Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fragments of Retreat

The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.
-- Jeremiah 8:20 , Proper 20, year C, RCL,
17th Sunday after Pentecost

I began my return journey to Christianity with Thomas Merton, smitten with his beautifully and thoroughly articulated retreat from the world: not so much smitten with his faith or with the object of his faith, Christ, but with the trappings of his faith and the arc of his story. I didn't want to know Christ as Merton knew him, I wanted to be Merton. I wanted his intellect, his limpid prose style, his wit, his voracious appetite for reading, his prolific writing, his retreat from the world. I wanted his hermitage. I wanted to be a cowled monk moving through a countryside of darkness and snow in one of his poems.

So I booked a retreat at a Trappist Monastery.

The 6 months leading to my retreat, rather than being the time of preparation and tranquility that I'd envisioned, was a time of confusion and restlessness. Everything, it seemed, had thrown itself into question. So for six months I juggled breviaries, sat fitful zazen, had a session with a sympathetic RC priest, fretted over arcane details of history and ecclesiology, developed an irrational animus against Pope Leo XIII -- and, finally, on a sunny afternoon, set out for St Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts with two bulging bags of books and zafu and zabuton. And, on an equally sunny afternoon three days later -- after vespers but before compline in monastic time -- I headed home. What, if anything, had happened ?

I, as I had intended, witnessed and experienced a small glimpse of monastic life. With the monks, I rose at three for Vigils and maintained silence in the retreat house. I read, I wrote, I ate meals in communal silence with my fellow retreatants as a rather frenetic CD discourse on the Book of Luke played. I enjoyed my room, small and spartan as a cell, with a door that led to a tiny fenced off garden -- just like the Carthusians' ! I thought -- where I spent hours reading. I sat two sessions daily of zazen, heartened by the unexpected sight of meditation cushions piled in the corner of the monk's chapel. We had a daily conference with a monk, Father G., who gave a series of eloquent disquisitions on being made in the image of God.

The image of God ! There it was, right out of the gate, a stumbling block, a massive conundrum, a flaming hedgehog of an insoluble koan. I had already once made the mistake of positing the vice versa -- oh the look of pity and contempt that had earned me ! And now I had been reading about the Trinity, both economic and immanent, until my eyes were bleeding -- generation, procession, spirations both active and passive, mutual indwelling, circumincession, perichoresis -- relations more arcane than in quantum mechanics -- was this a monastery or a bubble chamber ? And into this volatile mixture throw the Imago Dei ?

My head exploded.

"Maybe," I thought, "I have lost my religion." At a Trappist monastery, of all places. Or maybe I never truly "had" it to begin with. I thought back to our confirmation, where Bishop Bud had asked us, "Who's the most important person in your lives ?"

We went around the table giving our answers, some teenagers, myself and a serious man of about my age. Only the serious man got the right answer: Jesus. The rest of us had named parents, spouse, friends. Wrong. Dead wrong. It was JC. My cheeks reddened in shame. And now, three years in, was Jesus "the most important person in my life ?"

I clung to the late Jesuit and Zen Roshi, Father Thomas Hand's Heart-Sutra-derived description of the Trinity as Emptiness-Form-Flow, and to Raimon Panikkar's "Christ is the symbol of the whole of reality."

But wasn't I simply trying to adapt Christ to a different religious world-view ?

Didn't I need to let go, let go and let go some more ?

In the corner of the monks' chapel,
green for ordinary time,
a pile of zafus.

A monk asked laywoman T.,
"Do you believe in God ?"

She replied, "Mu !"

After vigils,
below the tip of the hunter's sword,
a shooting star.

At Mass,
incense rises into shadow.
Outside, day breaks.
Fog lies in the valley bowl,
awaiting the sun.

At compline,
in the dark chapel,
the monks sing Salve Regina,
and a sord of geese passes overhead,
west to east,
honking their antiphon,
to the hymn
of motherhood and grief.

To you we do cry,
poor banished children of Eve.

O clemens, o pia, o dulcis

Whoever has no house now, will never have one,

Whoever is alone will stay alone,

Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,

and wander on the boulevards, up and down,

restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.

-- Rilke

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