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Retreat, or Run Away!

Monty Python aficionados like me fondly recall the scene in which the enemy was about to overwhelm a group of knights.  As the battle tilted against them, they rallied around the one cry that had begun to run through everyone’s mind already.  “Run away!  Run away!”  It was a lot less elegant than the more dignified “Retreat!”  But it made the point with somewhat greater urgency.

This past week we monks at Saint John’s were on retreat.  We do a five-day retreat annually, in part because canon law requires it of monks and other religious.  But even if the regulations did not demand it, we’d still need to do it.  I realize that quite a few people think that monks have already run away from the realities of life, and they must think of a monastic retreat as a complete waste of time.  But in fact the opposite is true, on both counts.  We monks are not blissfully ignorant of the problems of life, because they are part of the baggage we bring with us when we enter the cloister.  Our problems don’t go away when we put on the habit; and like everyone else, we have to deal with them.

IMG_6325This year’s retreat had some unusual quirks. The monk originally slated to lead it got elected Abbot Primate last fall  and had to move to Rome.  Abbot Gregory of Conception Abbey in Missouri had studied with us for four years, and we had looked forward to having him with us.  However, his new job upended all his plans, and we had to come up with a substitute.  I’m not saying for a minute that he got himself elected abbot primate just to avoid being with us, or because he was unprepared.  But I did entertain the thought — or the thought entertained me.

In Abbot Gregory’s stead came Fr. Michael Fish, a Camaldolese Benedictine from the monastery at Big Sur in California.  Big Sur sits in majesty, looking out over the Pacific, and I’ve been told that the view is stunning.  It’s also remote, which is appropriate for a community that lives a more hermit-like regimen than we.

IMG_6338California Highway 1 provides virtually the only access to the place, and in his first conference to us Fr. Michael explained how important that highway is for his community.  Three months ago the heavy rains started a landslide that blocked the highway, and the hillside is still sliding.  For three months now no one has gotten in or out of the monastery, and Michael has not been home for those three months.  In fact, Michael was with us only because he had left the monastery three days before the slide had begun. Otherwise, he noted, he’d be stuck on that mountain and we’d be looking for yet another retreat director.

So we had our retreat, and it went well.  And despite the doubts that people might harbor about our need for a retreat, it is indeed a vital thing to do.   And the reasons we should do one are the same reasons everyone should do a retreat.  Like lots of people we monks can find our solace in all sorts of escapes.  Like everyone, there are moments when we are tempted to run away from life.  So, for example, we can find solace and meaning in our work, but if that becomes the primary element of our lives then we discover that we’ve run away from life.  Like most people we too seek refuge in all sort of other things, large and small; and when we’ve indulged them too much we eventually discover how empty they can be.  In short, monks like everybody else need to face their temptations and deal with them.  We need to accept the goodness of life that the Lord offers to us.

IMG_6363And what was the one nugget of wisdom that I took away from this retreat?  It was this.  I have tended to read the story of the prodigal son and identify with either or both of the brothers.  I have empathized with both of them, and only to a lesser extent could I appreciate the role of the father.  But I never realized what was at stake for the father until Michael pointed out that the father — who represents God — is not some aloof persona, devoid of emotion.  In fact, the father daily searches the horizon for the return of his son.  After all, the son is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.  The son has taken part of the father with him, and the father aches to have his son back.

And the lesson for us?  Just as we sometimes ache for the experience of God, so God aches for us.  As Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Could it be that God feels the same way about us?

IMG_6326Notes

+During the week of May 29th we had our annual abbey retreat at Saint John’s.

+From June 1-4 we hosted the 25th annual meeting of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities.  Among our guests were Abbot Primate-Emeritus Notker Wolf of the abbey of St. Otilien in Germany, Abbot-President Elias Lorenzo of Saint Mary’s Abbey in New Jersey, and Archabbot Douglass Nowicki of Saint Vincent in Latrobe, PA.

+This last weekend I gave conferences to the members of the Order of Malta’s Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The retreat took place in Malvern, PA, located outside of Philadelphia.  The biggest surprise for me had to do with a book I had used to prepare one of my conferences.  It was on the history of the Order of Malta in the 17th century, published in 2011, at what I thought was the high price of $85.  Some curious soul in the group looked it up in Amazon and discovered that it now costs a whopping $465.  That’s when I realized that it was the most expensive item in my suitcase.

+The photos in today’s post show the chapter house at Saint John’s.  It is attached to the Abbey church, and it is where we have our retreat conferences.  Among the photos is one that shows a view of the grounds and lake, looking through a side door.  I try and sit with this view, just in case the conferences need some supplement.  The photo at bottom shows the view of Lake Sagatagan, in the backyard of the monastery.  It may not be the Pacific, but at least there is no landslide.

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