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Reflection: Retreat

Retreat

three invitations

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Three Brothers share their vision for how to shape a retreat experience to “enter more fully into the divine life.” 

RETREAT

three invitations

Times of retreat are essential elements in the rhythm of our life. They enable us to celebrate the primacy of the love of God above all else. Whenever we enter retreat we seek to be more available to God so that we may enter more fully into the divine life” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”). These lines encapsulate why we go on retreat: by setting aside the ordinary cares and patterns of our days, we hope to make ourselves more fully available to God. 

Many different settings, structures, and shapes of retreat can meet this aim. After all, God is available to us everywhere; the question is simply where and how we can best tune our perception to become aware of God’s presence. The answer will not be the same for each of us, nor even for each of us in every season. 

In these pages, three Brothers share three different visions for how one might shape a retreat experience. What framework might open your heart to God’s revelation at this season in your life? We pray that, however the Spirit leads you, your retreat will invite you to “enter more fully into the divine life.

Return and Rest - recalling God's love on retreat

Return and Rest

recalling God's love on retreat

Br. David Vryhof, SSJE

There are many ways of entering into retreat. At times we will want to use our time of retreat to listen and discern God’s purposes in our life, especially if we are in a place of confusion, conflict, or uncertainty. At other times we may be facing an important choice, and will find a period of silent retreat to be a helpful clearing space in which to weigh our options in prayer. At times, we will want to explore more deeply the nature of God, the person of Christ, or some aspect of our human condition. These are ways of using retreat to “advance” the spiritual life.

But as our Brother Curtis Almquist likes to remind us, most often “a retreat is not an advance.” Retreats invite us to return to the God we already know, to recall and to re-experience God’s love for us, to receive from God the gifts we need this day. 

“In returning and rest you shall be saved.” - Isaiah 30:15

In the Book of Common Prayer there is a collect that summarizes this last type of retreat. We pray, 

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The prayer is drawn from Isaiah 30:15: “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” It suggests that there are times when we need to return to God and find our rest in God’s presence, to draw from God’s strength in order to claim again the inner stillness and freedom that come from putting our trust in God’s wisdom and power rather than our own.

If you have ever watched young children playing on a playground you may have noticed how a child might from time to time interrupt his play in order to come over to his mother, sitting at the edge of the play area. She hugs him, tussles his hair, and rubs his back. He leans into her and receives her love. After a few moments, he pops up and returns to his peers to join again in their play. Retreat can be like that – a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection, and hear God’s words of encouragement and support. Retreats can offer us this kind of refreshment and renewal, and can prepare us to re-enter the fray of our daily lives with new energy and hope.

Retreat can be a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection.

How might we enter into such a retreat? I often encourage retreatants to begin their retreats by returning to a favorite passage of Scripture or to a favorite hymn, one that recalls for them God’s deep love and abiding faithfulness. Here are some possible starting places:

– Isaiah 43:1-9 “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

– Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”

– Psalm 139 “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

– Romans 8:31-38 “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

– 1 John 4:7-21 “In this is love, not that we loved God but that   God loved us…

– Hymnal 1982, 671 “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound”

– Hymnal 1982, 664 “My Shepherd will supply my need

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there...

It will help if we remind ourselves that prayer is a gift, not a task. We come to prayer to offer God thanks and praise, and to receive the good gifts God has for us, gifts that God knows that we need. We do not come to achieve a goal or to produce a specific result. Nor do we come out of obligation, to fulfill a sense of duty. Christian prayer stems from a loving relationship. God has invited us into the Divine Presence in order to offer us love and strength, patience and courage, healing and wholeness. Prayer is the primary place where we receive these things. Therefore, we ought to approach our times of prayer or times of retreat not with a sense of duty, but in a spirit of receptivity and expectation. We are coming to meet the One who has created and redeemed us in love, and who reigns over all things, to receive all that we need from God’s heavenly storehouse.

The author of the First Letter of John writes, “We love because (God) first loved us” (1 John 4:9). The first thing (“we love”) is dependent on the second (that we have received and experienced God’s love for us). If we hope to be agents of God’s love in the world, carriers of God’s grace and ministers of God’s compassion, then we need to receive those gifts of love and grace and compassion from the hand of God. Only then can we offer them to others. Prayer is the place where these gifts are received. When I have experienced God’s unconditional love for me, I can offer that same unconditional love to others. When I have known God’s forgiveness, I can extend that same forgiveness to others. When I know that God accepts me as I am, without judgment, I can open myself to others and approach them with curiosity and interest rather than with suspicion and judgment. “We love because (God) first loved us.” This is the gift that God offers us in prayer and in retreat.

Begin your retreat, then, by returning to God, resting in God’s goodness and love, allowing God to restore your confidence in God’s protection and provision. God is at work in your life. “Be still, and know that God is God.”

...For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” - Psalm 139: 7-8, 13-14

pencil drawing of the Good Shepherd, by Katherine Brown

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

Recall specific moments when you have known God’s goodness and love in your life. How did you feel? What emotions spring up in you now as you recall those earlier times? Offer them to God.


Write a letter to God. What do you wish to say to God? What does God need to hear from you? It could be words of love or heartbreak or doubt. Be as honest as you can. One of our Brothers, at the end of this meditative practice, likes to take up another pen in a second color and write the words he hears God speaking back to him. 


You might find it helpful to meditate with an image. I love to pray with Katherine Brown’s image of the Good Shepherd, rejoicing as he holds his lost lamb. As you gaze at this icon, hear God welcoming you back home. You are God’s beloved creature, the one for whom God would leave the ninety-nine, just to bring you back. 

Sip and Savor - reading sacred texts on retreat

Sip and Savor

reading sacred texts on retreat

Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE

The spaciousness, silence, and freedom from distraction that retreat offers provide an ideal context for encountering Christ in scripture and sacred writings. Times of retreat free us from the obligation of assigned readings like the lectionary. They also beckon us away from the perpetual flow of the social media feed, headlines crafted to arrest us in our tracks, and images designed to hijack our attention. Unlike the reading we shoe-horn into a daily train commute or the spare, sleepy moments before bed, on retreat we are given the gift of genuine leisure to let our reading absorb, transfix, and even transfigure us. We can rediscover the grace-bearing potential of words by giving them our full and undivided attention. In the chapter entitled “Holy Scripture” in our Rule, we read: “It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meaning and life.” When the texts we choose to take on retreat are selected with careful, prayerful discernment and approached with reverent expectancy, the living Word can open our deafness once more. Our lives may be forever changed by just a single phrase. 

“Without silence, words become empty.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”

There are a few elements that can transform our engagement with printed words into sacred reading while on retreat. I’ll consider three: what we choose to read, the pace at which we read it, and the space we give ourselves to step away from our reading and rest in wordless silence. There is abundant literature on the classic monastic practice of lectio divina – a practice which I heartily recommend. Here, however, I will consider sacred reading practices a little more broadly. 

How do we choose what texts we read on retreat? This is a fairly personal choice, but remember that your aim is sacred reading. I prefer to avoid texts which are primarily didactic – whose basic purpose is to instruct, inform, or set forth an argument. Instead, I choose texts which I trust will efface themselves and usher me gently into encounter with God, toward whom they point. I particularly relish reading poems on retreat, because a good poem can communicate directly to the heart what prose can take a volume to express! The writings of the ancient and medieval church, though sometimes difficult and obscure, never fail to reward my patient attention with gifts of grace. Some retreats have become like intimate conversations between Jesus, myself, and the saint whose holy friendship is offered to me through her or his writings. As a consummate bibliophile, I need to be ruthless in limiting the number of books I take on retreat and remind myself that this is not an opportunity to catch up on the six to eight books from the Monastery library begging for my attention. My hard rule is no more than two, plus a Bible. In reading scripture, I often aim to delve deeply into one book, or sometimes a single chapter, though I leave room for detours if they are strong promptings from the Spirit. I must cultivate, again and again, a “less is more” approach. 

Learning to read slowly and meditatively can take practice, but this is the pace and approach that our ancestors in the faith most strongly recommend. Just as timeless works of visual art or music communicate freshly to each generation of artists or musicians, texts that contain true wisdom repay an infinite number of readings. Each inwardly repeated sentence can midwife new insights or lift the eyes of our hearts to whole constellations of meaning that our initial reading passed over unawares. In the ancient and medieval worlds, the act of reading was an awesome privilege demanding intense mental and physical concentration. Receiving even a one-page letter was a singular event. The precious words on the parchment were read aloud, repeatedly. This way of reading rendered the author mysteriously and intimately present. The Rule of St. Benedict makes provision for each monk to receive one book from the monastic library as his Lenten reading. A whole book to absorb in meditative prayer over the course of a liturgical season was a sublime gift. On retreat, we can follow their lead. Rather than gulp, we sip and savor. 

“He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat...

In the sustained, meditative reading of a sacred text we expect to be impacted or transformed in some way because we honor the text’s spiritual authority or authenticity, but we don’t pretend to know how the encounter may change us. We are open to the text’s points of difficulty and obscurity (think for example of the prologue to John’s gospel, or the poems of T.S. Eliot). The Spirit patiently teaches us that when the fist of the mind closes around the words to wrest away a manufactured, quotable insight, they inevitably become opaque. The doors of perception close. Yet when we are receptive and open, without the compulsion to comprehend each particular nuance, words and phrases take on a transparent radiance. In the words of Eliot, “Every word is at home … the complete consort dancing together.” We are graced by a boundless, holistic, heart-centered way of knowing that can only be inspired — in-breathed by another power. In this moment, we close the book. 

Then what? Nothing and everything may quiver expectantly in that moment. We may remain still for a time, resting in the Word. We may gather together a few words of humble gratitude. We may turn our attention to something very different: a long walk in the cold air, a cup of tea beside the fireplace, a luxurious nap, an hour with the blessed Sacrament. The Word has used words to bear us into the silence that is their Source, and to which they will return. We let the words be, planted in the dark, mysterious soil of our hearts. We entrust their growth to the Author of Life, until the next time we take up the text, our attention refreshed and renewed, hungry again for the grace that sacred reading bestows. 

...He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3

John Icon

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

Memorize a favorite passage from Scripture. Repeat the words aloud, slowly and meditatively. How do the words feel in your mouth as you “chew” them? After a while, let yourself become silent in the lingering presence of the Word. Trust that they have been written on your heart, and will be there for you when you need them.


Gaze at the icon of St. John the Evangelist. Momentarily lay aside your analytical mind and simply receive the figures, colors, and shapes just as they are. 

Now take a look at the angel hovering over John’s shoulder, whispering in his ear: a representation of the Word of God. The Word whispers to us through the printed words in front of us. But the same Word communicates in unexpected ways from the margins, or at the periphery of our vision – gently interrupting, inspiring, suggesting, or challenging. 

What is it like to “read” the Word present to you in both of these places – or to allow the Word to read you in this way?

Strive and Wrestle - facing spiritual trial on retreat

Strive and Wrestle

reading sacred texts on retreat

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE

Prior to coming to the Monastery, my experiences of retreat were of an extended time of sabbath with God, always in the context of community with fellow believers. While times of rest in community away from the familiar scenes, routines, and challenges of life were quite beneficial to me, it wasn’t until I arrived at SSJE to test my vocation as a monk that I encountered a deeper and richer experience of retreat. As a novice, when I first studied the chapter entitled “Retreat” in our Rule of Life, one paragraph captured my attention: “Retreats will often be times in which we hear Jesus inviting us to be at rest with him. But we must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial. We may be tempted to tire ourselves or waste the time in busy work and preparation. We may find ourselves staying on the surface to avoid an authentic meeting with the living God. And the emptiness of retreat time may compel us to face painful signs of our need for healing which it was easier to overlook during our usual routines.” Spiritual trial!? Wasn’t retreat time about spending ‘quality time’ with God? I had never considered retreat to be so venturesome.

“We must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”

This vision of retreat reminds me of a story from Genesis which I loved as a kid but never really understood until now: the story of Jacob and his encounter with a divine being. The author of this particular Genesis story says that Jacob is on a journey with his family and all his possessions when, at one point, he sends them ahead of him, while he stays behind. When he is completely alone, Jacob encounters a man who engages him in a struggle. The two spend the long hours of the night wrestling, and eventually Jacob overpowers the man. Before conceding defeat the man dislocates Jacob’s thigh and exclaims, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob perceives something about this man with whom he has been wrestling. Aware that this is no ordinary encounter, Jacob asks his holy opponent for a blessing. The man declares that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “a man seeing God.” The story continues: “And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.”

This story resonates with me because it highlights the truth that any encounter which brings us into real intimacy with God will be costly. It will involve sacrifice, intention, endurance, and a desire and willingness to be changed. Jacob sacrificed all that he had, sending his family and possessions ahead unguarded while he withdrew to be alone with God. He intentionally engaged God in struggle, perhaps processing and working out the self-doubts that had plagued him. We know that Jacob had a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of his family and was seeking reconciliation from his estranged brother Esau. He had to abide with God in a difficult struggle, perhaps wondering at times whether he would be able to endure God’s truth and judgment. He had to desire change and make that desire known to God. At the dawning of the new day, he asked God to bless him as he moved forward into new life. Jacob left that encounter with God, not only with the new name of Israel, but also bearing a wound of love, one that would be a constant reminder of God’s grace and blessing.

“There are many conflicts on the way into the experience of divine love. As the spirit exposes it to Christ’s healing touch in prayer we shall often have to struggle with our reluctance to be loved so deeply by God...

It may be helpful to you to pray with the story of Jacob’s encounter with God, especially on retreat, since a retreat may expose us to spiritual trial. We may enter into retreat with the intention of deepening our relationship with God, only to find ourselves distracted. We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with advertising which promises a better life. And the lure of social media – with its premise to bring us connection – actually isolates us from real, meaningful relationships. God does not relate to us through Facebook and Instagram. Rather God is drawing us into silence, stillness, and solitude, in order to share the intimacy of adoring love with us. Like any relationship that we care about, our relationship with God requires us to put aside distractions in order to gaze into the face of our Beloved. 

It seems appealing to search for God somewhere ‘out there,’ in exotic places worthy of God’s glory. However, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries taught that the kingdom of heaven begins within us: “Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure. Both are one in the same. The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is in your soul ... there you will find the steps on which you can climb up.” The Psalmist writes, “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” You are God’s abiding place!

Most often Jesus enters into our lives through the cracks of our brokenness. We need not be ashamed of the fissures in our heart. Instead we must have the courage to bare them to Jesus, whose desire is to fill us with grace so that we may know the power of his love. Acknowledging our need for healing, our desire for happiness, and our longing for abundance is a sacrifice we offer to God. In return, God gives us a morsel of bread and sip of wine, the heavenly food of his own body and blood to sustain and nourish us as we begin our journey to healing.

Like Jacob, we need the courage first to let go of everything, to engage God and to ask God to reveal our true identity, the person God has created us to be. Retreat can be the perfect time for such challenging, rewarding striving with God.

...Christ himself will strive with us, as the angel strove with Jacob, to disable our self-reliant pride and make us depend on grace.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 21, “The Mystery of Prayer”

IMG_5629

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

What are you struggling with in your life – perhaps something in your past that has left you wounded? Do you share this struggle with God? Offer your wounds to Jesus in prayer, asking Him to transfigure the situation, that it might be a source of blessing to you.


Before going on retreat, note the amount of time you spend on social media each week. During the course of your retreat, resist the urge to connect virtually. Instead make a list of those whom you hold in your heart. Remember them to God in your prayer. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, explains the power of intercessory prayer in this way: “....in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” Carry those you love with you to God in prayer.


In times of spiritual trial, you may find it meaningful to meditate with an image of Christ crucified, like the one here. Reflect on how Christ is willing to share with you in your struggle.

About Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof, SSJE lives at Emery House in West Newbury and serves as Communications Brother. He loves that his day is grounded in the Daily Office (while his actual office is grounded in plenty of post-it notes and to-do lists). He is the most enthusiastic sports fan in the community.

 

About Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE came to SSJE in February of 2014 and professed his Initial Vows in July of 2016. He has had a life-long passion for drawing and is an avid reader of ascetical theology, particularly fourteenth-century Middle English. He loves being a monk and a follower of Jesus. 

 

About Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community both as the Director of Music and Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and sampling craft beer.

Reflection: Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage

a journey within

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram traces the practice of pilgrimage back to the origins of our faith and deep into the inner realms of our hearts.

PILGRIMAGE

A JOURNEY WITHIN

When I decided to stop in and visit the small village church in Lastingham, Yorkshire, I had no idea that the place was of any significance. I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage. I hadn’t researched the site or prepared myself to have any particular kind of experience. I just happened to be passing by there with my brother-in-law. I went in and decided to go down into the crypt. 

As I entered into the low, dim stone space, I actually fell on the ground because of the overwhelming sense of holiness. I nearly passed out. I had no idea what was happening or why. I thought, “What on earth? Why am I feeling this?” 

After I came back up into the church and looked around, I discovered that this church was where Saint Chad and Saint Cedd, missionaries to the Angles, had established their monastery. And Saint Cedd is buried, still, down in the crypt. My experience there was utterly unexpected; I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet it was also undeniable. The sense of the holy was so close, it fell upon me like a huge weight. 

“People come to kneel where prayer has been valid."

People come to kneel where prayer has been valid,” wrote T.S. Eliot. 

Eliot not only kneeled, he fully collapsed – on the floor of our own Holy Spirit Chapel – during an early morning Eucharist in the 1930s. He was the only visitor in the Chapel with the Brothers. Suddenly, during the consecration of the elements, he experienced the presence of God so powerfully, so heavily, he collapsed under it. 

I love these stories because they remind me that while churches can offer sanctuary, they also can be incredibly dangerous places of encounter. We should post warnings on the door: Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!

Take Paul Claudel, the French playwright. Not a believer, he went one day into the vast cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Claudel stood, half hiding behind a pillar, watching the Mass. He later wrote that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and, as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly ambushed him. At once he believed and fell to his knees.

Notre-Dame de Paris, this Monastery Chapel in Cambridge, Saint Mary’s in Lastingham, Yorkshire: it’s not just aesthetics that gives such churches their power. These places are holy, which simply means that they have been consecrated to God. They are places where generations have come seeking God; where men and women have been ambushed by God and can never be the same again. They are places where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered; where solemn vows have been made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. It’s almost as if the very walls have become impregnated with prayer and saturated with God’s presence. The holiness of such places is not measurable, and yet it’s undeniable. We enter and, ready or not, God is already there, waiting for us.

Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!

 

We believe, of course, that God is everywhere. God can be found on a mountaintop, as well as in a valley; in the dark and in the light; in a holy place and in the gutter. The place where we encounter God is actually not material, for God of course is immaterial. Seen this way, there is no need to go anywhere at all to experience God. 

And yet, as Christians, we also believe in the Incarnation. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or, as another translation has it, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). Within the more Catholic traditions of the Christian church, believers pray in front of the tabernacle – where the Sacrament is placed – out of a desire to be close to the sacramental presence of Christ, the Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that Christ is physically there, in the Sacrament. Even though God is everywhere, we embodied creatures do experience God (like everything else) in our bodies and through our senses. Our sacramental practice within the Church is reflective of this; it invites us to experience God’s presence somatically, in our flesh, with our taste and with our touch. The God who became flesh comes to us again in the flesh every time we hold out our hands and “Take, eat” the Sacrament.

And so, too, there are physical places where we feel that God can be experienced in a uniquely powerful way. “Thin places” we call them, where the veil between Heaven and earth is thinned, somehow. Where – even if you aren’t expecting it, or are unprepared for it – you can become aware of an almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as I did at Lastingham.

These places of divine encounter are holy places with the power to transform us, just as the Sacraments do, by bringing us into contact with the living God. In these places of encounter, God’s presence is so palpable that it’s actually very easy to pray. We can be very vulnerable. We feel close to the Source of Life.

Such places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.

Places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.

 

While pilgrimage rose as a widespread devotional practice in the Middle Ages, humans have been practicing pilgrimage for as long as we have experienced and commemorated encounters with God. 

Think of that wonderful story in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder ascending up to Heaven, with angels going up and down. When he awakens, he knows that he’s been visited by God. He says, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” He calls that place Bethel, “the house of God.” 

What’s significant is that Jacob is sleeping on a rock as a pillow. When he wakes up and realizes that he’s been visited by God, he takes that rock, makes it into an altar, and pours oil on it. As word spreads, people begin to come to that place. That site becomes holy because that’s where God came down and touched a human. It’s a place where, to quote T.S. Eliot again, we “apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to call these “little anticipations of Heaven,” moments of transcendence. They can happen in sacred places, they can happen on pilgrimage, and they can happen in the daily journey of our everyday life.

The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there.

As Christians, we are a pilgrim people. 

Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.

The thread picks up with the most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, brutalized by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to be their savior. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.  

This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown: 

He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)

“He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets.  He called them and they left their father Zebedee and followed him.” (Mt 4:21-22)

“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)

“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)

Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics: Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, who left all their property and wealth behind, to head out into the western deserts of Egypt.

And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom” when they left their homes to travel to foreign lands, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.

While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet those words in the Gospel are surely addressed to each one of us: “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.

This command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation, as it were, through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. It’s no accident that so much of the great literature of the world picks up on this very theme of the hero’s transformative journey; from the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, even The Lord of the Rings. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.

Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

Simply leaving home is not enough, of course. 

Physical pilgrimage has value primarily for its ability to inspire inner change. In this, the physical journey of pilgrimage symbolizes (and often catalyzes) the spiritual journey that we are called to take within. In her wonderful treatment of medieval pilgrimage, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, catalogues four possible stages along the spectrum between physical and spiritual pilgrimage:

1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.

2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.

3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.

4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveler had taken the shell of self with him and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.

Of this last kind of pilgrimage, the great biblical translator Saint Jerome observed, “It is better to live for Jerusalem than to journey to Jerusalem.” Better to stay home and be changed in heart, than to journey with your feet yet remain internally unmoved. 

Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. We are called, in the words of Jerome, to “live for Jerusalem,” as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation. 

Come follow me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Christianity has never been a static body of doctrine, but rather is a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians is “followers of the Way,” because of Jesus’ compelling invitation to take to the road, to make all of life into a continuous pilgrimage. Monica Furlong, in her book Traveling In, wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make. 

The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation. 

The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart. For this reason, I love the story that Sr. Benedicta recounts of the early Egyptian recluse, who fell under criticism for living a sedentary life. “Why are you sitting here and doing nothing?” one monk asked her. She replied, “I am not doing nothing; I am on a journey.”

We can embark on the most amazing journey without ever leaving our room. Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, our habits, our compulsions. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”  

 To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  

We are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart.

Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and, frankly, scared. I suppose, if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. And yet that is what this resurrection Life is all about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).

As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God!

This is the fundamental difference between traveling through life as a pilgrim and as a tourist. To the tourist, every part of the journey has equal value, whereas the pilgrim definitely has a goal. To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life as teleological: to know it actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven. God is the end of our journey – both our destination and our goal. 

One thing that can be very helpful as we press along on this journey, is periodically to stop and make a sort of “map” of the road we’ve traveled and the road ahead. Ultimately, we know that our destination is God; yet like any traveler pressing on along an unknown road, we may need to check in and reorient ourselves from time to time, to be sure that we haven’t taken off on the wrong path. 

Honestly take stock of your journey so far: Where am I now, where have I been, and where do I feel I should be going? Ask yourself: Where do I feel God is drawing me now? What is the vision I have of the person God wants me to become? What are the things in my life right now which are stopping me from realizing that vision, or dulling my sight? Where am I being pulled off the path?

It doesn’t matter how far along the path you are. And if you have come off the way, that’s ok too; you simply need to get back on it. “To repent” in the Greek is metanoia, which means to “turn around.” If you find you’ve gone astray, then turn around! Retrace your steps to the last time you knew that you were in the right spot, and start again from there. 

This exercise can be particularly helpful when we undertake it with a companion, someone we trust, who knows us and loves us, and who also understands the things of the Spirit. Find someone who can act as a guide in interpreting your map and pointing you toward the next step on the road. In this, the Road to Emmaus offers such a wonderful image for this pilgrim life (see Lk 24:13-27). The disciples set out on pilgrimage to Emmaus. Suddenly, Christ draws near to them, but they don’t recognize him, until they reflect on the teaching the stranger has shared. So too, we need to be open and expectant that, along the route, somebody may draw close to us, and they may be the Christ, speaking words which set us on the path to life again, by renewing our vision. 

To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven.

Wherever we are on our life journey, we are never alone. The story of Emmaus promises us that we are always joined by another, the Risen One. He always walks beside us. When we are at the extremity of our strength, he is with us; in the wilderness of ice or the furnace of the fire; in our times of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us, “You are not alone: you have a companion.”

The Risen Christ walks by our side, but he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting. It’s the Greek word monai, which doesn’t mean a “house,” and certainly not a “mansion,” but rather a “stopping place,” like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on a journey (like the mountain huts you find in the White Mountains). In the East, it was the custom for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road, so that when the travelers arrived, they might find comfort, as well as shelter.

Jesus, in this famous passage, is promising that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”

As comforting as this image is, we should also hear in it something of a prod. We often reach a stage in our life where we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide that we’d like to stop there for good. We begin putting up curtains and might even stow our pack under the bed! But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots, which call us to take out the tent pegs in the morning, and move on.

We are a pilgrim people. Christ urges us on: “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.”

In this pilgrim life, we are called to an ongoing journey, with God and toward God. And yet there is this amazing sense that, the more we travel away from what we know, the more familiar the landscape will become. My journey does not actually lead me away from myself, but toward it. I am called by Jesus to become more and more the Geoffrey that God had in mind when God created me. And so, too, are you: called to become the person God made you to be. We have this little time on Earth for that to happen, to become who we truly are, so that when we finally get to Heaven, it won’t be such a shock! 

To quote T.S. Eliot once more, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” At the end of our journey, we will find ourselves, finally, home. 

About Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.

Reflection: Time

Time

Redeeming the Gift

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram proposes that much of our stress and anxiety derives from our pollution of Time. Ordering our relationship to Time can help us to experience the joy of the present moment.

It’s Time To... Stop, Pray, Work, Play & Love

Recapture time as a gift. Discover how to experience the joy of the present moment.

Find out more about this series >

TIME

REDEEMING THE GIFT

We are probably more aware than any previous generation of how we have polluted and exploited our beautiful planet. Every day, the news brings fresh evidence of the ravages humans have exacted upon the spaces we inhabit. We recognize now that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis.

What we are, perhaps, slower to recognize is that our ecological crisis also reflects a theological crisis. The earth we have polluted is none other than God’s creation. The Book of Genesis expresses in unforgettable language the great act of creation: With power and love, God brings forth dry land from the watery void, and in successive stages creates a wondrous world filled with every kind of plant and animal, and at creation’s climax, makes humankind. To these humans is entrusted the incalculably important task of caring for this dazzlingly complex and precious work of God. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”(1)

But Genesis goes on to describe in tragic verses humankind’s Fall from grace and its dire consequences. Humans, who were created to live in harmony with the whole of creation, were doomed to experience a profound sense of rupture and alienation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”(2) They would now live in a fundamentally ‘disordered’ relationship with all of creation.

Looking around us now, it is not difficult to see traces of this disordered relationship with creation in our lives. On a global scale, we see how our greed and insatiable appetite for more have encouraged us to plunder and exploit the earth’s resources in irresponsible and unsustainable ways, as we live with the consequent pollution and global warming. And in our individual lives, we are becoming aware that our disordered and unsustainable relation to the created order is a cause of malaise and great suffering.

Now, there is another gift from God, given in creation, which is equally fundamental to our well-being as our relationship with the Earth. This gift, too, has been abused and polluted, although the destructive effects of this abuse may be less immediate for us to discern. This is the gift of Time.

Abraham Heschel, in his classic book The Sabbath observes:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”  There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.(3)

We have each been given the gift of time, and of all the gifts God has created, time is uniquely holy: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”(4) Time is the medium in which we are able to live and move and have our being. Without time, what would this beautiful creation be – humankind included – but a lump of inert matter? God animates matter in time and sets it into motion through history. By God’s grace, we live in time and through time. And so, either deliberately or unthinkingly, to pollute time is a recipe for great suffering: We are polluting the very medium in which we live, as surely as we have polluted the air and the oceans around us. For us to live in a disordered relationship with time can be just as damaging as living in a disordered relationship with the created world. And just as surely, it is killing us.

We are polluting the very medium in which we live, just as we have polluted the air and the oceans around us. And it is killing us.

In the Monastery, we Brothers live a very ordered life. We have a schedule that determines our waking and our sleeping, when we work and when we eat. The bell calls us, surely and unchangingly, to prayer, ten minutes before the liturgy begins, five times each day. Look at our schedule, and it will probably appear that every day in a Monastery is the same, week in and week out. Furthermore, as a monastic community in the Episcopal church, we also follow a liturgical year that assures us, month by month, year after year, that we will keep the same feasts, recall the same holy days. On a given time of a given day, we Brothers can tell you, with some confidence, where we will probably be, and what we will probably be doing, at that same time the next year, and the year after that.

From the outside, it might seem that we Brothers should have the ordering of time all figured out. If only that were true! We actually often have to admit that we come to the Monastery because we are particularly bad at living an ordered life.

Even in the Monastery, it is difficult for us to keep true to the use of time that our Rule prescribes. We Brothers are as prone as anyone to overwork, to misuse time. It’s a constant problem. And when the Chapel bell rings, making us stop our work by calling us to the Divine Office, it can sometimes be rather annoying! It sounds out across the Monastery and forces us to stop what we are doing – probably right when we were in the thick of it – and we sigh a little, because what we were doing just then was no doubt something that seemed quite important. But the bell reminds us that, actually, we’re not here just to work, just to do and to accomplish. We’re here to glorify God by our lives. The bell, which makes us stop, actually calls us back to our truest identity.

The bell, which makes us stop, actually calls us back to our truest identity.

As I reflect on my own life and upon the lives of the many people I have ministered to, I become increasingly aware of how much stress, suffering, and anxiety derives from our pollution of time. There are so many ways that we can make time out to be our enemy. Colloquially, we talk about “killing time,” and what we mean by that is wasting time, frittering it, trying to get rid of it. Time itself seems to be our enemy, some unwanted burden. And so we find ways to “kill” it, squander it, throw it away – on the internet, perhaps, or in some mindless interaction with our cell phone, the video console, or other technologies of distraction. We are always on the look-out for ways to feel “free” from time; we seek moments we can blissfully call a “time out of time.”

It’s no wonder if we sometimes feel the urge to escape time, since, more often than not, it feels as if time itself is out to get us. In our struggles to keep up with our demanding and relentless schedules, time, this holy gift from God, begins to feel like something of a demon, whipping at our backs. “I just don’t have enough time!” we cry, again and again.

But if we never feel that there is enough time, there is something wrong with us, and not with time! God created time. God created it, and God called it holy. There is enough time. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . a time to seek and a time to lose.”(5) These wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes point to a profound truth: When we feel that we do not have enough time, the issue is not with time, but with our use of time. We feel we do not have enough time because we do not have enough of it to accomplish certain goals, fill certain needs, meet certain expectations. The problem is not with time, but with our use of it, our attitude toward it. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven,” and if we can only get in touch with a right attitude toward time, if we can recover the holiness of time, then we will know that every moment is enough.

There is enough time. The problem is not with time, but with our use of it, our attitude toward it.

Every moment is pregnant with possibilities beyond our imagining. Not to see that truth is to have a disordered vision of the gift of time, unfolding before us and for us, in every moment. I love that phrase from the renowned historian Arnold Toynbee, who referred to a theory of history and the passage of time as “just one damned thing after another.” For many people, that is what their life feels like, and it highlights the profundity of our disordered relationship to time. Time is not an endless succession of things to do, bitter sighs, tired nights, and disappointments. Time is a gift from God.

Each new day will never come again, which makes it incredibly precious. Carpe diem, the ancient philosophers urged, “Seize the day.” Each new day asks of us, in the words of our contemporary, Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”(6) Your one wild and precious life could stretch on for decades, or it could just be today. What are you going to do, who are you going to be, in that time?

A redeemed way of understanding and relating to time asks us to see every moment as significant and having meaning as part of a whole. There is meaning to our lives: We have been given this period of time, this one wild and precious life, in limited amount, in order to become the person that God created us to be. How we use the time allotted to us in this life is how we glorify God in our lives. As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the person fully alive.”(7)

God put us here, and God has given us this time, in order that we might become fully alive. Jesus promises, “I came that you may have life and life in abundance.”(8) Reordering our relationship to time is one of the chief ways in which we can access that abundant life Jesus promised us, and that glory for which God created us.

Every moment is pregnant with possibilities beyond our imagining.

This life is a dance, and we cannot move through it meaningfully and beautifully without having a sense of the rhythm to which our life responds. None of us want to live in monotone, being victims of the relentless drumroll of the to-do list. In order to flourish, we need a rich and varied, but consistent rhythm of life: We need to listen for and respond to the call of different tempos and tunes; we need rests.

Take heart that any small step you try in reordering your time will probably leave you a better steward of your time than you were the day before. Over the course of the next year, we Brothers will be thinking and teaching about Time. We need to learn to take time to stop, pray, work, play, and love in order to be fully alive, as God intended. We hope that you’ll join us and catch the life!

 


(1) Genesis 1:26
(2) Genesis 3:17
(3) Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1995
(4) Genesis 2:3
(5) Ecclesiastes 3:1-6
(6) Oliver, Mary,The Summer Day”, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press), 1990
(7) Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses, Book 4, Chapter 20, c. 175-185 CE
(8) John 10:10

About Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.