I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently. The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days. What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this. He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.
Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation. The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping. It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world. Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.
In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities. Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves. There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks. In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking. And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.
Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days. Some simply don’t have the time. Others may not have the resources to do it. Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume. And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine. At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford. In fact, the opposite is the case. Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.
On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about. To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody. Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives. Are they good stewards of their time and talent? Do they care about one another? Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?
There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about. John would argue that these are dead-end activities. For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image. That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.
That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him. John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit. Such lives reflect the vitality of God.
John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem. Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out. Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys. Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed. Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom. Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.
Advent is no time for a guilt trip. Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say. First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing. It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either. But there are things almost anyone can do. First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray. That can be a bit of a retreat. Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat. Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.
These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this: they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time. But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come. To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all. By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.
+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic. What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters. It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living. It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience. That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.
+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA. They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy. Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.
+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites. The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s. The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London. The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century. They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.