End of December:
Since the week between Christmas and New Year’s is a downtime for teachers, my wife and I decided in 2011 to go on a spirit retreat—and where better than a cabin in the beautiful Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio? I highly recommend such an undertaking, but it’s good to go prepared for silence and study.
What, you might ask, is a spirit retreat? First, I don’t consider myself conventionally religious; rather, my spiritual life is eclectic, informed by several traditions, from Buddhism to Catholic to Baptist. As I pondered the Hocking Hills trip, I envisioned something like the solitary retreat I took over a decade ago to Gethsemani, the Trappist Monastery outside Bardstown, Kentucky, home to the late Thomas Merton, famous writer and monk. During that long, hot weekend on the fourth of July, I prayed, meditated and participated in the monastery’s cycle of worship, including rising in the middle of the night for services in the chapel—a moving experience. On this more recent retreat, I intended to delve deeply into Merton’s spiritual classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, as a way to deepen the relationship with my higher power. While I’m not Catholic, I knew that Merton had plenty to say to me.
I admit I was a bit anxious about spending three days in mostly silence; my fear had less to do with being confined in a small space with a simpatico fellow seeker than about my relationship with time. Would I grow bored, restless, or depressed? Worse, would I feel pressure to be spiritual? The forecast that week was for rain, plus it was quite cold. Unlike past visits to Hocking Hills, we weren’t planning to hike much, if at all. We were planning to stay still, and except for one walk in a downpour, we stayed inside the cabin. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, I bore down on what I’d come to do.
Except for meals, we each stayed pretty much in our sacred space: me on the couch, my wife on a stool at the high butcher’s block table in the kitchen, involved in her own soul pursuits. For hours there was no sound except the roaring furnace and flapping fireplace. Although I’d read Merton’s seminal work twice before, the mysticism, startling paradoxes and poetic density of New Seeds often left me feeling that his explanation of Christian contemplation was simply too complex for me to grasp, much less practice. By the second day, though, I sensed a breakthrough, and by evening, I thought I understood Seeds better than I ever had.
At the risk of over-simplifying, I think Merton seems to be saying in Seeds that contemplation is never easy, since it’s fraught with so many obstacles (such as religious piety and spiritual ambition); furthermore, it’s about one thing only: an ever-deeper relationship with one’s intensely personal God, who is not “out there” but right here, acting for and on me now. Thus, God is more an experience than a distant object of worship or study. This is not what the Baptist Church of my youth taught me, and while I’m not bitter about that—it says as much about me as it does about the church I came of age in—I believe I’ve matured as a spiritual seeker, due to the mentorship of Merton and several other gurus, such as Kathleen Norris, (author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Cloister Walk), Wendell Berry and Thoreau.
I’ve often reflected fondly on that “time out of time” we spent in the Hocking Hills three years ago. The thing about any retreat, spiritual or otherwise, is that you have to go home. You hope to sustain the high for as long as you can, but, failing that, at least continue the growth you began. I hoped the insight I’d received wouldn’t just fuel more ambition, spiritual or otherwise. Looking back now, I see it laid the framework that allowed me to retire gracefully (mostly) from my 35-year teaching career and come to grips with my desire to be a well-published writer. Today, I’m perfectly happy that a small university press published my latest novel. For me, “o’erweening ambition” was a spiritual problem, and becoming more “right-sized” was the spiritual solution. I wish you Godspeed in your own quest for peace and serenity in the sacred place of your choice.
Ed Davis is the author of the newly released novel The Psalms of Israel Jones, which is available anywhere books are sold.