We've Been to the Mountain
Looking back now as a student of divinity, a retreat with my Catholic Campus Ministry as a freshman at the College of William and Mary in 2009 was a first step toward being a graduate student today. On retreat, I experienced a true sense of community within both my faith and my age group—a combination I had never before witnessed. I stepped into a community of authenticity with witness talks given by upperclassmen consisting of gritty, heart-wrenching and raw personal experiences, and an admirable reliance upon God. At a time of transition when homesickness and disconnection from old friends in high school was a stark reality for me, this community offered healing in the form of simply saying, “I’ve been there, too.” I returned to campus with fresh eyes, a renewed trust in myself and the support of this new community. My classes felt less intense and my worries less heavy. Through the community I formed on retreat, I rediscovered not just my religion, but my faith.
Attracted to the uniquely intimate means of building community in this retreat space, I continued to participate in them in the years to come. Quickly, I found, however, that not all retreats are alike. Some retreats are quiet, allowing more time for journaling and personal reflection, while others are loud, consistently encouraging you to meet new people. Some are held in the mountains miles from civilization, while others are held at a hotel just minutes away. Yet all of them share origins in ancient traditions of asceticism that can point us not only toward freedom from the noise that surrounds us daily, but perhaps more importantly, the noise within our minds.
A Tradition of Retreating
Look at your calendar for the next few months and try to see if you can take a weekend off doing absolutely nothing. Going away like this on retreat does not immediately make sense nor does it fit into our schedules, although the desire to leave has been rooted in human beings for millennia. Dating back to at least 200 CE, permanent communities started to form retreat spaces, particularly in the desert. Specifically around this time, “Desert Christians” settled in the Egyptian deserts, forming small communities that would resemble what we know today as cloisters or monasteries. At this moment in the Christianity’s early history, they renounced not only their hometowns, but the Roman Empire which was wary of their faith. To put this into perspective, in 312 CE, Constantine became emperor of Rome and converted the empire to Christianity when less than 10% of the population was Christian. For these Desert Christians to go into the desert was a pursuit of spiritual growth by removing themselves from the system around them. Community also played a key role within their respective regions where they would gather once a week for a meal and communal prayers, while throughout the rest of the week they largely remained silent throughout their tasks. A book called the “Alphabetical Collection,” documents their sayings and exchanges, filled with nuggets of wisdom that when isolated still resonate today. Their words hearken upon an inward desire to find a space away from the flurry of day-to-day activity—one that is highly relatable today.
Retreating from Our Phones
Meditation is an excellent practice for taming the thoughts of the mind in order to find peace no matter where you are. Just this past month, I led a meditation with my colleagues using the iPhone app, “Headspace.” I played a ten-minute guided meditation that instructed us on how to breathe and sit properly, while simply noticing our thoughts. When we finished up, several people came up to me in astonishment with one saying, “I can’t remember when the last time was that I just sat for 10 minutes and did nothing!” Although they laughed it off, I was admittedly proud of them. To call their time in meditation as “doing nothing,” meant that they were truly relaxing and not occupied with what still had to be done at their desk.
Noticing thoughts was a practice of the Desert Christians as seen in the above quote from Abba Anthony, a desert father. At the root of the Desert Christians’ isolation from society was their practice of asceticism, a renunciation of worldly desires, in order to draw closer to God. Noticing his distracted mind, Anthony asks God about his salvation, and an angel appears. The angel moves about Anthony’s cell, alternating between working and praying as a model for his actions. Implying that Anthony stay focused on these tasks, the angel tells him that he will be saved. In meditation, like with Abba Anthony, our thoughts may not be silenced, but they can be tamed. Focus allows us to cut through a series of thoughts, giving attention only to those that are necessary to complete the task at hand.
Sometimes when I open my iPhone, I feel an affliction of thoughts when notifications appear and derail my purpose for unlocking my phone. Our phones are a good place to attempt this practice of asceticism. If I find I check my email too much, I disable the notifications and commit to just checking it once that day. Similarly, if I get distracted by Facebook or Instagram too often, I move the apps to another folder, making myself search and become more aware of each time I open it. Changing up our habits makes us more aware of the narcissistic and obsessive behaviors that a phone can so easily proliferate. Installing a meditation app like Headspace, or just putting the phone away and looking around for a few moments, is all that is needed for a midday “retreat” from the noise that surrounds.
Retreating into Collective Memory
When we enter into silence on retreat or attempt to meditate and calm the mind, what we are often faced with is the space between ourselves and God. If this is a space not visited often, it can be intimidating at first, but what it ultimately invites us to is prayer. In my last post, I elaborated on the sanctity of sacred places in my own life, specifically on pilgrimage, that illicit a special form of connection to God. The challenge I discussed is in returning to those places whether physically or in our minds. For each of us, I imagine there are spaces we can remember, near or far, where we have felt a special closeness to God or perhaps to a loved one who has passed away. A friend of mine calls this the “thin space,” referring to the “thin” proximity between you and God.
On Good Friday, followers of many Christian faith traditions reenact the Stations of the Cross, which detail Jesus’ trials as he carries his cross through the city of Jerusalem to be crucified. Growing up, I participated in the Stations with my family at our local church, where we walked amidst a series of paintings, one for each station, saying prayers at each. This act prompts a form of imaginative prayer, in which you physically move amidst the stations as Jesus would have. As a student at the College of William and Mary, and even as an alumnus, I participated in the Stations of the Cross on campus. In this particular reenactment, a life-size cross begins its journey from Bruton Parish in Colonial Williamsburg and ends on campus at the Catholic Campus Ministry Chapel. A large crowd gathers to walk with the Cross, singing a chant along the way, and stopping throughout campus in prayer for each station (as pictured above). Tourists and students alike pause to take in the scene. The police department even stops traffic for the crowd to cross onto campus. Walking this significant distance outside and wading through the crowds of onlookers always proliferates a “thin space” on this particularly solemn day, closer to Jesus’ suffering and closer to one another in community. While a retreat or pilgrimage experience may be difficult to return to, traditions such as this exist for this very tactile purpose of drawing us closer to God through our collective memory.
Returning from Retreat
These were the words sung on the “Encounter with Christ” retreats I was also a part of annually through the Diocese of Richmond in my home state of Virginia. A former retreat-goer penned the above words into a song while on this particular retreat years earlier. The song attempts to capture the feeling when a retreat is over and everyone heads home, asking “Now what?” A budding connoisseur of retreats in college, I asked this question again and again when it was time to pack up after a long weekend away, after catching “a glimpse of all that we could be.”
Going back to my studies or to my dorm room after a weekend of just talking about my faith was always a challenge, and perhaps why I eventually decided to study theology. But for myself then, and for most people now, we do not have the luxury of returning home and gabbing about a retreat experience. The same can be said for a pilgrimage, a meditation, or even just a breath in the middle of the day. These experiences, each oriented toward prayer and an encounter with the divine, can rarely be summed up in a few words, or given justice when someone asks, “How was your weekend?” The challenge is the same for any faith tradition: flinging a faith experience onto someone in the middle of the day comes off as being righteous. The temptation to compare and to view someone’s experience as a “holier than thou” moment is all too real.
The key to unpacking a retreat is to find an appropriate space to share. When I returned from my first retreat in college, I remember calling my mom and sharing the experience with her. She knew that I had been struggling to find a community in those first few awkward freshman months, and likewise, she had been a spiritual guide for me throughout my time growing up at home. Outside of these trusted family members or friends, we can also rely on the community formed on retreat, in parish communities, or other collectives that have a shared faith experience. Each “Encounter with Christ” retreat team created some kind of token that would go home with each person who attended: a bracelet, a picture, or even a quote or mantra repeated. In the picture above with my fellow retreat team members are banners behind us featuring recent retreat themes. Succinct phrases tied reflections and activities from the retreat together. On one retreat we used the phrase, “Empty and Beautiful,” a song by Christian musician, Matt Maher; on another, the phrase, “In fire, gold is tested” from the book of Sirach. We held onto each in the days and months ahead as a reminder of the lessons we learned about ourselves on retreat, and also to honor the sanctity of our shared experience.
Retreats can fade like old memories, as can habits of prayer, or traditions amongst a community. We may lose touch with the experience or the community that we form, but these tokens allow us to reach our memories. In doing so, I invite each of us to find gratitude for those memories with which we have been blessed. As times change, and even as faith shifts, these retreat experiences, these deep breaths taken above the churning waters of life, serve a purpose to connect us to each other, to our humanity and to the divine. By returning to them, we honor our past, and the ancient past of stepping away for a long or even a brief moment to calm the mind, understand our desires, and thus understand who we are called to be.
For Further Reading
- Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, by William Hartless
- The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, by Benedicta Ward
To Dr. David A. Michelson of Vanderbilt Divinity School whose course, "Formations of Christian Traditions," informed this post and gave me the opportunity to not only study the Desert Fathers but also connect it to spirituality in this setting.