I woke up this past Friday morning not because of an alarm clock, but just simply because I had had enough sleep! Isn’t that a marvelous thing? For weeks I had been planning a whole entire weekend away with Jesus and now here it was. And I was rested and ecstatic!
As I lay there in bed, even before my eyelids were open the thought occurred to me to check my phone. I was used to checking for messages, missed calls and emails that had collected during the night… But I told myself no- not this weekend. The world could certainly do without me for 2 out of 365 days.
I began to mentally pack for my trip to the monastery, still in bed, when the impulse to check my phone took hold, again! This time a bit more urgent. This continued to happen on and off for several minutes until I realized that I was actually fighting the “need” to check my phone…
Astonished, I got up. My second thought was now of food. But I didn’t even feel hungry. What I felt was programmed… I was addicted to my morning routine and I began to realize that giving total space to Jesus might require some detoxing.
It’s not a usual thing for me to plan on going to a Monastery by the way… Or to be keenly aware of where my attention is focused when I wake up… But for months now I had felt called away. Not just to a new place geographically, but to a new place of silence and solitude with Jesus. And now on the morning of my retreat- for me to reach that place both internally and externally it seemed that I needed some major disconnecting from some things!
I decided to take a break from both food and phone until I got closer to the monastery to practice some self-control and open up those deeply wired places to the Holy Spirit.
It took an hour for me to get to Conyers, Georgia. Everything was back roads and the country scenery felt very familiar and friendly. About 3 miles away from the monastery I found a quaint little mom-and-pop barbecue restaurant and I stopped in for lunch.
Country as a Blue Tick Hound, I didn’t quip when the bread that came with my meal was untoasted white bread in a bag. I had even gotten the end piece of the loaf! Casually, I stuffed the bread into my purse with the thought of maybe seeing ducks or geese at the abbey later on…
I sat and ate my lunch, relishing the chance to be a “passer-througher” and eavesdropping on local conversations of the utmost gossiple importance about the, “preachers brother, Fred” and so on… I even broke my cardinal silent retreat rule and took a phone call from a friend. Because as I began to understand it- going from regular day interactions to complete silence needed an adjustment period.
Like scuba divers who can only dive down so many feet until they feel the pressure build in their ears. They stop the descent until the pressure equalizes and then they can continue… That’s exactly how I was feeling up until my barbeque and my phone conversation. But after that I was ready for another plunge!
I arrived at the monastery and after checking into my “cell” or “dorm” I had time to explore the grounds. I saw monks, nuns and other retreaters who kept to themselves and were completely silent, but they would smile at me in the hall if I made eye contact with them.
The grounds were extensive with a lake and beautiful bonsai filled gardens to stroll through or sit in. The sanctuary was tall and dark with stained glass windows. Visitors to the church could enter and occupy a few rows of pews located near the door, but they weren’t allowed access other than that. We retreaters on the other hand could move around freely. I still don’t like or understand that.
By the time orientation came around that night I had now gone hours in new surroundings in complete silence and was feeling the need to be with people. Thankfully, during orientation I spotted a posse of four Catholic ladies in their sixties and seventies. They sat giggling in the corner because apparently they had signed up for this retreat without knowing it was silent! Their laughter was music to my ears! In a somber place filled with crucifixes and pictures of the Pope, these I recognized, were my people!
Driven by the need to balance out my surroundings with lightness- I plotted to infiltrate and befriend the Ya-Ya Sisterhood that sat before me. How? I basically stalked them.
After orientation we all herded towards the dining hall where strict silence was observed… Thankfully there was a smaller room available in a different part of the building where people could talk quietly over dinner if they wanted.
I saw my future best buddies headed that way and I joined their table. We became fast friends and dinner time flew by quickly. After eating and saying adios to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants- I grabbed my stack of books and headed to find a comfy chair in a quiet place to write… I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to come by.
I stopped by to grab some water from the kitchen and as I sat my books down on the table there, a monk walked in and seeing my, “Celebration of Discipline” book on top, stopped and asked, “Foster, isn’t it?” Meaning the author’s name.
Visibly surprised that he was speaking to me, I quickly answered, “Yes sir. Richard Foster.” He nodded, affirmed my choice and with that he was gone. I sighed with relief that the Kristin Chenoweth autobiography entitled, “Something Wicked” hadn’t been on top of the stack but resting right in the middle.
It seemed to be that I was the only non-Catholic in the retreat. It was pretty clear since everyone around me were wearing gold medallions around their necks. I was also the only one to carry a Bible into service. When I did happen to even come across someone with a notebook and a pen I felt an instant kinship and had the desire to go into what I call, “Mulan Assimilation Mode.”
“Ah! I see you have a sword! I do too… They’re very manly and tough!”
I began to befriend my little retreat group of 25 or so. Because that’s what I do. I connect to people and I connect people to people. That’s the most natural behavior in the world to me.
But I was unconsciously shooting myself in the foot.
Before the end of the first night the YaYas had become my new high school lunch table, I had said yes to leading a worship session the next day (my guitar had been spotted *you could play outside on the grounds) and that night I actually helped Beatrice the janitor lady close down the place around 8 p.m. which is when Grand Silence began.
I felt like I had accomplished a lot. And I had! A ridiculous amount of energy had been spent on people considering that I was there on a silent retreat. Now in the quietness of my own little room I slowly began to see…
Having dinner with the ladies and sharing parts of our stories, making open-ended plans with other retreaters for the following day and stopping to intentionally love on people and meet them… I realized that something rare was slipping away from me… My anonymity.
Dallas Willard writes that solitude is, “the creation of an open, empty space in our lives by purposefully abstaining from the interaction with other human beings, so that, freed from competing loyalties, we can be found by God.”
Oh God, how quickly I had given my time and attention away. This, my one whole little weekend with Jesus and I was trying to fit in Lillian, Beatrice, Judy, Donna and Debbie. I was astonished at how quickly I’d given myself away to people.
Showered, ready for bed and completely prayed up by 9:30 p.m.- that first night I sat in my little cell with nothing more to do.
I thought about Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and my sense of humor took hold as I wanted to bang on the wall in Morse code to ask the name, rank and serial number of the retreater next to me. Alone with no distractions, noise or people, I began to exhibit raccoon-like tendencies. I think I even went through the little trash can in my room…
I made it two hours. And then I decided to watch, “The Kindness Diaries” on Netflix and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Equalization, my dear, equalization. On everyone’s own timeline.
I woke up to the ringing of the steeple bells at 7 a.m. the next morning and felt like I had been run over by a truck. I woke up angry with the world. I wanted more sleep, I wanted food. I hadn’t realized that the Trappist monks were a vegetarian order until dinner the night before when we had been served a humble bowl of soup. I imagined myself wearing a t-shirt into the silent dining room the next day that read, “Non-catholic: give hamburger.” I had even, at around 4am that morning, finally fished the bag of plain white bread from my purse and eaten it. What irony.
But once I got out of bed and woke up fully- everything was 100% better!
Thinking back, that entire day blends together into a beautiful blur. I never once had to look at a clock. Not once. I worshipped with my guitar, prayed, memorized scripture, read, wrote, walked, napped on the grass in the sun.
I had equelized to silence and solitude with Christ more than ever before.
I remember even contemplating my taste buds as I ate singularly and slowly and thought about how unfathomable God is that he would create so many different flavors. Everything was worship as I spent the whole day- whether it be an activity or in stillness, focused on resting in His presence. I sought Him.
Once when I was walking, I noticed this big and beautiful tree. I stepped closer to investigate its leaves. “Sturdy,” I thought as I felt of them. It’s a funny thing to think about leaves on a tree but that’s what came to mind. And the Holy Spirit immediately spoke and said, “That’s how your life is going to be… In me.” And I walked on with Jesus, swinging my arms back and forth like a kid does, just for the joy of it.