Reflections from St Scholastica: On Fear and Solitude

When describing my retreat experience several weeks ago at St Scholastica Retreat Center in this post, I described the unease that welled up within me in the emptiness of solitude as fear.  As I sit with the emotion that made itself known in those hours, and that hasn’t fully left since, I think perhaps it was less fear and closer to sorrow.  Or maybe the bowling ball in my stomach was sorrow and, rather than explore it, my response was fear.  Either way, God was so gracious to provide exactly the support I needed to work through part of it, but now, as I prepare to lead a retreat on Practicing Sabbath this weekend and look back over my notes from my own retreat, I found this resource that Sr Macrina shared with us, and realize that my experience of immense sorrow…and of something beautiful and mysterious underneath, is not uncommon…and He’s been there all along.

In his book, How then Shall We Live, Wayne Muller speaks of his first week-long silent meditation retreat and how during the retreat he discovered a deep sorrow and struggled with where it was coming from. As he became more silent he began to sense a unique presence deep within. These are the words he uses to describe the experience:

“Then it got quiet, quieter than ever. I began to sense something beneath the sorrow. I could feel a place inside, below all my names, my stories, my injuries, my sadness—a place that I lived in my breath. I did not know what to call it, but it had a voice, a way of speaking to me about what was true. Along with this voice came a presence, an indescribable sense of well-being that reminded me that whatever pain or sorrowI would be given, there was something inside strong enough to bear the weight of it. It would rise to meet whatever I was given. IT would teach me what to do.

All my life I have felt this presence, but at that moment I could feel its fundamental integrity. As I think back upon my life to the times when I have been lost, I realize that whenever I have ignored this voice I have quickly found myself in more confusion. There  is something inside me that has—for as long as I can remember, since I was very small—always guided me toward what was right and true. I also realized that when I am too busy, rushed or preoccupied, I rarely take the time to listen. It is this desperate unwillingness to be quiet enough to hear what I essentially know to be true—that has been the cause of much of my suffering in this life.”

Reflections from St Scholastica: Fearing Emptiness

“We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our “horror vacui,” our horrendous fear of vacancy. We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, “But what if …”

It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.”

– Henri Nouwen

Today was a beautiful day.  As our group began our Day of Recollection and our presenter, Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr began sharing with us how to discover the “Monk Within,” I found myself drawn to her poetic style and use of metaphor. She began, “we offer to God everything we meant by I, so that the divine love may pass through the space that is left unimpeded.”  As she spoke about the monk and how it is the universal archetype for the heart within us that searches for the divine, I knew that I was in the right place.

Most of the retreat was spent in silent reflection.  Most of the teaching was done by God in those spaces. The communal silence shared among the retreatants became comfortable and cherished and easy to flow in and out of.

As we finished our day, I began to sense a great unease welling up within me.  Everyone was leaving to head home to their families, but I had chosen already to extend my retreat another day for some more alone time with God. As I said goodbye to new heart sisters, my unease became disquiet and settled into my belly like the stone representing my brokenness I had carried to the center of the labyrinth earlier that afternoon. A fear sprang up within me—solid and palpable, without cause or reason—a fear of the emptiness of time.  The space and solitude that was waiting after all my fellow retreatants left for the day.  I began to wonder if I should not just pack my belongings and head home early.

After the last of the ladies left, I went back to my room and paced about. I tried to nap.  I returned to the labyrinth that had offered such comfort and outlet for my nervous energy before. I couldn’t focus my steps, but just kept thinking I should go home and spend time with my family and be at church in the morning and run away from this open space. I was scared.

I packed my bags and sat them next to the door of my room.  Finally, I called out for help.  I picked up the phone and called my husband. We talked for a few moments (I thought I did a pretty good job of sounding light and upbeat—he tells me I did not.) I told him I wanted to come home. He told me I needed to stay and pray through this emotion, to get to the bottom of it.

I went to the chapel and knelt by the altar to pray. “Lord, Jesus, I know this fear is not from you.  I know that you want me to stay, but I feel so alone here. Please let me go home.”

“Stay with Me. You are not alone,” came the answer. “Sit here with me for a while.”

So I closed my eyes and quieted my mind and focused only on that soft voice inside that said, “Stay.” An hour later, Sr. Macrina came to invite me to dinner with the community and I jumped at the opportunity.

God poured out exactly what I needed this evening…first in his invitation to sit at peace with Him and then with His invitation to join the community of St Scholastica for a movie night.  What a joy it was to be invited into the personal residence of the Sisters of St Scholastica and see them through lenses unfettered by my preconceived notions of what life within these monastery walls is like.  It is not unlike mine, with chores and housework, and vocational work, and friends and quarrels and conflict and movies and pizza with the girls.  It is full of life and love and laughter.  I was blessed to be a part of that life for just a short time.

I head up to my room content and no longer afraid. God knew exactly what I needed and because I was willing to surrender my emptiness to Him—he filled it….with love.

“The most important practice of all to the monk is the practice of waiting.” Macrina Wiederkehr

Reflections from St Scholastica: Fire

Saturday, 2/26/2011

One of the wonders of this personal retreat was taking part of the Day of Recollection: Discovering the MonkWithin Retreat led by Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr. The theme of the whole weekend for me really became about finding solitude in the everyday, about experiencing life as a monastic outside the monastery walls.  About slowing the pace and measuring all the steps of our days.  This poem is one of the beautiful nuggets Sr. Macrina presented us with.

“In our lives, the spaces in between are the places of waiting.”

– Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr.

Fire

What makes a fire burn is the space between the logs,

A breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

Too many logs packed in too tight

Can douse the flames

Almost as surely

As a pail of water would.

So building fires

Requires attention

To the spaces in between,

As much as to the wood.

When we are able to build open spaces

In the same way we have learned

To pile on the logs,

Then we can come to see how it is fuel,

And absence of the fuel together,

That make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log

Lightly from time to time.

A fire grows

Simply because the space is there,

With openings in which the flame

That knows just how it wants to burn

Can find its way.

– Judy Brown

“Wherever I am, the world comes after me. It offers me its busyness. It does not believe that i don’t want it.” – Mary Oliver