One of my best friends has a hook-up for a free stay at a cabin in Colorado. So, the two of us trekked out here Sunday after church for a week’s stay in the mountains. Since then, I’ve been retreating on a hill overlooking the Great Sand Dunes just outside Mosca, CO.
When I retreat – usually three times a year – it always feels like a pilgrimage; a quest for sacred time and sacred space. The drive out was like a ten-hour discipline of approach. My way of ringing the bells to gather all pilgrims. Setting up my space in the cabin is like a call to worship. I set out my candles and incense and carefully arrange my books, my cross, my icons. I’m ready. Everything else that happens here is prayer: six days to run free in the wilderness of the world and my imagination.
When a awake on day one, I always feel that tinge of worry that I’ll waste this time. It’s the pressure that comes with leaving a family and church to fend for themselves for a week. Don’t blow it, my mind tells me.
I’m starting school in a few days, a Dmin. program at NTS. One of our first assignments is to engage in a period of silence, then write about it. Today is day three of my retreat, as good a time as any for silence. I can’t help feeling like I’m cheating a bit. Contemplation should come more easily than if I were sitting in my study, facing the tasks and pressures of the day. My classmates are going to get the wrong impression that I actually know what I’m doing.
My perch for this particular exercise in silence is a crow’s nest on top of the cabin. It’s an old log structure with a roof and no walls, that you access through trap door in the ceiling. I sit on an old weathered split log bench and stare out at the dunes a good ten miles to the Northeast, and the San Luis Valley to the West. I feel like I’m standing at the rails of a ship, as I stare out into a vast ocean.
100 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period, this valley actually was an ocean known as the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that sliced the entire continent of North America in two. I can imagine the waters flowing where the insanely flat grasslands are now, waves noisily lapping at the foot of the mountains off to the West that form the horizon on the other side of this sea of prairie. Today this valley is called San Luis. It serves as the headwaters for the Rio Grande River. Waters will gather here from the snow melting off the Sangre de Cristo, and meander their way south to form much of the border between the U.S. and Mexico – a living, flowing witness to the persistent lie that good fences make good neighbors.
For my money, there’s nothing more beautiful on the planet than the terrain of Colorado. Nature is a significant spiritual pathway for me anyway, so it seems like I’m halfway to my goal before I even sit down.
I sit on a bench and close my eyes. I declare my intention to enter a time of prayerful silence. I hear the wind whipping past my ears, and the sound of my own breathing. The whiskers of my beard make a scratching sound against the high collar of my coat. My hands feel cold and I slide them into the warm pocket of my coat, and open my eyes.
I sit in silence for thirty minutes or so.
I’m not sure my time bears any particular fruit other than a confirmation of the abiding presence of God, which is a kind of miracle in itself. When I was growing up a Southern Baptist kid, I thought the trick to being a Christian was to find ways to remind myself of the reality and nearness of God. I put bracelets on my wrists, set alarms, carried a little cross in my pocket, all to prompt me to think about God more often throughout the day.
After a fifteen year love affair with the wisdom school and the contemplative tradition, plus a major theological retooling of my doctrine of God via Karl Barth, I no longer see it that way. I am not trying to generate a sense of awareness of God’s presence. If anything I feel haunted by the presence of this God who never seems to go away, never seems to leave me alone. Like sometimes I need God to give me some space sometimes, you know? Some time to just be by myself without the Divine presence looking over my shoulder.
But, space is not in the cards for me today. I remind myself that this God is not angry with me or my struggles, that I don’t have to be anything other than who I am here in this moment, here in this place, here as I am, as myself, and I soften into the solitude.
I fall into my centering word — Peace — to try and slow my monkey mind. Peace is the word that seems to most effectively mediate God’s presence to me, the word I always use in centering prayer, my deepest hope and need. As the word appears in my consciousness it sends subconscious signals to my body, which seems to know immediately where we are going – like after so many years of struggling for it, my soul knows the way to silence.
The distractions that come at first are mundane. My butt goes to sleep on the hard bench, so I adjust my posture. My legs are crossed with the top leg bouncing. I start to wonder why I always swing one leg this way when I sit crosslegged. I make the arc of the swing longer, then shorter, then still. I smack my patellar tendon with the knuckles of my hand to make my knee bounce reflexively a few times, then laugh at myself. I’m still ten years old sometimes. A fly has just become obsessed with my face and hands, so I shoo it away repeatedly until he finally realizes I’m trying to pray here. He flies away, off to annoy some other of God’s creatures. I start to feel cold, and adjust the angle of my sitting to keep my back to the breeze and shield my face from the wind. I tap my foot on the deck floor, then stop. My lungs lurch suddenly, drawing in one of those deep breaths of air that seem to come from nowhere, my body’s way of reminding me that I live at sea level, and we are currently at eight thousand feet.
A tiny strip of highway, CO 112, slices through the valley like a string pulled taught over the flat lid of a cardboard box. It’s almost twenty miles to the other side of the valley, and the sea of grass fades into the hazy blue of the horizon. I see a single car on the flat stretch of road heading west. It’s probably going sixty miles an hour, but it’s ten miles away and looks like it is in slow motion, struggling against the distance like it’s moving against the current of a mountain stream. That’s me.
I am that car struggling against the current in my life, trying to work, trying to pray; sitting here trying to be silent while struggling against the currents of my mind. Some birds gather in the tree to my right squawking loudly. I’m distracted.
Peace … peace.
The mundane diversions subside after the first ten or fifteen minutes. The flies stop buzzing around my head and inside it, and silence falls. That’s when the real wild animals come. The monsters and demons that I typically hold at bay through so much activity and work–they are lurking in the shadows. Beady-eyed worries and fears are gathering strength, ready to pounce.
On this morning these were mostly about classwork and research and all that this coming semester will require of me. I think of this nice couple that has been part of our church for about a year. I haven’t seen them in a month, and I think they might be leaving. I’m sad, but the sadness registers almost like alarm. I should spring into action and do something. I feel like I have failed them, failed our church. Why didn’t I do more to try and connect them? Should I hop online and send an email? Maybe I can right the ship?
Over-functioning. Melancholy. My favorite sins.
I return to my word, to my silence. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to be, and to be silent.
More wild animals. My mind fills with memories of things I’ve done, and things that were done to me I’d rather forget. Shame. Sadness.
I struggle with anxiety. I’m not sure I’ve ever admitted that publicly, but I do. I used to call it worry but some gifted therapists, one of whom is my wife, have taught me to name it more accurately as an anxiousness that verges on compulsion. It’s like I instinctively ruminate on all things melancholy, which is great if you are an artist and don’t want to be happy. But I want to be happy, so it just sucks.
The familiar burning sensation in my solar plexus that registers anxiety makes me instantly aware that even with all of the advantages of retreat and beauty and mountains and time, I still carry my worries, fears, traumas, and anxieties around in my body. They go where I go. God is here, but the wild animals are here, too. I wonder if I’m ever really safe?
The strategies I’ve been taught to help me deal with anxiety are mostly about trying to root my soul back into the world of things. I feel my feet on the ground, my butt in the seat, the wind on my skin. I slowly think my way from head to toe, registering every sensation of where my body meets the world — the tightness in my shoulders, a soreness in my back and ankles, a restlessness in my soul, like I need forward motion to stay ahead of the wild animals. I return to my breathing, to my centering word. Finally silence comes.
Peace … peace.
I try to root myself again in this place. This valley is filled with the presence of God, and it has been since before it was an ancient ocean. I am not in peril. I am safe. I am here. This is where I am. God is here inside me, around me, holding me and willing my being to be.
It doesn’t always work, but today the anxious burning in the center of my chest abates by at least fifty percent. I breathe in and out. Peace.
An airplane flies overhead and I’m struck by how rarely that seems to happen here. The spell is broken and my time is up. I open up my computer and you are reading what I wrote down. I hope you find some silence in the midst of your worries. Peace of Christ to you.