I spent six days at a retreat center in Cohasset, Massachusetts on a silent directed retreat.
What that means is that for six days, you don’t talk to anyone and no one talks to you. Not even “hi”. Meals are eaten in silence. Have you ever sat at a small table directly across from someone for a whole meal and said nothing? I tried it one meal. These Catholics are pros. They can sit right across from you, slowly chew each bite, and look right through you.
I think it’s part of them getting into Heaven or something. I’m looking at this Sister Mary Somethingorother and she’s got a small crumb of corn bread stuck to the outer portion of her lower lip. Everyone in the cotton pickin room can see it. No one says a word.
I could feel my tongue involuntarily reaching to the corner of my lower lip in sympathy, as if it were trying to silently communicate “Hey Sister Mary Somethingorother, you gotta crumb hitchhiker!”. She just stared right through me, slowly chewing her food, that little piece of cornbread moving just as slowly up and down, safely attached to her lower lip. To her, I and my twitching, flickering tongue were not even there.
The rest of my meals I spent in the sitting room looking out the window. It served the dual purpose of affording me a great view of the sea as well as being able to see my own reflection in the window to see if I had any crumbs stuck to my face.
Anyways, I like these retreats because the Catholics don’t really care if you’re there or not, in a good way. It’s all about you and God and getting connected and experiencing His presence in whatever way you need to do that.
Lunch and dinner were the only scheduled times, and you could skip those and make your own PB&J anytime you wanted. You could go to bed at whatever time, wake up at whatever time come and go whenever you pleased. You just couldn’t talk. Except to one person. That was your spiritual director. This person had been specially trained to discern what was going on in your life & help you get closer to God. I was hoping mine had received some extra equipping, since I was the only Lutheran. Lutherans are seen as kind of remedial Catholics and our Catholic big brothers and sisters always seem to be trying to fix us up and get us back in line.
To my delight, my spiritual director lady seemed to be ok with me being a remedial and sincerely glad that I was there, even though when she said, “Now Jay…” in a thick New England accent I felt like I was back in third grade. “I want you to listen to the voice within”, she continued. I think her voice within and my voice within not only had different accents, but different agendas.
My “voice within” kept saying something about pizza and beer and watching the Patriots at the local pub, so I knew she had her work cut out for her.
Each day we’d spend 30 minutes together. I think the non-remedials only took 20, but me being remedial and all… She’d ask me a question like, “what do you think God is saying to you?” I knew the pizza and beer response would probably not fly here, so I gave it a good effort to come up with something she could work with. She’d close her eyes in silence for a moment. Sometimes there’d be a strained look on her face. I comforted myself with the thought that God was whispering something to her to tell me, but I think that her face was really saying, “Why do I always get the remedials..?”
But, to her credit, she’d always come up with something that was, well, fairly right on. I started to think of this lady as pretty special, because she’d listen to my blathering and, after a brief pained expression, she would respond with some insightful words. Then she’d send me on my way with my spiritual homework for the day which amounted to various ways to listen to the voice within. Once I figured out that the nearest pizza and beer place was well outside of walking distance, I could ignore that voice and start to try listening for something else.
So my day would go something like this:
Roll out of bed around 9am (6am real people time), go down to get some breakfast trying to avoid eye contact or spotting crumbs on anyone’s face. Go back to my room and sweat the next hour trying to come up with something spiritual to say to St. Director Lady, put in my 30 minutes with her, then spend the rest of the day trying to hear the voice within. It definitely grumbled around lunch and dinner time, but other than that I looked in books, went through the Bible, sat in the chapel, stared at the sea, prayed a bunch, listened when I was on my daily run but that ol voice within was pretty quiet.
Searching for the elusive voice within can make for a pretty frustrating day or two. But this pursuit was supposed to gone on for six whole days. By day three, the daily routine was really getting old. I needed something to change things up a bit or I was going AWOL to see if the voice was truly at the pub.
On day three, after my morning search for the voice within and the pained (but saintly and patient) reaction from my director, I figured maybe I’d hear it on my daily run. I noticed the skies darkening a bit and chalked it up to the typical ebb and flow of the “New England Gray”. The pictures you see on post cards and calendars are all taken on one of the three sunny days that happen per year in the region. OK, if the photographer’s good, he can snap a shot during the 15 minutes of sunshine that occur on the other three days, but it’s dicey. Being in seclusion for the previous days I hadn’t really kept up with the fact that hurricane Hermine that had moved its way up from Florida and was now moving toward the Massachusetts shore.
Sure, it looked a little windy, but I’d run in wind before. Besides, this was just a quick 6 miler & I’d be back in no time. As I headed down the road, I ran along a ridge of trees and stone walls for the first half mile or so which afforded me protection from the wind and rain. Just ahead I spotted a bridge which spanned one of the little inlets from the ocean. My first step onto the bridge moved me out of the protection of the trees and into Hermine’s force, shoving me three feet into the roadway. Fortunately, the wind had the same effect on the oncoming truck, and the wide eyed driver managed to keep me from being New England’s first hurricane fatality. Though the rain was relatively light at this point, the wind was lifting mists off the crests of the waves and spraying them across the roadway, creating the effect of getting hit by a high pressure washer loaded with salt water.
My eyes, ears and nose were all filled with the burning mist as I looked for some refuge. Fortunately, the road ahead curved up a hill and the seaward side provided a row of stately Victorian capes to my relief. That relief was short lived, however, because as I started up the hill, the wind came swirling down. Determined to not let this hill and “breeze” ruin my pace, I set my chin to my chest, pulled down my hat and began churning my legs like pistons. About that same time, Hermine decided to kick it up a notch, blowing my hat off my head and moving me back into the road. But I was up to her challenge, snagging my hat before it got away, redoubling my efforts, more determined than ever.
Did you know that they always used to name hurricanes after women? I suppose someone took offense to that, so now they alternate. As I’m running along I’m thinking about the name Hermine, how that could probably be a nun name. I heard stories from my mom about when she was a kid, she’d get her knuckles busted by the nuns for writing with her left hand. She was left handed, but at that time, it was considered evil. Anyways, I bet one of those nuns’ name was Hermine.
And then it hit me.
Maybe Hermine was supposed to be the voice. As I’m hoofing it up hill, into the wind, sea salt blasting in all directions at once, I’m getting pictures of Moses and the burning bush, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Jonah and the whale. Especially Jonah and the whale. I figure this must be the moment. God is going to speak.
More howling wind and sea spray.
One thing you figure out running along the seashore, for every up there’s a down and for every down there’s an up. But it all eventually evens out. That’s why it’s called sea level. But when the sea is all up and down, it makes even the level parts rough. I finally crested the hill and with a turn of the road the wind was at my back.
You know that expression, “I got your back”? It’s nice to hear from anyone but a hurricane named Hermine. In a flash I was scrambling for my feet to keep up with the gale force thrusts pressing my frame down the saltwater slicked street. The faster I ran, the faster she pushed and pretty soon I was nearly out of control and began looking for a soft hedge, grassy knoll or car with a convertible top I could crash into with the hopes of minimal damage to us both. No luck– nothing but granite rock wall, pitted asphalt and unforgiving tree trunks on either side. In the valley ahead I detected a white-ish grayish mass that appeared to be crossing the road from the beach. As I drew nearer at my breakneck pace, I realized it WAS the beach– being relocated by Hermine directly in front of my path.
I figured The Almighty was creating a run away truck ramp before my very eyes. I figured, here, at last, He would communicate and I would hear the…
My sense of wonder was cut short as I reached the bottom of the hill, leaving the protective shelter of the house, and was hit with an omnidirectional blast of sand. Whatever skin that had not been stripped off of my body by the salt water pressure spray was now being peeled back by tiny pieces of granite.
My gait became a stumble as I plodded through the shifting drifts of sand. I could feel my lungs slowly filling with sand, my tongue and lips cake with mud and every drop of moisture being sucked from my eyeballs.
In my time at the retreat I had read accounts of nuns and priests martyred for the Gospel and figured THIS must be the voice. It was a prophetic object lesson that mine was to be a life of pain and affliction ending in a shallow grave in some forsaken desert.
But after the sand, a refreshing gentle rain began to fall. My path then turned away from the beach leading along a tree lined street that provided asylum from Hermine’s reach. I was amazed that a simple turn of the road could change conditions so drastically. Though I could still hear the wind howling in the distance, it was in the distance. Protected from the force of the wind, the rain became a soothing wash, bringing relief both from the stinging salt and abrasive sand. I was able to settle into an easy pace, thankful to be out of reach. Plodding along I prayed, “OK, I’m ready for the voice now.”
I don’t know about you, but nothing spiritual seems to “suddenly” happen to me. It usually happens and then leaves and I don’t figure it out until it’s passed. All the “God moments” people write and talk about, I seem to run right by as I’m cursing the wind or trying to find a pub. And then in some moment of reflection I look back and say, “Huh… I wonder if that was God…”
Out of Hermine’s clutches I trotted along in the rain reviewing my recent near death experiences, trying to figure out which could have been the voice my Spiritual director lady kept telling me about. I know that every time I tried listening within, I got pizza and beer. So I thought my voice within might be without. I kept running, kept listening, but to be honest, nothing really came within or without. Eventually the run came to a pretty mundane end as most runs do and I returned to my room, showered and was glad to be hearing Hermine outside while I was inside.
In the quiet isolation of my room, I flipped through the journal I had been jotting in and noticed one of the passages my director lady had assigned for me to think about
“The reign of God is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour till it all was leavened.” Mt.13:33
I don’t bake but know that when people do, they stick yeast in the dough and have to let it set. Then lo and behold, without any further work on their part, the yeast does its work and the dough rises.
Slow but sure. Invisible yet fruitful. Inviting expectation but demanding patience. A power from without creates a change within.
I think sometimes we get so focused on wanting to hear a voice that we miss what’s already been spoken, what’s already in plain view. We live in a world of new and improved, louder and loudest that the plain and simple don’t seem to count anymore. Sometimes it’s not about the latest and greatest, but about showing up each day, doing what needs to be done and making it home. It’s about trusting that God is in each day, that He is still working on you, in you and around you. And, just like the effect of yeast on dough, sometimes it’s hard to see His hand, to hear His voice. But God is still reigning, His kingdom is still breaking in, His Spirit is still working.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus announces in pretty simple terms, “…The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” In Jesus, in His life, death and resurrection, God speaks. He brings all the truth of His Word and creative being to us in His Son. Plain old flesh and blood. It’s no wonder people missed Him then as we miss Him today. They were looking for the earth to shake, bigger, better, new and improved.
Repenting is simply about giving up our need to have God show up on our terms and accepting Him on His. It’s about accepting that God often shows up in the plain and the ordinary, and it’s not about our effort to seek and find, but about His grace to come and dwell among us in the ways He chooses.
There are times in life when you head out for a simple run and you find yourself on the edge of a hurricane. You figure the pain must hold some lesson, the difficulty must contain a purpose, the struggle must have redemptive value. You listen for a voice to explain, to reassure, to comfort, to direct. But in the midst of howling winds and stinging sand all you hear is a familiar chorus of doubts and fears. And when you finally get back to a safe place where it’s quiet and warm, you realize what you were listening for, what you were hoping for, has been there all along. It just lacks the pizzazz and the thunder.
Here’s the good news: The quiet voice of God in Jesus continues to speak in simple, ordinary ways. The thunderous truth of the crucifixion and resurrection continues to be whispered in liturgy and song, in verse and story, in humble lives and sincere hearts.
I suppose my takeaway is this; if you go out for a run seeking a certain voice and you don’t hear it, keep running. He still speaks, we just need to be better at recognizing Him in the ordinary. Keep on the road friends. Keep listening.,
I gotta run.