Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Full retreat

Some of the students in the Self Knowledge Symposium are going to spend their spring break at Mepkin Abbey, a Cistercian monestary in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The brothers of Mepkin, and especially the late Abbott Francis Kline, have made an enormous impression on me; they have come to represent for me and many a nobleness of spirit and intensity of spiritual passion that I pray I can follow. (I was tempted to say, right there, that it was "an intensity of spiritual passion that I can never hope to achieve," but Augie Turak's now-famous essay on the Mepkin monks, "Brother John," makes it clear that I can, in fact I must, aspire to their level.)

One of the students asked me yesterday if I had any suggestions for their retreat as they head down to the monestary. Here's what occurred to me:
  • Appreciate how extremely special this opportunity is for you. I have never spent as long as a week at Mepkin, and I am extremely jealous of you. Next week I have nothing but demanding customers and hotel rooms to look forward to. You might think that there will be other times and places to do such things; but it is extremely hard, once you have ensconced yourself in family and career, to seize these opportunities. Make the most of it.
  • Read "Brother John" again. Try to tune in on the spirit that Augie discovered in his own time at Mepkin. What is most remarkable about that place is not the place (though it is a place as full of Place as you will ever find) but the brothers who occupy it.
  • Be patient. Unfortunately it's hard to "pack in" value to a retreat. The whole point of a retreat is the opposite of "packing in." It's a time to let go, to allow all the mundane noise of your life fall away and be replaced with Something Else. And you can't really force that to happen, any more than you can force yourself to fall asleep or fall in love, without doing violence to the experience. The discipline required is to just stay present to what's going on, and to turn away from the temptation to turn away. (Sadly, a week is not nearly long enough to get the full effect. I know Augie has said that it takes a least a month at Mepkin before he's really in the right place . . . and I imagine the brothers would say it takes years.)
  • Bring reading that lends itself to contemplation. The best thing to read in a retreat is something that is poetic and dense, something that requires many readings to understand and appreciate. "The Cloud of Unknowing" comes to mind. So does Andre Louf's Tuning into Grace. Or even T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets. The last time I spent any significant time at Mepkin I read Hubert Benoit's The Interior Realization. And, of course, you can't really go wrong with scripture.
  • As much as possible, spend time with the brothers. Your only hope of really intuiting what's going on at Mepkin is to spend time with the brothers. The monks cannot spend too much time with you, as they are surprisingly busy and hardworking, but you should seize every opportunity you can to be with them. Go to all the services of the daily office. Volunteer to work with them. Let them know that you would welcome the chance to talk with them.
  • Pray. Even if you have never before engaged in devotional practice, allow yourself to pray. Ask for God to come to you. You can do everything you can to bring yourself to God, but that is really so very little, not nearly so far as God moves to meet you. So, by whatever lights you are able, ask for help. You might think that you are on some quest to attain contact with the divine on some faraway mountain-top . . . but that's really the wrong image to have in mind. You are like one shipwrecked and tossed in the sea, and you're just putting up the desperate call: Find me, find me, find me, please God find me. And He will.



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