Funny thing. Two weekends in a row, in two towns, upon my arrival I’ve found myself invited to attend retreats I hadn’t previously known were happening. In Eureka, through a chain of logic that still eludes me, a friend of a friend of a friend thought I’d like to participate in a retreat given by a Catholic priest on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as part of my tour. In fact, I was grateful to participate, but perhaps for different reasons than this person anticipated.
“When two or three are together in my name, there am I in your midst” (Matthew 18:20)
A common theme running through the presenter’s exploration of the 12 steps was how recovering addicts and codependents in 12 step groups “come to believe that a Power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity” (Step 2), and acquire the courage to “turn their wills and their lives over to God as they understood God” (Step 3) not so much through explicit religious belief (although this can help) but through coming to know something of God communicated implicitly through interactions and relationships formed with other members. The sense of dignity, understanding, respect, and compassion a new member receives, from those further along in recovery who have undergone a spiritual liberation they could not have imagined or willed on their own, can often communicate the God who saves more surely than a catechism class or a Sunday sermon. This theme struck all the more deeply when we broke into sharing groups.
If you’ve ever been welcomed into a circle of women and men who’ve suffered similarly as you, who can listen to you with deep empathy and respect (without needing to give advice, sell you on their religious views, or shift the focus onto themselves) and are willing to reciprocate by sharing from the same level of vulnerability, then you are likely familiar with that peculiar quality such a group can evoke: the visceral knot of habitual guardedness uncoils, and a pain you may not have known you’ve been carrying wells up in your solar plexus, your chest, your throat, wells out as tears long overdue. From a Christian perspective, and without negating God’s transcendence or the necessity for the addict of receiving help beyond the merely human, I believe we can say that such moments of compassionate presence to one another reveal the Triune God in our midst; the God who is loving relationship, who is less an object of belief than a constant discovery, leading us through our pain and fear and the pain and fear of our world, to be surprised again and again by new life awaiting us on the other side.
Next, in Palo Alto I met up with new friend Liz Song (aka the Dancing Panda of the SFO baggage claim area) on the eve of her departure on bike with a few friends into the Santa Cruz Mountains, to attend a camping retreat with members of their church, the Highway Community. In spite of being the oldest attendee at this “post-college” retreat, I felt right at home and grateful to meet so many passionate, engaged, thoughtful young Christians. How surprising and inspiring it is to hear them talk about such topics as monasticism, ecology, intentional community, and Christian anarchism, nearly all in the same breath. In fact, a handful of them have already formed an intentional community. This is definitely a clear, hope-filled trend I’m seeing: young evangelicals eager to learn from the whole of the Christian tradition, open to a variety of radical perspectives, creatively engaged in applying what they learn into shared ways of living—something is definitely afoot! I look forward to re-connecting with this particular group in the near future.
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and there speak tenderly to her heart” (Hosea 2:14)
It’s always a fine line between reading the hand of God at work in the events of your life and mere narcissistic magical thinking, but I’m going to take the risk and trust that these turn of events were no accident. The tenderness that these retreats, these people, touched in me, each in their own way, has been vying for my attention for a while now. And if they’ve helped to lower me closer to the bottom of the well, they’ve also spoken of where I need to go to plumb the depths. And the word they’ve spoken is:
Get thee to a monastery!
If you’ve been following thus far, then you may already be aware that at the beginning of this tour I had the unique experience of being struck on the Achilles Heel both literally and metaphorically: while the physical injury grounded me for a month’s time, a particularly painful event in my personal life instigated a period of deep reflection. And the truth is, as a consequence of the latter, my attention has been drawn inward, my enthusiasm for the tour flagging, and the passionate questions and aspirations that underlie the inspiration for this journey have lost their sharp edge. Where my intention has been to attend closely to and learn from the lives, perspectives, and concerns of those with whom I visit and interview, I simply haven’t had the energy or focus available for that level of presence.
Now, please do not worry! This is still very good news, both personally and for this endeavor I’ve set out upon. It simply means that I need to take a brief sabbatical from the actual tour of communities in order to give the rumblings of my heart the attention they deserve; to re-charge, re-evaluate, and re-connect with my monastic roots so as to be able to give myself fully to the work before me.
“O God, you search me and you know me; you know my resting and my rising…all my ways lie open to you” (Psalm 139:1-3)
For the time being, then, I’ve returned to my “home group”—my once physical, enduring spiritual home, New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. This is where I come to attend to “deep calling on deep in the roar of waters” (Psalm 42:7). As I see it, intertwined with this tour of communities is the opportunity to dig more deeply into the aspirations God has gifted me with to shape a life with meaning, a life that bears fruit, and to let go of those habit-patterns that have recurringly led me down paths of futility and disappointment along the way. This inner work is the personal analog of what I see new forms of community engaged in on social, cultural, economic, political, ecological, and ecclesial levels: how do we take the life conditions we’ve been given and forge a Spirit-infused, liberating path together? And this is by no means a dreary process but one that’s already filling me with a renewed sense of vitality and clarity of direction, qualities I am eager to take back onto the road again (picking up where I left off in the San Francisco Bay Area, possibly as early as mid-September). Hence, in no way do I see this as a set-back but rather a leap forward in what I’m actually seeking interiorly from this venture—transformation—which can only have a positive influence on the outer rind of the journey; that is, visiting communities, blogging, reflection, interviews, etc. In any case, while I am here, I hope to corner a hermit-monk or two for an interview (no promises!) so that I might keep the podcast rolling. We’ll see…