Winter Break Retreat and Dissertation Work

I’m spending my winter break at home by myself. Well, more accurately I am spending it at home with five cats, three dogs, a fish, and some outside birds. More importantly, however, I am spending it in a quiet house. I decided to use the time I’d be home alone to give myself a spiritual retreat of meditation/prayer, silence, and reading/writing. Of course, this retreat isn’t as focused on spiritual matters as I would like it to be, because it has to be equally focused on school matters as I work to finish this dissertation re-proposal. I’m enjoying the fact that my typical day is looking somewhat contemplative at least.

For the past several days, since the day after Christmas (so when my mini-retreat concludes with Bec’s return on Sunday evening it will be a five day fast from normality) my day has looked like this:

  • Instead of using the alarm clock, I’ve been getting up whenever I feel like waking up. Most mornings it’s been between seven and eight in the morning.
  • After getting dressed, the first thing I do is put a pot of water to boil on the stove, set on low, so I can make a French press of coffee when I get back from walking the dogs.
  • I take a nice, slow walk with my dogs and give them lots of extra love once we return home. I take care of the cats, feed the birds and the fish.
  • I make coffee, eat breakfast, and have a bit of prayer/contemplation time with the help from Common Prayer and some fragrant incense. I light my St. Jude candle and pray for assistance with this dissertation, because it seems like something I should ask for help from the patron saint of the impossible.
  • Once I’m finished with morning prayer time, I read whatever text it is for the day for my dissertation and I take notes on the text.
  • I stop to make lunch/dinner, and I spend time doing some physical activity (riding my bike trainer, walking, shoveling snow) to make my thoughts congeal. Then I write a bit about the text I read that day.
  • Finally, I have allowed myself only an hour and a half to use Facebook, talk on the phone, text, email, or meet with friends. The rest of my day, from whenever I wake up until 9PM is spent in contemplative silence. At 9PM, I watch a bit of TV while trying to fall asleep.

I’ve noticed that during this week my thoughts have become clearer, my energy has gone back up, my spiritual life has turned for the better, and I don’t really miss talking or watching TV. I’d love to take a week long silent retreat at a convent or monastery some time, where I can’t even have a computer and can only use the land line telephone to make calls.

I’ve made some interesting discoveries about myself this week, too. The first is that I need an intense amount of what my friend Amy calls “self-care.” Here is what I wrote to another friend of mine about the dark night I went through this November; it was the worst one I’ve experienced to date. “I’m also not being preachy (okay just a little bit) when I say that even Jesus had to take a time out once in a while to feed his soul. Families complicate that, and so do friends sometimes, and it’s hard to strike a healthy balance between the two. I find that sometime the ‘should’ rules bind me in to the point where I can’t have fun or enjoy life even when I don’t have something I ‘should’ be doing. That’s the point I was at in November (the very bottom of the barrel), and, yes, I’ve always (since I can remember) struggled not with the notion of killing myself, but of sometimes feeling that I’d be better off in another place or that my life is too overwhelming to keep living. I have only been in a really bad spot like that a couple of times in my life and I had a really hard time getting out of it this time. It made me realize that sometimes for me the ‘should’ is taking care of myself, even if it means doing things at the expense of spending time with others. You know I love a good conversation and some good quality time, but I had to take a weekend to ‘go to a conference’ to get my perspective back. Thank God for my friend Amy, who is a hospice chaplain. She didn’t realize that she was going to have work in her off hours. Since then, I’ve tried really hard to make at least half an hour for myself before anyone else is up. I get up at 4AM most mornings to get time to run, pray, worship, and feed my soul. I am super tired sometimes because I am so not a morning person, but I find the trade-off to be worth it.” I owe my sanity to my friends Sarah and Daniel as well. I am not sure any of them really knew how fragile I was that weekend, but I had a hard time even enjoying anything, let alone learning anything at that conference.

Sometimes—I’ve learned about myself—I am really high maintenance in the emotional department. I can be dark and brooding, and I am sure it is difficult to be my friend. However, I am so thankful for those people who stick by me and who keep me laughing (or at least smiling) when I really question why I am here at all. I’m not saying this to be melodramatic or to draw attention to myself, but I am saying it because I know there are others out there who feel the same way. I wonder probably too frequently what is the point of my existence, and before you think it, yes, I do love the existentialist writers, particularly Dostoevsky. I do know, somewhere deep down inside of me at all times: there is hope, there is help, and there is healing. I’ve experienced it again and again through my friends and through my faith. There is a purpose to all of this, but for me it’s difficult to understand.

I’ve learned that when my faith suffers, I suffer. When I get in a place like I was in November, that dark and scary place, I can’t feel God or connect with God in any meaningful way. Do I keep searching? Yes, but it feels as if I just keep finding nothing at the bottom of dark, dark hole. There aren’t many people who I know in my life who would admit to this feeling, but I am sure we all have it at least fleetingly. I think too much, I rationalize too much, and I don’t just “let go and let God,” as the cheesy saying goes. Well, I can’t do that. And I do think it’s cheesy. I prefer my theology with a dose of reason and my faith with a dose of doubt. Though I am in a much better place now than I was in November, I still wouldn’t say I’m a bucket of sunshine and rainbows. Full of hope, but realistic about it.

One of the books I read over break, which had nothing to do with my dissertation, but which helped me to think about my faith in new ways was An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. The book is basically about her long struggle as she lived as a Missionary of Charity for twenty years of her life. Many of her theological struggles are mine, many of her relational struggles are mine, and many of her solutions are mine as well. The place where the book challenged me the most was near the end. Johnson leaves the Church: “I don’t tell Father Bob about the still, small voice I heard within. Look inside yourself, the voice said. God is like the best parts of you. From there it was a short step to God is the best parts of you. [. . .] I tell him that the freer I become, the more beautiful I grow” (522). I am not sure that I can follow her to the point of leaving the Church, but I can certainly respect her ideas and would love to bring them into the Church. From her story, I can only imagine her being able to relate to God in such a manner (one without the presence of hierarchical church structure). In many respects the Church has made God out to be the best parts of it, so why as individuals can’t we believe that God is the best parts of us? The peaceful, loving, grace-filled, compassionate parts of us. Near the end of the book Johnson writes about the way most people remember Mother Teresa as being filled with joy, almost nonhuman in her joyfulness: “I feel odd to prefer the human to the perfect; maybe that’s why I don’t fit anymore. I want earth, not heaven” (523). I think I must be super selfish, because I want both.

I find that when I keep a balanced perspective about theology, when I realize that some of my understanding of heaven comes from Scripture, and that much more comes from experiencing God’s love (and human maliciousness) here on earth, I can relate to God much more clearly. Just this morning, after four days of “retreat,” I was finally able to pray again (it’s been a long time coming), to feel as if God heard my thoughts, heard my prayers. I felt as if I was literally in the presence of God. As I prayed for others, I felt their names, their faces, their difficulties come rushing forward to meet my lips. This experience wasn’t from me, but was it from God? Do I owe this to some divine breakthrough or is it more the fact that I am just relaxed? Have I just given myself enough self-care to be open enough to be in the presence of God? Have I tricked myself with contemplation and incense? Have I tried harder this week and somehow tricked myself into feeling God’s presence? Is it the beauty of the snow? Is it having time? Is it the lack of stress? Is it an emotional spoke in my menstrual cycle? These are the questions I ask myself when I start to feel to deeply and can no longer rationally explain my theological ecstasy. I want both the rational and the completely irrational, the earth and the heavens, the justice and the grace. I want to enjoy the mystery. God, I want.

 

 

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