(My apologies for the length of this post, but there is a lot to say after an eight-day retreat.)
I’m not sure if everyone else is like this, but I have a very active imagination. I find myself with my head in the clouds quite often, either remembering some past experience or creating an elaborate hypothetical situation in the future, often times taking both sides of an argument or practicing eloquent dissertations. I’ve been told that this doesn’t make me crazy (really!), and that it can actually be a great form of prayer. On the other hand, it can be an escape that leaves me having never experienced the present moment; to only contemplate the past and future leaves no room for experiencing a great homily, the beauty of nature, the particularities of the mass, or most tragically, an experience of direct communication with God. My goal for this retreat was to fight the temptation to drift off and to stay focused on the present, to live in the moment.
And so we began. Ora et labora. Pray and work. St. Benedict’s great motto was our Rule for a week. Off went the cell phone, and quiet went the mouth for the majority of the day.
Each day was greatly dictated by the schedule for prayer: seven times a day, we dropped whatever we were doing and met the monks for a highly formalized prayer. This included Vigils (4:45am), Lauds (7:00am), Mass (9:00am), Sext (12:00pm), None (3:00pm), Vespers (6:30pm), and Compline (8:15pm). Though I found some of the hours to be a bit monotonous, at least intellectually I found the commitment to prayer to be quite profound. Even for minor hours such as Sext and None that lasted literally 6 minutes, no one ever missed it. Because prayer is the most important part of their life, other tasks had to work their way around the prayer schedule. This was a great witness to the rest of the world that prays as an afterthought or only in its “free time.”
Between prayers, we were free to read, go for walks, journal, pray privately, or best of all, nap extensively. With nothing required for us to do and being banned from our phones and unnecessary conversation, I saw the week as an excellent time to relax while being productive enough to catch up on some reading and writing.
To my great surprise, however, there can actually be such a thing as too much free time! And because it is very easy to forget to focus on the present and revert to a normal task-oriented way of thinking, I become restless within just a few days when there wasn’t enough to occupy my time. Without the news, music, conversation, tasks, games, or television to keep my attention, I was left in a world of which I was unfamiliar: silence. I even found myself treating prayer as something to be completed, allotting specific amounts of time for it and expecting certain results. In doing so, I inadvertently focused my attention more on how much time I had left and what my next task was than on my experience at that moment.
In the afternoon of day four, I hit a wall. I had no interest in reading. I had just taken a nap. had nothing to journal about. The thought of formal prayer didn’t entice me. I was in a state of lethargy that left me feeling apathetic, and honestly, a bit helpless. What was I going to do for another seven hours before bed and for four more days?
Forcing myself to get up, I walked over to the chapel and sat down in eucharistic chapel with one goal: just exist. I told myself not to worry about how long I was going to be there, what I was going to focus on, how I was supposed to prayer. Just exist. Just live in the moment. Instead of closing my eyes and trying to block out the sounds around me, I embraced every one of my senses as a way to take part in the present moment. I thought to myself, “Since Jesus in his Eucharistic presence is in this specific place, I will just sit here and experience the surroundings with him.”
What was I hoping to get out of it? Nothing but a shared experience with a friend.
When was I going to finish? Whenever I didn’t want to enjoy the moment any more.
That was it. Just exist, together.
Though it was my goal from the start, it took time for me to actually realize what that meant. When I finally did, it was amazing how freeing of an experience it was to just sit and enjoy the moment with him. In that moment, for however long it lasted, I was given a faith that hadn’t been there before, connected in a way unlike any other in the past. It was unexpected. It was life giving. It shaped the rest of the week.
And yet, it was only the first wall I had to break through. No sooner did I have this revelation did I fall into the comfort of complacency: Now that I’ve had such a great experience, I’m good for a while. It was as if it gave me a free pass to stop seeking, to stop wanting more experiences, to be comfortable in the current state.
Had the retreat of lasted three days, I would have never gotten to the point of desperation that forced me to let myself go; had it of lasted six days, I would have never had to deal with the complacency that followed. Even though a life following St. Francis doesn’t exist in a cloister and focus entirely on prayer, it is clearly the first way of life described as “contemplative in action.” Without a fruitful foundation in prayer, our life is simply not possibile.
As a final note, there are no pictures from this week. Keeping with the goal of living in the moment, I was inspired by the words of John Mayer in his song 3×5:
Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it
When I’m in the mood to lose my way with words
Sometimes I can be so focused on capturing the perfect picture (angle, settings, lighting, etc) that I forget to see the world around me as it is. I was taken aback by the lush rolling hills, the open fields in such vastness, the multiplicity of shades of blue in one sky, and the quiet of the human-free world.