3.12.2006

Retreat

Tomorrow I'm heading off to St. Andrew's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. The Abbey is located in the desert north of the Angeles National Forest, in a little town called Valyermo. Apparently it is bitter cold there, but thankfully my Mama sent me my winter parka a few months ago, so I should be prepared.

It's been quite a few years since I've gone on a overnight retreat. I refuse to count various board retreats I've attended in recent years - oh, the blasphemy of calling an extended committee meeting a retreat!

I'm pretty sure that the last bonified spiritual retreat I took was during my freshman (and only) year of college at Bowling Green State University. Each student in my philosophy class on the theory and practice of Theravada meditation was required to participate in a weekend-long retreat, on top of our weekly three-hour class meetings and two additional day-long retreats. We met at the United Christian Fellowship building. We slept in the basement on sleeping bags and meditated in the chapel, which was conveniently free of pews and well-stocked with zafus. On alternate hours, we did walking meditation.

The retreat was supposed to be silent. Completely silent. And it just about made me crazy. At one point my friend Shelly and I fled the building and walked around the block in the bitter cold just so we could make some noise. I was terrible at meditation. I was completely obsessed with my hair, for one thing. This came as a total surprise. I mean, I dyed my hair red and got semi-regular cuts, but I was and never will be a highly hair-identified person. It's there, and sometimes it looks okay, and sometimes it doesn't, end of story. But during the meditation retreat, all I could think about was my stupid hair. It was like having a song stuck in your head, only instead of a song it's the thought "But if I grew it out, I could wear it in pigtails!" (Incidentally, I also had a song in my head, Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.") It was exhausting. I finally decided I was having an existential crisis, and submitted a request to have a brief conference with the professor, who was a total poster child for Utne Reader. He ever-so-helpfully advised me to shave it all off. Before he had a chance to hand over a razor, I politely thanked him for his time and bolted from his office. Methinks I'd be even more obsessed with my head if I were bald.

Though at the time it felt like a monumental failure, in retrospect that weekend did have a pretty significant impact on my spiritual life. During the long sessions in the chapel, I would accidentally start to pray. And on one of the lunch breaks, I snuck into the UCF library and began reading Meister Eckhardt - my first brush with Christian mysticism. Since I associated spirituality with anything but Christianity at the time, discovering that dusty paperback was a pretty big deal. Around the same time I read the Dalai Lama's comments about American Buddhists; he said (and I paraphrase) that while he thought it was delightful that Anglo-Americans were exploring the truths of Buddhism, he also wondered if we shouldn't take another look at our own traditions to explore the truths we might have missed. And so the leader of Tibetan Buddhism set me up on a second date with Jesus.

I don't know exactly what to expect on this retreat. I don't know what song will get stuck in my head, or if I will regret not getting that trim. I do know that I will have an opportunity to listen and share with other first call ministers. I will pray the Lectio Divina and spend a good amount of time knitting Lara's prayer shawl. And in the midst of this, I hope I remember to thank God for sending me on this spiritual journey that, for all its mystery and wrong turns and frustration, somehow manages to make sense.

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