Sunday, July 13, 2014

Monastic Retreat Part 1: Overview

This last week, I took my first monastic retreat of the summer.  In planning out what my sabbatical would look like, it made sense (to me) to take the first week at home for rest and then spend the second week in the solitude of retreat, focusing on reading and prayer, which would hopefully shape the spiritual plane of the weeks to come. 

Now, I have never been to an operating monastery, but I was extremely excited for the opportunity.  As a church history aficionado, I have a great respect for the monastic movement and their alternative brand of spirituality that, in many senses, served as the backbone of the church when it was in the midst of its doctrinal and dogmatic infighting. 

Beyond that I am, by nature, an introvert, who also happens to love people.  So while a perfect day might include coffee with my wife at Coffee Matters or a campfire with good friends, I ultimately get my energy for those activities by spending time alone.  The opportunity to spend a week in relative solitude, keeping company with nature and my books, sounded fantastic. 

I had decided a long time ago that my first monastic retreat had to be at the Abbey of Gethsemani, located about an hour west of Lexington, Ky.  One of my favorite authors in Christian Spirituality is Thomas Merton, and Gethsemani was the monastery that he committed himself to as a Benedictine monk as well as the place where he composed some of the most important writings in the 20th century. For a good start, check out his book "New Seeds of Contemplation," and be prepared for your mind to be blown.

For the uninitiated, there are many different types of monastic orders, and within those orders there are various degrees of severity in their spiritual practices.  Gethsemani is a Benedictine monastery, in particular part of the Cistercian order, and would be considered one of the more austere groups.  This meant that those who would join the order were committing themselves to prayer, manual labor, and silence.  Yes that’s right, silence.  Complete silence. 

My week at Gethsemani would be completely silent, except for the community prayers that happened 7 times a day (the first being at 3:15 AM…I didn’t go to those…)  And though it might seems strange, this was an aspect of the retreat that I was looking forward to.  Even though I talk for a living, I also enjoy my times of silence.

For me, this wasn't an awkward practice at all because it was expected of everyone there.  And because we weren't allowed to talk, this kept us focused on the purposes at hand, namely prayer and spiritual reading, rather than getting caught up in small talk. Of course, we couldn't have possibly forgotten this rule, since there were signs every several feet that read something like “Silence is Spoken Here.”

Lest it seem, though, that I am the perfect Benedictine candidate and had zero struggles with the abrupt transition into this silent bubble, I want to share the first thing that I wrote only several hours into my week (I am human too.)

“No television.   No air conditioning, no internet access.   Complete silence.  What have I gotten myself into?  Already I've had the thought of, “Well, this is quaint and has been fun, now where’s the hotel with the pool and the cable and the pizza place on speed dial?”  God has brought me here for a reason; maybe the instigating factor was the romantic notion of monastic life like Thomas Merton.  In any case, I have three complete days of solitude and silence and seeking.”

God definitely brought me there for a reason; He revealed some important aspects of my personality that need addressed, questions about my vocation that need to be explored, and several practices that I would like to implement into my Sabbatical time.

And so, if you’re interested in hearing more about this, check back as I will be sharing more of my experiences, thoughts and musings.  This could take a while, and I want to make this blog digestible for those reading.  

Sabbatical Homily

Leviticus 25:1-7
25 The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. 3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6 You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you;7 for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

One of the important laws that God established for the Israelites at the outset of their lives as a people of God is that every seven years they would let their fields lie fallow for the year; this means that they would not plough the ground, sow seeds, prune the branches, or mass harvest the crop, although they were allowed to eat of its fruit.

Leaving a field fallow serves several purposes in farming; first, by placing a cover crop over the field and then plowing it under for the next year, the farmer can help return important nutrients to the soil which will produce more abundant harvests in the future.

Secondly, leaving a field fallow can help starve out pests in the field whose lives determine on the crop that would normally be grown.  One of the pests that the Israelites would have dealt with was locusts; because locusts appear every seven years, if the fields were left fallow at that time, then the locusts would be unable to produce, grow and destroy the fields.

Not only was this a practical command for the agricultural of Israel, but it was also meant as a spiritual command.  Sabbath has been an important practice for believers since the beginning.  The creation account in Genesis 1 tells us that God spent six days making the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested.  His example shows us that even though there is value in productivity, there is also immense value in rest, and as his followers we are to imitate his example.

The reality, though, is that we live in an overly busy culture and oftentimes, to continue with the analogy, we continue to plant in the fields rather than allow them to rest, so that although there may be a harvest, the yield is not nearly as great.

In that same way, according to the guidelines of the Mennonite Church, I have come to an opportunity for a 3 month sabbatical.  Its purpose, then, is to rest, so that my own spiritual, physical, mental, relational, and emotional nutrients can be replenished so that God’s harvest can yield greater results.

Additionally, being about the work of the church and the work of God, while riddled with blessings, can also introduce certain pests into the field of the minister, pests such as exhaustion, and doubt and disconnect; so having the opportunity for rest and renewal can also help to starve out those pests which are introduced by the evil one so that the work of the kingdom of God can continue unharmed.

I have been so blessed and am so grateful for having the opportunity to live and work in this congregation and community.  Over the last four years, I believe that we have grown together towards the Lord, with each of us teaching the other what it means to be a faithful disciple.

I am also grateful for this sabbatical opportunity.  I am looking forward to rest, retreat and study, and reconnection with my wife and family.  During this time, it is my prayer that God can help to clarify my calling, re-energize my spirit, and strengthen my resolve as a minister here at Oak Grove.  Additionally, I will be praying for you all during this time that you may continue to experience the love and peace of God and that through you, our community might know the saving grace of Jesus.

Practically speaking, I will be taking this time to disconnect from the intricacies of church life in order to connect with God.  What does this mean, then, if we run into each other at a store or on the street?  It means we can still say hello, still talk, still catch up.  Sabbatical doesn’t mean that I am going to ignore you or that you need to ignore me; you are all still very dear to me.  It just means that I can take a mental break from my involvement with the life of the church.

Know that I will be praying for you and that I covet your prayers during this time.
I want to leave you with one verse that will help to guide my time away.

Psalm 46:10
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”