Sunday, October 9, 2011
Breathe in. Slowly and deeply – with a long sustained breath. Hold it. Breathe out slowly and completely. I have often uttered these words in a retreat context to help center a person as he or she begins prayer. O.K. Now repeat it. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Don’t rush it. Take a long deep sustained breath. And now release it at the same measured rate. Just breathe. One more time. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Hold it! Breathe out slowly and completely.
This morning the Spirit of Christ seems to be asking me to engage in this pre-prayer exercise. It is as if Christ is saying, “Everything you taught retreatants, it is now your time to practice for yourself. Let me take care of you today.”
I sit in an Adirondack chair outside the retreat house, mere feet from the oceans. The sun is strong with a few high wispy clouds that would dare not block the sun. The temperature is already 82 degrees Fahrenheit with an almost-still sea breeze that brings with it faint trace of salt. I wonder where the retreatants are. As I look around, I notice a retreat director in another far off chair napping, but retreatants cannot be found. I feel presumptuous to take one of these choice seats, but all the chairs remain empty. I let myself indulge in this rare pleasure. I always forego these simple pleasures so that retreatants can have the best views of the ocean. Their absence reminds me that the invitation today is for me to sit and enjoy. I won’t even worry about the sun on my neck’s nape because I probably won’t burn.
Near to me are tall sea grasses that are like dried reeds. They sing a rhythm worth hearing. They clank against one another to make their chime-like noises. I’ll listen because they want to play for me. A white butterfly sits on the goldenrod, but doesn’t seem satisfied for too long. She jumps from one to another and I wonder if she is feasting and cannot get enough of the fruits. Ah, a second one just came along and they flew off in a spiral together. Their pleasure is being with one another for the moment. Behind the goldenrod are tall beach grasses that have lost their green lushness and have become strikingly white. They sway as they provide a contrast to the bright yellows in the foreground. Nearby are delicate yellow flowers with small petals. Three yellow butterflies are flittering away their morning by sucking up the juices of the pollen.
I feel good. I feel as if times is standing still for me to exist in a temporal eternity. I feel good.
A number of ships are in the harbor. A small yacht has docked in Brace’s Cove and the sailors are napping sans shirts. They don’t want to go anywhere. Why would they, after all? These days are made for soaking in the day’s magnificence. Three swans approach the boat. The swans were once timid around people but now see them as a source for their food. The sailors get up and grab their cameras because the birds are so close to them. I cover my neck now for the sun is warm.
Single-mast sailboats dot the far horizon. They move slowly and with great grace. If I didn’t feel invited to stay where I am, I’m sure I would be walking out to Brace Rock that is accessible in low tide. It is monolithic and it looks pristine because of the recent rains. One day soon, but not today, I say. I will come, but today, I just will look at you. The small tide-pools are still. They look warm in the late-autumn sun, but I’m not to do anything today except to behold the beauty around me. A yellow butterfly lands on the armchair and I notice the delicate detailed wing-lines. Hardly a sound is made around me, except that of nature’s movements. I am reminded to breathe.
A neighbor’s dog makes a solitary bark and tiny swallows chirp as if they are just awakened in springtime. A bumble-bee’s buzz provides a bass chant. I find my eyelids growing heavy as if I’m going to nap. I breathe deeper.
Soon it is time to rest. Today seems like a respite from the year-long preparation for winter. We are given a delight to enjoy on this Sunday so we can carry on in the days ahead. The flower beds are begging to be turned in so they can get their rest. As they slumber, other autumn plants poke their heads out to say, “Hey, I’ve been here all along, but you never noticed me. It’s my time now. Look at me. I’m brilliant.” They are right.
Even as the seasons change, life merely is expressed in alternate ways. Just as I say that, a religious sister walks by to pick up a stick. She has to try three times to get it because she is unstable on her feet. I don’t get up to help her – because she hasn’t asked for my help, but she perseveres and uses that discarded piece of wood as her walking stick. She smiles and is on her way. Life will do what it needs to survive. Life always wins out.
This is the type of day I would typically want to be working in the gardens or clearing the bush, but that must wait. After a nine-month effort, the gardens and lawns are beginning to speak for themselves. The land is saying “Thank you. You have freed me and I can breathe again. I want my splendor to shine forth. Today, I gaze upon to delight in them. As I walk through the property, yes, more can be done, but in its due time. It is time for me to look at my work alongside of Christ so I can see what he sees and hear what he is saying about the results. I think he wants to delight in their glory.
I heard a homily today that talked about the afterlife. The priest said, “Don’t pay much attention to this life for it is not good. The next life will be better.” This life is all we have. We don’t know anything about the next life except that Christ promises us eternal life with God. We had better live this life as fully as we can. We are given all of this to enjoy – even though we have lots of suffering.
I read a quick story about the difference between heaven and hell and I am changing the content of the tale a bit. Hell is like a rich banquet with lots of tasty meats, fresh vegetables, and sticky desserts. It is meant for us to eat like an Italian abbondanza. However, our hunger is too great and our arms are outstretched in front of us and though we can grasp all the food we want, our arms are locked and we can’t bring it to our mouths. Heaven is different. Actually, it looks the same. We are all seated at a large table in a massive banquet hall. The same food exists. God wants us to indulge as lavishly as we can in God’s generosity. The difference is that when we reach for the food, we instinctively give it to one another to eat. We are all satisfied.
I try to remember this because when I go through periods of self-scrutiny, I am reminded that the way out of my doldrums is to care for others. This keeps me open to their needs and somehow someone pays attention to my needs. I have to always go against my natural inclinations, which is to withdraw into myself, in order to achieve happiness and contentment. I make myself open to others’ care when I first care for others. How paradoxical.
I am letting God behold me. I have to imagine God is sitting forward and looking intently at me and saying, “Wow! I created you. I shaped you. I laughed with you and cried with you. I find nothing more valuable than spending time with you today. From your first rising in the morning, I look upon your face and notice how beautiful it is. I want to remember your face all day long. Breathe in my spirit because it is life. Spend time with me today because it is my delight.”
When God greets me like this, it is easy for me to tell God how I feel. I offer up all my emotions and thoughts and God simply accepts them. I present both my positive and negative feelings because that is who I am. God listens with great solidarity. I feel like my voice is heard – and everyone wants to be heard. I feel like I am seen – and everyone wants to be seen. I feel like I am touched – and everyone wants to have the intimacy of God’s touch – or that of another human being who loves you. All my senses I offer to God and my senses feed my feelings. My feelings feed my thoughts. My thoughts and my heart compels me to act. Who am I striving to become? Today, I merely want to exist as a beloved one of God.
But, once I am heard, I ask God, “What are you feeling today? What is going on with you? I want the mutuality of our friendship. Give me the grace to know what is happening with you today. Let me listen. Let me gaze. Let me behold you. I want nothing more.”
We rest together. The butterflies still flutter about; the sparrows still chirp, the waves roll up and down against the shore; and the flowers begin to embark upon their long rest. All is good. All is very well. For now, I’m going to sign off and spend time with God mutually beholding one another. I need it. I want it. I want to say to God, “You are awesome, but I know it will only come after God says to me, “You are awesome, and I just want to marvel at you. You take my breath away.”
And so I breathe.