by Susan Becker, RDC
The rooms here all have names. Francis, Clare, Gerard, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton. This year I'm in Magdalen. Last year, it was Clare, if I remember correctly. The year before it was someone else. It doesn't matter, really: the rooms are the same, about 15'x15', with a bed, desk, dresser and very big, very comfortable recliner, a small bathroom with a shower. The wide sliding glass door with its screen opens directly into the desert. Each of us has a concrete patio just big enough for one of those Rubbermaid deck chairs and wonderful for catching the afternoon sun.
"Here" is a small retreat house in the high desert outside Tucson AZ. Its capacity is probably no more than 14 people at any one time. "Retreat house" may be something of a misnomer; it is really a house of prayer, part of a movement that began in the late '60's in response to a growing awareness among busy people for the need of a time out from all the regular complex and often crushing demands of everyday life.
The daily schedule in a typical house of prayer is simple: contemplative prayer two or three times a day, the liturgy of the particular group whose house it is. Here, for example, it's the Catholic mass, and often a social communal meal. The rest is silence.
In this early winter week the group is small, probably six, in addition to the core staff. Three of us - a psychiatrist from Chicago, a woman who calls herself a spiritualist from Santa Barbara, and I, were here last year at the same time. The others are Fred from Buffalo, a hospice nurse named Deb who is beginning a six-month sabbatical, and Brother Damian who has worked for St Mary's Press in Minnesota for 55 years.
There is no denominational divide here. In my week here over 15 years I've met an Anglican priest from Scotland, a Methodist couple traveling the southwest, and assorted people from assorted places with assorted faith traditions, or no tradition at all, just the longing to nestle into the Divine, like the rest of us. We come for a week, a month, two months. Tonight there will be one fewer of us, and tomorrow someone else will arrive.
The team that holds it all in place include two Catholic sisters, a Catholic priest and a brother, and a young Quaker musician who serves as guest master.
The who and where of the place are essential to the why of it. As a culture we do very nicely at self-care, or at least have the opportunity for it. This, morning – and every morning, for example – I took my Centrum Silver, my calcium supplement, my vitamin B and my omega 3. My eyes and skin and bones are important to me . . . and when I forget, media advertising reminds me. I have been warned.
What our cultural arbiters don't remind us about nearly enough or maybe at all is that we're not just eyes and skin and bones. Not that the packaging's not important, it certainly is, but it's just the wrapping.
I get frequent reminders that my body can't run on empty. When that happens I go to bed earlier, eat a little better, pace myself (to the extent that I am able). The non-skin and bones part – heart, soul, spirit, psyche, -- whatever I call it, it needs attending to. Carl Jung refers to one's spirituality as the way one lives one’s life . . . the spilling out of an inner reality. A little more nuanced are the clues that point to spiritual hunger. Too many NCIS re-runs; TV for sake of a distraction; busyness; worry; restlessness, and the list goes on.
If I'm paying attention, all this points for me the need for "time out" time. I need to step out of this part of my life for a minute and catch my breath. Some people can power down right at home. They can tweak their schedules and set limits and somehow ignore the seduction of the million odds and ends that appear in the vacuum. One woman I read about decided to make Mondays a "no talking" day – and kept at it in a household of a husband and three teenagers. That borders on either heroism or insanity.
For me and the people I'm spending this week with, the solution is to step out of the containers of our daily lives and into an environment that holds the ingredients we need: people other than ourselves attending to the basic needs of adequate shelter and nourishing food, a rhythm of prayer, silence, easy accessibility to nature and the earth. All this invites me and the rest of us here to spend time attending to our inner reality.
The amazing thing is that we have found our way here and over a few days can actually slow down and enter into a tempo that is not our own, not natural, and initially not at all comfortable. It goes something like this: days one and two – a restlessness. How not to be preoccupied with the things we left undone to come here? How to use all the time that is suddenly available? At the same time sleep comes easily and lasts long, and by the third day (earlier for those more practiced at this) something has shifted, and we discover we've caught the rhythm of the place. What was important a week ago recedes. Time has meaning only as it relates to prayer and meals, and somehow we become present to the present. Just being is enough.
Once a year for this is never sufficient, any more than one big meal a week will work. The invitation is to discover regular times and places for this and to have the discipline to follow through.
If you are reading this in the White Plains Patch, chances are a short drive will take you to a setting that can offer this for a day, a weekend or longer. A website called findthedivine.org has links to places right here in Westchester as well as across the globe. The Divine Compassion Spirituality Center in White Plains is just one of them. There are dozens more among us.
A week from now someone else will be sitting in this chair in Magdalen, and the cast of characters around the dinner table will be different. Some of us will leave here with ambitious promises to ourselves, and most of them will evaporate over the next weeks and months. But the good news is that no matter how much we are drawn or go back willingly into the energy of the daily, we can't un-have our time here and something will have changed with us, and the Divine hidden in memory will call us back.