Somewhere around the first of the year, one of my de facto Spiritual Directors – one of the several people who help me discern which of the many “voices” that vie for my attention are of God and which are not – came to me with a brochure from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outlining the retreats they offer. He had circled one and told me un-ceremoniously that I needed to go to it.
It was titled “The Spirituality of Imperfection.” I chuckled and said, “Me? What in God’s name would make you think I have issues with imperfection?!”
Being gracious, he said something to the effect of, “I just chose it because it is in the middle of the week; far enough “out” that you probably don’t have anything on your calendar for that time, yet; I know the monk who’s leading it and he’s great; and yes…you could use a little refresher on the fact that imperfection is actually one of God’s greatest gifts!”
So, in the middle of July, I drove 4+ hours to Conyers, GA for a 4-day SILENT retreat (Yep…That’s right! The only talking was during each “session” and if outside of the monastery building, but before 8:30 p.m., after which all were to observe the “grand silence,” until 4:00 a.m. – like anyone is going to want to talk at 4:00 a.m.!).
The very first thing I noticed when I walked into the retreat house was that the AC was obviously not working properly. Immediately, “my knee-pits” started dripping sweat. Thankfully, I was wearing long pants so the fabric just absorbed and locked in the sweat (Yeah…The brochure states that “dress is casual, but please no shorts.” It was soon obvious that I was among the only ones there thoughtful enough to follow the “no shorts” request!).
So, to recap: the first thing(s) I notice are not the beauty, silence, calm, peace of the place, but my sweaty knee-pits and the fact that some of my fellow retreatants (yes, that’s a word) were obviously not as “holy” as me, walking around in their dis-respectful, though really cute, shorts!
Plastering on my most benevolent smile, I went to the receptionist. She went over the schedule, making note of the hours of prayer that we were welcomed to take part in (4:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 5:20 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.) and pointing out that Brother Mark (who looks exactly like a Hobbit) asks everyone to be sure to be present at the first session because there is some “housekeeping” stuff to go over. Then she pointed down the hall toward the dining room, “The dining room is down there. The meals are silent. If you have to talk, you can eat in this room (she showed me where).” Then she gave me my room assignment – Room 209 (BTW, the key to 209 will not work in Room 207, the room I tried for 1 full minute to open…Thankfully, whomever was assigned to that room was not in at the time.), told me that Vespers would start in about 30 minutes and showed me the way to get to the abbey church. Then she said, “Retreatants may sit in the space just to the right of the monks. Worship books will be laid out for you. It can kind of be hard to follow, so just stand when they stand and sit when they sit.” She must have seen that I was less than comfortable with my sweaty knees and frustration at my shorts-wearing colleagues, because then she smiled warmly and said, “It will be fine.”
Here are some of the notes and thoughts I wrote down while I was there:
· Brother Mark: “If you need to make confession while you are here, go to Father Thomas (? can’t remember his name). There is a sign-up sheet outside of this room. When you go, be on time, be quick and be gone. This isn’t a counseling session, and Father Thomas (?) is quite old.”
· “Please know that you are welcomed and encouraged to come to any and all of the ‘hours of prayer.’ We do a lot of chanting. You are welcomed to join in, but we tend to go flat when we chant, so be patient with us.”
· Carl Jung said: “Do not trust anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
· “Perfect” is an illusion.
· “God uses our gifts to reach others and our imperfections to reach us (Maybe one of my favorite insights.)”.
· My own thought: If, as Br. Mark suggests, I cannot fully love others or God without loving myself, can I at least practice loving self and God by loving others?
· Jesus is never upset with sinners, only with people who pretend they are not sinners.
· I don’t remember who said this, but I really like it. When asked why they pray, someone responded: “I do not pray so much as I just breathe God in and hope somehow to learn how to breathe God out, as well.”
· Perhaps our greatest commonalities are our imperfection and our loved-ness by God.
· Perfectionists don’t tend to celebrate theirs strengths – instead, they focus on their weaknesses.
· Awareness of our own imperfection opens us to grace.
· “Be perfect” (as in Matt. 5:48) – bad translation…Better “Don’t give up”; “Keep at it”; “Be mature;” and note the context…Work toward “maturing-never-giving-up” love.
Day 4 (Final session):
· Br. Mark: “As a rule – even if you think you know the answer to someone’s problem, don’t give it while they are still talking.”
To sum up:
Since the bells which call to worship will have already woken you up, you may as well get out of bed and go to the prayer hour called “Vigils,” which is at 4:00 a.m.…Don’t worry, nobody cares what you look like at that hour (I even wore a pair of running shorts on the last morning – but I changed before breakfast)…But do take note that for the 30-minutes of silent meditation that happens in the middle of the service, the lights will be turned off. So, if you want to move to a different place for this 30 minutes, be careful not to trip, the abbey church is very dark at that hour! Just sayin’.
Breakfast is not served until after morning mass (7:00 a.m.) – there’s even a sign in the refectory that says so.
Monks make really good coffee.
Eating in silence is really pretty neat.
People who wear shorts at monasteries are cool, too (temperature-wise and personality-wise).
It’s easier to “unplug” and be silent than you imagine.
Each time you become aware of your imperfection is an opportunity to thank God for divine grace.
Give yourself a break: It is not only the case that the way you treat others is the way you treat Christ (ala Matt. 25. 31ff), but also the way you treat yourself is the way you treat Christ.
Before you leave, remember to thank the receptionist who told you that everything would be fine.
p.s. you should check out the pictures of the monastery. Go to www.trappist.net