A wonderful post from Connor Gwin:
That was the advice given to me by a Brother from the Society of St. John the Evangelist before my first week-long retreat.
This is not what I wanted to hear.
Think of all the books I could read with a week of silence. Think of all the writing I could do.
You should know that I am big on plans. I make plans in my head for pretty much everything. I plan how my day will go. I plan how phone conversations will turn out. I plan the shape of my life trajectory. You should also know that I am consistently disappointed by my plans falling through, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In the past, I have taken my retreat at a local Catholic monastery with the Trappists (think Thomas Merton). For this year’s retreat, however, I planned to travel to New York to retreat with the Episcopal brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross, where I would also be accepted as an Associate.
My trip to Holy Cross involved driving an hour to the train station, then taking the train nine hours to New York City and then to Poughkeepsie, NY. The trip would end with a cab ride from the train station to the monastery.
Forty-five minutes into the train ride, however, I realized that I didn’t have my wallet. After frantically searching my pockets and bags, it became clear that my wallet was sitting in the cup holder of my car…in the parking lot…of the train station. I was on a cross country train ride with no identification, cash, or credit cards. I had a checkbook in my bag, but that is all.
Did I mention that I like making plans?
I used my Starbucks app on my phone to procure food at Penn Station in New York City and even resorted to asking a stranger on the train for cash for the cab ride to the monastery. He was very nice and talked to me for most of train ride to the Poughkeepsie station. He only had three dollars.
I called the monastery from the train station and asked for help. They offered to pay for the cab once I arrived.
This was not going according to my plan.
On the first night of my retreat, after surviving the harrowing journey to the monastery, the monk who runs the Guest House stopped me in the hall before supper to welcome me.
“Are you signed up for spiritual direction while you’re here?” he asked.
I did not have this in the plan, so I responded with a contrived confidence, “No, I’m alright.”
How wrong I was.
I went into this retreat with the classic American mindset: “This is about self-improvement and pulling myself up by my spiritual bootstraps.” I saw the retreat as a spiritual bootcamp, a time to achieve condensed spiritual results. I would read a book by Merton and be recharged to be more productive at work and more effective in my prayer life.
What I learned is that my plans mean very little and my sense of control is an illusion.
On the third day of the retreat, I wandered into the guest house library. I was not connecting with the book I brought to read and was looking for another option. The Guest House manager saw me alone in the library and wandered in.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Another book to read,” I responded.
“No, what are you looking for?” he said.
We got talking and I ended up in his office for an impromptu session of spiritual direction until the bells sounded for Compline. At Compline that evening I sank into the wooden chair in the nave of the monastery chapel and sank into the overflowing grace of that place.
I was a man on the run: from my daily obligations, from my worries, from the overwhelming stress of our zeitgeist, and from my own need for control. Yet even in my plans for the retreat I was running from the one thing I truly needed — rest.
What I needed was to rest in the knowledge of the grace of God.
“Be still and know…”
There are many mixed messages about God’s grace. It is often boiled down to feeling good or even positive self-esteem. Some use the rather sterile dictionary definition of “unmerited favor.” What I discovered on the snow-covered banks of the Hudson River during my retreat is that, often, God’s grace looks like rest.
I arrived at the monastery in a panic because I didn’t have my wallet, but I failed to realize that the monastery is the perfect place to be without. For centuries, monasteries have served as reminders of the grace and providence of God. I could sit in the chapel over and over again that week and just rest in the knowledge that all was given.
There was nothing to make or do, no tasks to complete, no books to read. There was no mission or deliverables. I would leave the retreat the same schmuck that arrived a week before, convinced of his own salvific obligations.
God’s grace is resting in the knowledge that the world has a savior and a creator, neither of which are you or me. God’s grace is sitting in the refectory, sharing silence with monks and fellow travelers, and eating toast that I did not earn or pay for.
God’s grace is the ground that is found when the ladder and scaffolding of self-justification fall away.
The retreat came and went. I bummed a ride to the train station from the Guest House-managing monk and began the day’s long journey home on a train with no wallet. I made it home after a week that did not go according to plan with a rested spirit and absolutely nothing to show for it.