In my last post, I said that I was ready for my retreat at home – well, that was famous last words! It was certainly the most challenging retreat I have ever done, and the beginning of it, the most stressful. Not at all what I had prepared for or anticipated. I did not manage to get a food shop in after doing a lot of unexpected running around the day before, so, after speaking with my spiritual director on the first morning of the retreat, planned to do that, shower and then begin proper. Except that when I went out, my car had a flat tyre (I thought it wasn’t handling properly the night before – even though it did not look flat when I checked it, miles from any garage) and just as I finished changing the wheel, my neighbour decided that it was a good time to come over and be unpleasant, aggressive and threatening. I may have remained calm, reasonable and rational externally, but it caused no end of disruption to my internal serenity. I thought about the two monks I wrote about last time:
Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird
And I am so glad that I did write that, because it was my hook through the week when I found my thoughts drifting to the conflict with my neighbour and the spiritual desolation that it brought. It pulled me up short and reminded me of where I really wanted my focus to be, so when I noticed that my thoughts had strayed, I turned my attention to the little icon of Jesus that I was carrying around and placing everywhere I was, and I brought to mind the consolations I have been storing up to help me in times of desolation.
When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
So, enough talk of that and onto spiritual consolation, I have long understood that God uses everything about where we are and who we are to draw us closer to Himself, to transform us into who He would have us be. Our role in this process is our cooperation. A persistent theme for me in my spiritual journey is integration, to reconcile the fire and water, active and contemplative parts of my personality, or rather, to allow the flow from one to the other without the resistance and negative feelings about that resistance that go along with the change of state. Since writing about Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility in February, the momentum of this developing theme has increased in my discussions with my own director, and through lockdown, where I found that I really enjoyed working at home. It has been:
…the question that drives us (me) …Trinity, The Matrix
For me, the question is:
How do I live here, in my house with God, as He would have me live?
As it turned out, being in retreat at home, talking to a spiritual director every day, was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore that question. Prior to lockdown, I mostly tried to leave work at work, although inevitably, there were times I had to bring work home, there was a clear demarcation by virtue of physical location, between work and home. In my room, and in my prayer spot in particular, I had a clear demarcation between contemplative and active at home. During lockdown, I learned how to work at home, how to structure it to build time in between and to ensure that I do not overwork – I would identify obsessive workaholism as a danger for me. The structure was there, but how do I let go, and move from the active state to a contemplative state and vice versa? to allow the flow from fire to water and back to fire again? It took four days of turmoil of spirits during my retreat at home to let go of the responsibilities at home that were a constant distraction.
It is the story of the two monks. To begin with, I was the scandalised monk, berating myself constantly, even though my desire was to be the other monk, the serene one, who had let go of the activity he had engaged in. Towards the end of the retreat, I had moved to be more like the serene one, although I have a long way to go still. How did it happen? In this retreat, I spent more time being active and “in the world” than I have ever done on retreat; I spent the least time in formal contemplative prayer than I have ever done on retreat, and yet a profound shift happened in my psyche which will reverberate as ripples in a pond throughout my life. It became clear, as observed by my spiritual director, that day to day life was not suspended in this retreat as it might be when I get in my car and drive away to a retreat centre as I normally do, that the invitation was to find God in All Things, as I live at home; more of a joined up, integrated way of being. The focus shifted to the transition. I noticed that, although I was active during my retreat, the activities I was engaging in were things that I just felt like doing: making candles, washing bottles, making aromatherpy blends for the oil burner, painting, even the odd job or bit of housework in the house. And I also went out and about, for dinner, for lunch – I would say solo, but I brought my icon with me and placed it discretely where I could see it. I was not alone.
The realisation gradually dawned: when I put some of these activities on my “to do” list, they felt like chores, and low priority tasks that my active “task girl” always put off as being not important enough compared with the other work I had to do today. They were also low priority for my “contemplative girl”, because they were not being still; contemplative prayer; formal time set aside to be just me and God. I recognised that these were activities that I did not set a definite time period for, they were finished when they were finished or I did not feel like doing them anymore. What was important, I recognised, was the movement within me as I engaged with them: I move from an active state of mind to a contemplative state of mind: flow. In the story of the two monks, it takes two hours for the berated monk to finally respond to the criticism of the other: there is a transition period. During lockdown, I had built into my day, time periods where I was away from “work”, but I struggled in how to use that time, other than to do more of what needed to be done and my mind was constantly racing over my to do list, and how to manage and accomplish the things that were on it. While being active with God on this retreat, I have come to know myself better and to stop berating myself for my apparent resistance to flow. It is not reasonable to expect to slow down from 120mph to 5mph instantly – it takes time. I would not expect it of anyone else, why should I expect it of myself, and then be frustrated that it does not happen like that? I also notice that moving the other way is less of a problem – turning the computer on, filling up my water bottle, checking emails, writing my “to do” list, are all activities that move me gently from contemplative and slow, to active and fast. I might criticise myself for displacement activities prior to getting down to work, but here, now, I am recognising that they are transtion activities.
Transition activities are the missing jigsaw piece that links the two aspects of my personality, that assist the flow from fire to water, and back to fire again. You might be reading, and thinking that it is just mindfulness that I am talking about, and that it might seem a bit obvious. It was not obvious to me until recently. Teresa of Avila describes it as:
Finding God in the pots and pans.Teresa Avila: The Interior Castle
And I would not necessarily disagree with you that it is mindfulness, except to say that I am coming at it from the other direction, in terms of cause and effect. Rather than focusing my awareness on being mindful of the activity I am doing which results in bringing me into that meditative state, I am focusing on the activity I am doing which results in a state of mindfulness and brings me into that meditative state. For flow to happen, activities are well within one’s capabilities so as not to impede or block engagement, and also present with a little bit of challenge to motivate and interest. In trying to live at home with God this week, my understanding of how to live at home with God has deepened, and I put several transition activities on my daily to do list. It is not my intention complete them as tasks that day, merely as a stimulus. When I come to a transtion period in the day, I look at those things on the list and ask myself:
What do I feel like doing right now?
And I choose based on what I feel, maybe even something I have not written down.
Reflecting on my week of retreat at home I am grateful. Is it not generous that He gives us the graces we ask for, even – and maybe even especially – if not in the ways we envisaged when we ask for it? It reminds of the scene with Morgan Freeman as God, in Evan Almighty:
So, here is my challenge to you. What graces have you been asking God for in prayer? And do you notice the opportunities for those graces in your life? If, like me, there is tension between your active and contemplative sides, your Martha and Mary, as it is somethimes described, what are the transition activites for you? those things that facilitate moving from one state of being to another? If you feel like sharing…please post in the comments.