In early May the Confluence volunteers ventured down to the Abbey at Gethsemani in Bardstown, KY for a weekend of silent retreat. The following reflections are the collected journals, essays, and prayers of the Confluence volunteers following the retreat.
Unfinished Thoughts: Melanie Williams
Not too long ago, I was asked in a watercolor session to think of a name for God and write it in the center of a page. I wrote “Silent One,” kind of in spite. This year as been a long stretch of believing (with what I thought to be great integrity) that I was listening for God, pleading with God, waiting for God and God was ignoring me, completely indifferent. I heard silence and felt absence.
I met a man recently who describes his conversion experience as physical – his body filling up with the Holy Spirit and feeling like his ribs were going to burst open. He still feels motions of the Holy Spirit within him, directing him. I envy this, and when I interact with people like this I often wonder if I’m missing something. I totter back and forth between wanting to believe in this physically experiential God who is utterly foreign and intrudes on it’s creation (hopefully in positive ways) and wanting to believe in a God who just is, all the time, within existence, who we know when we know our neighbor. I think perhaps God could be both. Both transcendent, outside and entirely within everything even in unnoticeable, silent ways.
It’s hard to explain what being in silence and solitude for three days does to me. It felt transformative at the time, but did little to change the daily grind. On the retreat, I was attracted to the discipline of the monks and the idea of setting aside times in the day for prayer. I don’t often do this, I think because I’m more pulled by the idea of knowing God when we know our neighbor. So I allow others to interrupt, to distract, and I seek out those interruptions and distractions. On the retreat, I practiced knowing God by attempting transcendence from distraction. Seeking God in silence made me realize that perhaps God is most silent when I’m not. In a city, I don’t have much opportunity for true solitude, stillness, and silence – perhaps that’s why I’ve been attempting to seek God in other ways. But I think without stillness and silence, I’m missing a way that God reveals Godself (himself, herself, or whatever other hopeless pronoun you want to use).
If God is to some extent utterly foreign, there are things to be discovered about God by removing oneself from what is familiar. In the U.S. today, distraction is probably one of the most familiar things. Stillness without any productive agenda is probably one of the least familiar. But stillness, solitude, and silence seem crucial for being open to the Holy Spirit, regaining belief, and being capable of seeing God when I see my neighbor.
I was hiking, finding tall pine trees, abandoned orchards, and ethereal statues. I felt slightly weird while in the woods, almost as if I wasn’t entirely on earth anymore. I wasn’t afraid, but hyper-aware of my surroundings. I hiked up a small hill to the statues representing the night before Christ’s passion at the garden of gethsemane. First, there came a statue of two figures sleeping, when they should have been keeping watch. Then, further into the forest, a second statue of Christ praying. I took a seat on the crumbling wooden chair and listened.
I could hear the crackling of the leaves behind me as the earth grew and decayed at the same time. The forest was creating new parts of itself while simultaneously destroying existing spaces to make room for the new growth. I could hear squirrels and chipmunks running, then resting, then running again, watching for predators. The sound of birds was constant and changing. I could feel the sun on the back of my neck despite the thick canopy of leaves overhead. As I heard all these things, I read a compilation of quotes from Thomas Merton on the importance of introspection and contemplation.
Merton recognized that sitting alone and turning inside oneself is, inherently, difficult. Not only are we usually surrounded by things to do and people to talk with, but those activities allow us to ignore or gloss over our actions. As someone who’s not always lived the most Christian of lives, I understood what he was saying. My purpose of meditating in the forest that morning was to, as I have heard every Street Church, identify the things you’ve done that separate you from God and your neighbor, name that as sin, and give it up to God.
As I was thinking, I noticed that the sounds of the forest had almost completely stopped. The birds were no longer shrilling. The small creatures had stopped running. The forest still crackled, but a soft dragging sound accompanied it. I turned around in my chair to see a long, black snake raise its head above the leaves covering the floor. It looked around, then returned to the ground and left the clearing.
Et in Arcadia, ego. God knows that I haven’t yet found everything.
Collected Prayers: Carolyn May
God of beauty, God of creation–
Thank you for your love and the gift of the earth. Help me move slowly through this weekend. Give me courage to go deeper into myself in search of you. Give me courage to venture into the woods and the fields. Give me courage, God.
Enter into the dark parts of me and be light.
May your creation inspire my creativity.
As the sun sets here in Kentucky, those on the other side of the world are looking to begin a new day. Dead flowers drop their seeds and new ones bud. This insect eats that insect and the world continues rotating.
Help me to embrace the process of becoming. Give me courage to use the voice and the body you have given me. Remind me when I get anxious about growing up that getting older does not mean that the world is less new. Remind me that resurrection is the heartbeat of the world. “Unmaking makes the world.”
I am tattered and frayed and I am afraid that that is all I am
But i want to be more. I want to be yours, God. I want to love recklessly and seek truth boldly. I long for resurrection. And I see and I hear and I feel new life pulsing in the world your hands molded. I want to be yours and to let my life also fall into that rhythm.
“Unmaking makes the world.” I pray, God, that that might be true in Baltimore amidst these riots. I pray that that might be true throughout the U.S. and in all places where violence and destruction are prevailing. May this unmaking pave the way for new life.
Come quickly, God. Have mercy on us. Make us new.