For about ten years of my young adult life, prior to marrying Lisa, I would take a yearly, or semi-yearly extended retreat. In urban settings, ocean-side, in the foothills of the Rockies, nestled in various Midwestern woods, I would meditate, pray, exercise, and keep silence (save for once-a-day spiritual direction). My rendezvous with God could stretch anywhere from five days to two weeks. The granddaddy of them all spanned thirty-two days and encompassed the movements of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises as found in John’s Gospel (Written and directed by that amazing spiritual master, Vince Hovley, SJ).
Then came a new form of spiritual exercises that involved diapers, and strollers, and homework, and marital conflict, and reconciliation, and all the rest. Thomas Merton once observed that marital and family living provided a profound form of mysticism because one could not get away with an exclusive focus on the ego. Having grown up in a family, and having lived most of my adult life in a family of my own making….Sadly, I can testify to the fact that I can still easily follow the pursuits of my ego even…when married with children. If I may be so bold as to amend celibate old Brother Thomas Merton’s idealistic insight…. Here’s a native’s perspective. A marriage and a family provide almost constant invitations to transcend the ego, and live a life dedicated to Love. Some days I say, “yes,” to those invitations. On other days, I say, “Yes,” to…Netflix!
Which brings me to a topic I’ve been mulling over quite a bit lately. My ego and COVID have been BFF’s for nearly two years now. A kind of permission arrived in March of 2020 to “Next Episode” my way through The Queen’s Gambit, The British Bakeoff, Ted Lasso (totally worth it!), The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross (not so much worth it), and more. It didn’t help that Four Hands Brewery exists in my adopted hometown of Saint Louis. “Cast Iron Stout,” or “Divided Sky IPA” provided a psychological door between my home office workday, and my off-work home on the other side of my bedroom door. One high alcohol content microbrew became two, and not-as-infrequently-as-I-pretended, three! Guess what happens when boozy meal preparation gives way to a big home-cooked meal? Netflix’ siren call sounds, and twenty minutes later, Thomas Merton’s idealistic fantasy of my life falls away. In the last two years, I have been sleepwalking through this “one, precious life of [mine]” way more often than I cared to admit.
A couple decades ago, a less experienced professional version of me tried to facilitate a support group for women who wanted to pursue their health goals. I watched, helplessly, as the group incipiently turned into a support group for eating more and exercising less. I hadn’t accumulated the professional chops to know how to both provide empathy and firm boundaries for my group.
Throughout the pandemic, COVID had a way of providing just such a support group for many of us. Well-intended memes and testimonials gave a kind of permission to ease up, kick back,take a break, indulge, eat a sleeve of Oreos, and relax those old disciplines. Taken in the right measure, it wasn’t necessarily bad advice. But in a devastating piece of reporting, researcher Matthew Eglesias provided example after example of how “Bad Behavior is on the Rise” in America (The Post, January 10, 2022). From whence will we hear the belated wake-up call to break our collective sleepwalking?
For me it came from dribs and drabs of clients who here and there, arranged and attended retreats. Friends, colleagues, and my wife noted my frequent jealousy regarding their retreat experiences. Each, in their own way, challenged, encouraged, cajoled, and finally, gave me permission. That’s how I ended up spending the week after Christmas with eighty Benedictine monks trying to get used to a rhythm that is built around silence, and aimed at finding the way to the Center-point of the self and everything else. Was I successful? We’ll see over the next few weeks and months.
What I do know is that I got a stout wake-up call! Part of what I had to relearn was an ancient piece of wisdom contained within the Latin phrase, agere contra, “to act against.” “To act against,” is a common sense piece of wisdom that there are some impulses, and some callings that do not issue forth from the deepest parts of the self. They promise, and often deliver on short-term gratification, but also long-term problems. In the moment, acting against the lower (or slightly lower) angels of our nature seems counter intuitive, even wrong.
For the first couple days of my retreat, I found myself drumming my fingers on the pew in front of me while eighty monks chanted their way through innumerable psalms and other chanty, chanty kinds of stuff. At one point I had the thought, “If I hear one more song, I am going to run shrieking into the bell tower creating a “How do you solve a problem like Maria” moment for these annoying monks!” At dinner, a fellow retreatant broke silence with me, and through his encouragement, I started performing a little agere contra of my own. Little-by-little, I found myself participating in, what felt like a Christian form of Tibetan Buddhism that was intriguing, and dare I say it, soul-satisfying!
Something similar happens every time I get away from bikingfor a long stretch and then come back to it. The pain of pedaling up what used to be considered a tiny hill is so painful and depressing! It takes patience, self-compassion, hope, and a heaping-helping of some good old fashioned agrere contra to ride day-after-day until that hill becomes small again.
It would appear that the “novel coronavirus” is not so novel anymore. What was considered a time-limited Pandemic now appears to be Endemic to our lives in an ongoing way. With that shift, perhaps it is time to listen for that still, small voice that may be as annoying as a bunch of chanty monks…at first. Do you have the patience, and the hope to listen for and follow a stout invitation?
Time to wake up!