Last Saturday (June 2) I completed a seven day silent retreat as part of the School of Meditation with the Worldwide Community for Christian Meditation (http://www.wccm.org). On the last evening of the retreat we broke the silence and briefly shared what the experience had meant to us. I chose the word “opening” to express my deepening awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit in my whole being. I shared a watercolor painting (my first painting since High School) of a stone sculpture by Dan Sieracki in the middle of the labyrinth at the retreat center (Holy Family Retreat Center, West Hartford, Connecticut). An image of the painting is included here. The title, “I am the Gate”, is the word of Jesus in John’s Gospel 10:5. To me it represents the open gate, which Jesus is, calling us into a new dimension of life. “Detox” would have been another word to sum up the whole week. Laurence Freeman, the Benedictine monk from London, England, who is the Director of the Community, used that word to describe the process that took place during the week.
I was quite anxious at the beginning, even surprised and angered by the intensive nature of the retreat. Each day involved seven meditation sessions of 30 minutes each, four contemplative walks, a 45 – 60 minute talk each morning, Mass each evening, and a 15 minute session with a spiritual director (the only time talking was allowed). The day began at 6:45 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. Despite first appearances there was 3 hours of free time each day. By the third day I was beginning to understand the reason for all this meditation and contemplation. It was “detox” to cleanse the soul from all the garbage that clings and clutters – all the unnecessary anxieties and pressures which I put upon myself. We were strongly urged to leave behind all electronic gadgets and telephones and even books (except the Bible). Being “unplugged” was rather a relief. The moments of the day were filled with a continual dialogue with the Spirit in the community of silence, in the beauty of nature, in my own creativity. Laurence put a positive spin on “detox” by saying that meditation is therapy for the soul, and I experienced that in a deeper way than ever before. I did settle quickly into living in the present moment with a heightened awareness of my senses and the environment. I also enjoyed a peacefulness and contentment that continues to be wonderful.
Another word to sum up the week is “rebirth”. My ego is not quick to trust others or God, and when the ego goes into silence it has to “die”, to let go of its controlling ways, and yield to the loving Spirit of God. Being attached to distraction is the ego’s way of trying to undermine this process of dying and rising. But if we let the distracting thoughts pass by and focus solely on the mantra, our prayer word (“Maranatha” in this tradition), we will be drawn to the Spirit who lives in us. A true self is born through this process of death and resurrection, a self made in the likeness of Christ. Jesus said, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake … will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Laurence gave a beautiful talk about the indwelling Spirit, both as advocate and friend, bringing the followers of Jesus to a new birth (John 16). All the talks are available on the website, if you would like to listen: http://www.wccm.org/content/international-school-retreat-2012-talks During the first half of the week I did more than my share of complaining to my spiritual director. Yet within hours of complaining to her that John Main’s stages of the mantra made no sense to me, I saw with surprising clarity what he was describing. The faithful repetition of the mantra does take one from the head to the heart, wherein one may rest in the Spirit. “Abide in me, as I abide in you”, said Jesus (John 15:4). I have been practicing meditation daily for several years. Sometimes the process of meditating has been frustrating because of measuring myself against some imagined state of success. John Main and Laurence Freeman constantly encourage us not to measure ourselves against any idea of success nor compare our experience with others.
Prior to this retreat one of the blessings that kept me on the path of meditation was the benefit of an increased awareness of God’s presence during the rest of the day. In fact John Main says it does not matter what happens in meditation it is the rest of your life that matters. But it was very encouraging to experience that by giving a week to meditation (and to God) it is possible to know a deeper inner peace and joy (especially after giving up hope of finding it). There were times of turmoil during the first half of the week and the process was hard work. I took a short nap on the hard monastery bed most afternoons and missed some of the 8 p.m. sessions so I could take an evening walk. We were asked not to pay too much attention to one another during the silence, which I found difficult to do.
But the resultant flowering of community was amazing on Friday evening. Practitioners of silence are so hard to find in our world that the joy of spending a week with 36 other contemplatives is pure gift. We did a lot of bowing to the presence of Christ through icons, altar, and community, and I came to appreciate the significance and meaning of the profound bow. It is a helpful reminder of humility and respect and not to measure and compare ourselves with others. With hindsight I am glad that the organizers did not publish the schedule ahead of time, because I would probably not have gone on the retreat, fearing it was the work of fanatics! But now I would have no hesitation to repeat the experience if given the chance. So I am very happy the retreat was the full seven days. For more information about how to meditate please check out the page on meditation: https://johnfisk.wordpress.com/meditation