception of three one-hour periods of wordless prayer.

They work of the spiritual life is not to wall-paper over our demons with words nor is it to anesthetize our awareness of the demons with our busy-ness.  The work of the spiritual life is to sit with our demons in God’s warm presence, see them, listen to what they are trying to tell us and then release them with gratitude.  They are part of us and the only thing which calms them is being listened to.  And the only thing which sends them on their way, is God’s transfiguring love.  But we three need to be together for that process to unfold.

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