Richard Rohr once wrote, “In silence all of our usual patterns assault us… that is why most people give up rather quickly. When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, the first thing that showed up was the wild beasts.” I know just what he means.
When I’m on retreat at the abbey, as I am this week, I typically do my own thing in the morning: run, shower, breakfast, pray the morning office, and read something completely easy and fun until lunch. I do 1:05 prayers with the monks and spend the afternoon reading and writing in the library. At some point I usually fall asleep in a puffy leather chair in the stacks; vespers at 5:15, dinner, compline at 7:15, and then I really start to get restless. My usual patterns assault me. I begin to feel displaced and homesick I miss my wife and my boys.
I know I have to push through because what awaits me on the other side is the reason I came here in the first place.
A spiritual director friend of mine once told me that most people begin their retreat by finding ways not to retreat. We busy ourselves somehow. Retreat, for me, typically involves a disciplined lack of productivity. If I make it to compline without accomplishing much of anything that day, then I know I’m ready: because the wild beasts are coming.
By 10:00 or 10:30 they arrive. I end my day in the front pew of the basilica in the dark. Moonlight spills through the stained glass giving off just enough light make out the shapes of the altar, the cross, the choir stalls, the silhouettes of saints painted on the dome in the front, and the brick outlines on the floor. In the darkness I am assaulted with the harsh realities of who I am. I am made aware that I’ve been tempted in the same way Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, but have failed repeatedly where he succeeded. I am undone. The wild beasts of my life come to me, and somehow, I think that I am not naming them, but they are naming me, telling me I am neither worthy nor in control.
I have to let it happen. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner,” I repeat with my prayer rope in hand. One hundred knots, for one hundred repetitions, then I start again. Somewhere around the second time through the beasts start to punch themselves out and the presence of God begins to surround me and whisper deep down into my soul that none of this is an illusion. The beasts are really here, and I am really as broken as they say. Yet, I am being slowly, painfully healed. I name the beasts to God, and God subdues them. He lets me talk about how I muck things up, and he tells me not to feel so bad; that he’s not done with me yet; that I’m doing well and should keep pressing on.
When creep silently into the basilica at night to pray, I know that my usual patterns will assault me. The wild beasts will come to pick me apart and try to devour me. I don’t feel better – really – when I bow myself out of the basilica and head off to bed. I will feel better later on when I’m back at work and at home and too busy to be bothered with silence and solitude.
Richard Rohr says, “A good journey begins with knowing where you are, and being willing to go somewhere else.” I think a good inner journey begins with knowing who you are, coming face to face with our own soul. In that place we begin to deal with our own drive, our own ego, our investment in triviality and we take inventory of our own fears and false motivations – the wild beasts. And slowly, they begin lose their power over us. None of this can happen unless I head out into the wilderness, and let the beasts show up.