(Written during our family retreat vacation)
I just returned from walking the Labyrinth here on the grounds of The Springs. Walking this ancient practice is meant to be a journey, spiritual and physical, to the center…the Cross of Christ. Emptying oneself of ambition and the concerns that fill daily life, one is simply to focus on Christ. This can be done through meditating on a song, saying the Jesus Prayer, repeating one word or a verse. Whatever works to set one’s mind on Christ alone.
The first time I experienced this was seven years ago during my stay at The Cenacle, which is, sadly, no longer a retreat center. Upon hearing the word Labyrinth I thought immediately of getting lost, scary movies I should not have seen as a kid, and big stone walls. Given that prejudice I was sufficiently underwhelmed. It is a walking labyrinth that is flush with the ground, leading to a center with a bench, cross, or some sort of icon that is to set our minds on Christ. No stone walls or dragons to be found.
The labyrinth I just walked was similar to that one I encountered several years ago. However, rolling meadows lined with a tall forest, this labyrinth is snug up against a dense tree line. This beautiful backdrop notwithstanding, I had to venture back a ways through the many buzzing insects that swarm my head like flies on dung. Nothing prepares me for a deeply spiritual time like humid skin baking in hot sun with the cacophony of God’s most annoying invention seeking the rim of my inner ear. By the time I reached the Labyrinth my hat was off, swatting about, and I am sure I appeared as if I was attempting some age old ritualistic dance of the gods. Let’s just say the bugs got the best of me.
Determined to walk this journey I stood at the threshold breathing deep, preparing myself for the slow amble toward the stone cross. I quickly realized that the bugs were going to be the distraction I was going to have to leave behind…though they would not leave me alone, I had to let them alone. I so wish my challenge had been something different.
But isn’t that our general sentiment when difficulty arrives at our threshold? A different challenge, Lord, anything but this; this is too much.
I began on the journey, singing “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim; in the light of His glory and grace.” And old song I remember singing in church years ago. With no one around I sang aloud as I ambled along. Taking inventory of my journey I notice within a growing peace and, before long, realized I had only swatted once at the annoying inventions. I was calming within…singing, walking, nearing…
The shape of the Labyrinth makes it difficult to gauge how far one is from the center. Just about the moment I thought I had a quite a ways yet to go, I stepped around the corner that led directly to the cross. I was there! Unaware of the welling anticipation I was aptly surprised by my joy within. I stood there gazing at the knee-high stone cross…somehow towering over me. Not in shame, it is only the shame of those who refuse its Messiah. It towers with humble authority, knowing one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess the Truth of its message. Until that day it stands patient, yet fiercely seeking to extend its grace to those who have yet to confess. Have you?
Wondering at my ability to lose focus even as I stood before it, I was humbled. I walked around it once, standing behind, beside, before…like Christ does with me now. Reminding me of His ever-presence.
I marveled at the connections with the spiritual life. Walking between the stones on the path toward the Cross I came closer and further away as I neared the center, it’s simply the layout of a Labyrinth. It reminded me that even in my own spiritual life I feel sometimes nearer and sometimes further from Christ, as the ebb and flow of life goes, yet I am to continue to walk toward Him. I should pay less mind to where I am, per se, and focus rather on Christ at the center. Trusting His presence as the strength of my journey.
Lately I have heard many friends talk of their struggles with guilt concerning prayer and the spiritual journey in general. I understand. But truth be told, this is utter self-focus. Certainly there are times when one needs to discipline themselves, mark a spiritual path to walk along, have an accountability friend, certainly. But there are also times to let go of how or if this or that is working according to what I am feeling and what I feel God may or may not feel about me this particular day in proportion to the strength of my disciplined self. We project our wandering hearts onto Him and receive feelings untrue. This tragedy of the spiritual life is nothing but the works of the Evil One. Lying, once again, as he did in that lush garden so long ago.
If we held before us the reason we need the Cross in the first place we would not be so shocked at our wandering hearts. Let us not have too lofty a view of our sinful nature that we forget we need Him unending. God, most certainly of all, is not shocked and remains responsive to repentance with grace sufficient. When true guilt has been acknowledged, there is no place for shame.
So as I walked toward the Cross, singing to focus my soul, trying hard to not swat at the buzzing around me, I simply kept me heart on Him. Like the lines of the Labyrinth my heart came close and went far. But, you know what? That Cross never moved, and it never shut its gate. The threshold remained open, and still does.
As with all pilgrimages one must return home to complete the journey. As I turned around to make my way out, I noticed, still, the presence of the Cross. Its steadiness sent me on my way…for all true spirituality is lived out in daily life.
And as I neared the entrance, now become exit, I felt a bit sad. As I stepped out of the Labyrinth I turned around and saw it all still there, particularly the Cross…knowing its presence would daily be awaiting my surrender.
I heard a small, soft voice:
Yes, Lord, I will.
“Though my heart and flesh may fail, the Lord is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
The title of this post is my life anthem. I am certain. Always a plan with me. I love plans and thinking about plans. I even plan times for planning. It’s one of my favorite four letter words; I won’t share my others. And planning is a good thing. I plan meals and save money (mostly), I plan to pay bills (a necessary thing), I plan time to clean the house, I plan out my work schedule, I make plans to see friends and family; planning is good. But so often the word “was” finds its way into my plan. “Well, the plan was…” That is when I get irritated. The first two words would suffice as a life anthem, “The Plan”. That third creepy words does just that…creeps. Generally when I least expect it in an area of my life I would not imagine it wiggles its way into the hours of my life and changes everything. The plan was to finish graduate school, the plan was to get a job, the plan was to pay off that debt, the plan was to pray, the plan was to connect with my friend, the plan was to have a baby…
Today, the plan was to have a prayer retreat.
This plan was foiled only by me. Maybe God was involved as well, I don’t know for certain. Today I felt a bit squirrely. I couldn’t jump into a full-fledged prayer retreat from such busyness. And though most of the journeys I have into stillness and solitude do not afford much transition time, this time I have days to slow down, so I am taking it. I threw off the guilty feeling of “doing it wrong” earlier than usual as was able to just let myself be. A spiritual practice in and of itself. Perfectionism is not the prettiest side of anyone unfortunate enough to carry its sickness. Myself included. Coincidentally, this past weekend the Sunday School teaching was about prayer, and specifically prayer retreats. Karen, our teacher for the morning and a fellow hyper-planner, said a wonderful thing that aided in setting me free to foil today’s plan, “The goal is not to make good use of our time, but to create space where God can meet us.”
So, I began today be reading about St. Therese de Lisieaux. She was a nun who lived in France during the 1800s. She was particularly bent toward God; she became a Carmelite Sister when she was only 14 years old. Quite amazing. She died of an illnessat the age of 23 and has yet beautiful, deep writings on the spiritual life. I was reading her book on prayer. It was good stuff, but I wasn’t slowed down enough to be present to it. And I was very, very tired. I decided to eat a small breakfast and head to a yoga class near the town. I bought a three pack of classes to enjoy this for the week.
After an hour and a half of yoga in a small, beach shack-like building right along the coast I went to the local organic food store and picked up some snacks. But first I got myself a celery, carrot, parsley, kale, and spinach drink. (Those of you who know me well just said, Yep…that’s Kimberly…gross J). I even saw one of the older men there from the yoga class and said hi. I felt like a local.
After this I went back to the hotel to make a protein shake and shower. After showering and before my nap time I got online to see if there were any retreat centers nearby. It was becoming clear to me that I was likely not going to be able to pray in this setting and have the retreat I was looking for. I need a space set apart for stillness and solitude. There are so many things calling my name here that though I will be able to slow down, I feel I will constantly be distracted, or worse…completely uninspired by the room I am supposed to sit in all day and within which I am to have my retreat. Thankfully, I found a Jesuit Retreat Center just 22 miles away and they have space for me from Friday to Saturday! They are trying to get me a spiritual director for the two days.
That came together wonderfully so I laid down for a nap. This deep and wonderful nap was unfortunately interrupted by a banging on my door at 3:00 in the afternoon followed by “housekeeping”. Grr, I didn’t put the sign up. I got up to get some fresh towels with every intention of going back to sleep. But that didn’t happen. I saw the sun had come out so I got up and got ready and headed into town.
I spend the next hours looking around the shops and thoroughly enjoying myself. I even had a hot cross bun which was apparently a famous recipe according to the marker-on-cardboard sign in the front window. After this I went to find some mysterious antique store which never was found, but on my way I had the most interesting of experiences. Sitting at a stoplight on coastal highway 1, I saw three women walking their dogs. They were walking across the crosswalk when all of a sudden I realized, there was only one dog…the other two women were walking sheep on their leashes. Yes, full grown, not recently shorn…sheep. One (of the sheep) did this little kick-up-off-the-curb-and-jump-up-t0-give-us-a-little-show-type-move. It was quite funny and so incredibly random. Mind you, we were in an area populated enough and with enough traffic to have a crosswalk…and they were walking sheep. I must be in California.
Since I never found the antique shop I decided to walk along the windy, rocky coast and watch the storm blow in. What a great place to connect with God. I watched the little birds play with the waves. As the waves would recede the birds would scurry down to eat whatever it was they were eating out of the sand. Then the foamy waters would roll in again and they would all chirp and scurry back so as not to be taken by the wave. The waters would recede and the birds would go eat in the sand until the next foamy waved arrived. I watched this little wave-dance go on endlessly while wondering if they suffered from short-term memory loss.
Standing along these shores I was able to pray. I prayed for various things in and out of simply enjoying the grandeur and power of the landscape. I was reminded of those suffering just across those waters in Japan…Lord, have mercy. Then I recited a little poem I wrote earlier that day:
The roar of the ocean
The expanse of the sea;
Yet You, Holy One,
Choose to dwell within me.
So, it’s a little rhyme-y and short, but it helped me connect with God.
Then I headed to Peet’s Coffee & Tea for the evening to read a book on writing by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird. I happen to enjoy this writing thing and want to do more of it. Her book is great fun to read. I was joined by a woman named Molly. All the tables were full so we shared. Interestingly, as I was reading about writing she was actually writing a novel. Even when the place cleared out we still shared the table and chatted here and there. It was a nice time.
I came back to the hotel tonight to begin writing and meet up with Jeff and the other guys for a late dinner at the local diner. And that was pretty much my day. It wasn’t plan A, but it wasn’t really a plan B either; I suppose it wasn’t a plan at all. But it was great and I enjoyed God throughout the day so much. So, I end with one of my favorite quotes so far from the book I am reading:
“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have more fun while they are doing it.”
(I wrote this Tuesday morning before boarding a plane. I thought I would have time to post….oops. I hope to write more this week as I am pseudo off-the-grid of life J)
At O’Hare airport here, on a rainy Chicago morning. Thankfully no flights are delayed or cancelled. We are finally on our way to Half Moon Bay, CA. I have worked so much this last week and feel exhausted like I have not been since Jonan was born. My goal has been to get a bunch of work done so I could go with Jeff on his work trip. Basically, I am getting a mini-vacation for free. The catch is I am alone for a majority of the time. The good news about that is that I am about ½ introvert and ½ extrovert…and my introvert is ready for some good time alone. My plan is to have a prayer retreat. I have with me a book on prayer, a Bible, journal, and a publication called Weavings, on the Christian spiritual life. I have all of the year 2007’s publications. I also intend to walk on (rainy) beach, see the Redwoods, and find some place to do both yoga and some form of art. If I was not writing this myself I would be coveting someone else’s coming days J
I have a rhythm of going on this type of retreat once a year for 2 or 3 days. I don’t usually get to do this near a beach, however. Last year was the first time in 7 years I missed my retreat; there was a lot of transition and I just never made the time between moving twice, graduate school, changing jobs, and getting pregnant. I noticeably missed it. My heart knows when it gets going too quickly…it has a difficult time slowing itself again. The quiet center of my life gets crowded with unwelcomed visitors.The inertia of life’s movement takes over and I am not as able to connect with God, my community, and myself. After our lives came to a screeching halt with our January news, my heart slowed down significantly. But I generally have to get away to reach that place. And I am getting away…