Desire, Perseverance, Making Our Way
Reflections from the Monastic Retreat
On a Sunday evening in mid-June, the annual Community Retreat began at St. Paul’s Monastery. The Sisters assembled in their usual places in the glowing Chapel, lit by the summer sky in the clerestory windows, joined by several Oblates, Benedictine Associates, and me. The white clouds sailed by, outside those windows as they do during Mass each day, moving swiftly. The conference, “Woven on God’s Loom: Tapestries of Grace” was led by Fr. Joseph Feders of St. John’s Abbey. He opened the retreat by reading a poem to us by the late Irish poet and former priest, John O’Donohue. I had not heard of O’Donohue, but I have had the first few lines of this poem affixed to my refrigerator with a magnet now for two months:
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
… May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.
-John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us, A Book of Blessings, 2008
The Desire of Your Soul, God’s Desire for You
We appreciated Father Joseph’s gracious presence and keen intelligence during our week-long retreat. He made many insightful comments during each session, held in the morning and again in the afternoon. One day at Mass during his homily he said, echoing O’Donohue: “The greatest desire of your soul is also God’s desire for you.” Now, that is something new to think about: God wants us to be happy. If we desire to spend time in a certain place, with a certain person, or engage in an activity that fulfills us, that is what God wants, too.
This was a new concept for me to reflect on, since so much of my prayer recently has been about discerning God’s will and trying to carry out God’s will in my life, often by serving others. The way we usually know we are following God’s will is that we feel a deep sense of peace while doing it. It is a new idea for me to realize that God wants me to be happy and enjoy myself without feeling that this is selfish, to relax at home and sit in the yard with fragrant summer roses and bright day lilies and be glad. I can look forward to going for a long bike ride around the lake or reading a great book (currently Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen with the Benedictine Associates Formation Class). If I ardently desire to spend some significant time each week writing (like right now as I type this), that is what God wants, too.
Perseverance in Prayer
On Wednesday, during his morning conference, Father Joseph said that prayer requires perseverance. Most of us probably know that by now. He also said that time is our most precious commodity. I have to admit that I frequently look at my watch throughout the busy work day almost in a panic, pushing against project deadlines and my daughter’s bus and camp schedules, often impeded by traffic. We are all racing around with so many pages of to-do lists, they have to be annotated on iPhones with alarms and reminders set. Fr. Joseph joked that instead of the Prioress or Abbot checking the monastery beds for hidden knives at night (an odd detail in the Rule of Saint Benedict left over from the Middle Ages), she or he should be checking the beds for hidden smart phones that keep us perpetually distracted. I was given an example of the need for perseverance when I decided, after the morning conference session, to walk the labyrinth on the grounds behind the monastery.
The June day was perfection: cool breeze, bright sun, all of the colors brighter because of this perfect light. The children from Maple Tree Child Care Center next door had also decided to visit the monastery for their outdoor playtime. They rode their tiny pink bikes on the courtyard paths, streamers flashing from their handlebars. They played games with balls and bubbles, screaming with joy. The children were so adorable that this racket did not disturb me (and usually it would) as I began my careful steps of the ancient walk.
On a summer day such as this, shoes were not needed. I left my shoes and car keys by the bench. I walked slowly, barefoot on the soft grass. I entered the labyrinth.
What does one seek when one begins this endeavor? I guess that I was looking for a sign, and most of all, for some reassurance. Over a decade ago, I had walked a different kind of labyrinth that is much larger, mowed into the tall grass and wildflowers at Wellsprings Farm, formerly Clare’s Well, near Annandale, MN. This was a truly life-altering, transformative event in which I received the intuitive sense that I was going to give birth to a long-desired second daughter in the next few years (and that happened). That first mystical experience with a labyrinth lives in my memory with vivid and striking images, a phantasmagoria of lightning bolts, rainbows and iridescent dragonflies leading me into a dream-like maze of revelation. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations for any next attempts to discern divine communication while walking the much smaller, simple labyrinth located in the lawn behind St. Paul’s Monastery.
Making My Way
I tried walking this labyrinth once before after work, as a new employee. At that time, I was very anxious and worried about many things. I never made it to the center. I gave up hope, thinking I would never get there. It seemed to be just twists and turns in a convoluted path to nowhere. In frustration, I crossed the border lines to get to the desired destination falsely, inauthentically. I wanted to experience the power of the sacred destination—even if by defiance (and, of course, it did not work). I left that last attempt feeling empty and confused. In retrospect, the message was clear: I needed to do some additional spiritual work.
Today, as I tried again, I began with Father Joseph’s word, perseverance, in my mind. I walked. And walked. I began to think again: Am I getting anywhere? Is this a trick? Is the structure flawed? Where is that pamphlet? Are the Sisters watching me from their bedrooms and rolling on the floor, laughing at my foolishness?
Taking Time and Effort
But I kept going. I did not give up. All good things take time, and effort. Things of great value do not come easily. As I continued to make my way, the grass became softer, cool beneath my feet. The brick edges of the circular route seemed chiseled into the Earth. Birds flew by overhead. The children watched me from the distance, perplexed. One small boy called out across the lawn, what are you doing?
I waved at him without reply and kept going. Gradually, I began to get the sense of being on the right path. I began to surrender my control, and let God be in charge. I could see that I was getting closer to the center. I started to believe that I was going to get there eventually.
A feeling of calm began to enfold me. Distractions, irritations, and worries were shed like discarded garments. I was left alone, at peace, just a woman walking.
And then, with one breath, I was there, in the center of everything. The grass became even greener. The sky was a pure, sapphire blue. Time stood still.
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