Recently I attended a three day retreat entitled Unforced Rhythms of Grace at Eage Erie, a retreat center near Lynchburg, Virginia run by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
As an off the charts introvert I struggle with meeting new people, especially in group situations. I am much more comfortable going with my wife or a friend, and I often let these other people do the “work” of introducing us and starting conversations. This has been a significant handicap over the years preventing me from making friends or just getting to know new people. With the publication of my book: Choosing Authenticity: Religion Is Not Enough, it has significantly handicapped me in my efforts to promote the book. In my time apart that sacred inner voice has made it clear that this tendency to want to avoid social interactions with people I do not know is a place where I need to grow. It is, as I have often called such things, an “opportunity to practice”.
So when my friend and pastor, Drexel Rayford, asked me to go to a retreat with him, at first I hesitated. I fell into old patterns and began looking for excuses not to go. After all, we were on vacation the week before the retreat, I was giving the first session of an eight week series of talks on Developing Your Spiritual Practice at our church the Sunday before the retreat, and of course there was the money issue. That all sounded like very good “reasons” to decline the inviatation. Yet, Drexel and my wife kept encouraging me to go, and somehow it didn’t “feel right” to turn down the opportunity. Being true to my committment to my own spiritual practice I took this question into my time apart. That sacred inner voice I have come to trust made it very clear to me that all of my “reasons” were really excuses, and that the real reason for my hesitation was my introvered nature. It was the old pattern just with new specifics. Paying attention to that sacred inner voice I signed up for the retreat.
So then the Friday before the retreat Drexel informs me that something had come up, and he would be unable to go on the retreat. He made a point to say that he really hoped I would go anyway. Naturally my first inclination was to back out as well. After all I had agreed to go with him subconsciously knowing that he would do that “work” I had such a hard time with. “Unfortunately” when I took that question back into my time apart that sacred inner voice did not let me off the hook. The message was very clear, “you need to go!” Again, being true to that voice I decided to go, with some considerable anxiety.
I did the “work” that I so often depend on my wife and others to do for me. I introducd myself to the reatreat leaders and to several of the participants and had interesting conversations with them, both about the topics discussed in the retreat and about my book. I made connections with some that very well might continue into the future. Near the end of the retreat the retreat leader announced that they were buying a copy of my book for each person on the retreat. All without “help” from anyone I knew. All of the anxiety and resistance was ultimately for naught.
The retreat itself was also something that spoke to me about something very important to my spiritual jourrney. For all of my adult life I have struggled with church. Church services just have never worked for me. I have always left church with a deep sense of disappointment, of wanting something more, something different, and never quite knowing what that was. Over the years I have gone to churches in a number of different denominations, some orthodox and some not so much. Many of these churches had really different types for services, but they always left me with that same sense of disatisfaction, of wanting something more, something “deeper” and never really knowing what that would even look like. Some of the things I struggled with had to do with the “busyness” of the services—the social activities, all of the standing up and sitting down. I also struggled with all of the focus on theology, singing old hymns and the rout reading of scriptures that had lost their meaning for me, and sermons that often seemed to have no real connection with the rest of my life. I know that there was seldom any real sense of “worship” or of “sanctuary for me, though those words were often bantered about. I know that I longed for a sense of reverence and sacredness that I seldom found. I sensed all of those things, but when people asked me what I was really looking for I never had a real answer.
The retreat was different. The teaching and sharing times were intersperced with times of silence and ritual. The ritual was different. First of all it was quiet and there was a sense of a kind of sacred presence, with each other and with that Mysterious Presence we call God. People would arrive at slightly different times, enter quietly, and sit in silence. These times began with the the ringing of a prayer bowl that resonated with something deep inside of me. That resonance continued as the sound dissipated into a time of deep quiet. We engaged in some times of quiet chanting that seemed to build on that resonance. There were quiet readings, sometimes of scripture, but often of other reflective texts. All of this was intersperced with times of silence and built on that sense of sacred presence. When it was over we just sat there in silence for a time. Each person would rise quietly and leave when the time was right for them. The only word to describe this experience is worship which is a word I would almost never use to describe my church experience.
The great insight here for me was that I left the retreat knowing what I was longing for that was missing from my church experience. Even if this is not available regularly in my church experience, there is something very satisfying in just knowing what that ever present disatisfaction and longing was all about, and knowing there was in fact “worship” that could speak powerfully to me personally.
Interestingly, when I shared this with Drexel he suggested that we try developing a similar service in our church in the evening and see how it would work
When I teach and write about the spiritual journey I stress over and over again the importance of taking quiet time to listen to that sacred inner voice where that Mysterious Other we call God speaks to us and guides us and gives us strength and courage. I stress the importance of paying attention to the various “opportunities to practice” that our active lives often provide. I also stress again and again that the ultimate goal of the spiritual life is what the monastics call “divine union” which in its simplest turns is allowing that sacred inner voice to more and more guide us and all of the events that make up our active lives. This retreat was a powerful reminder of the importance of these principles in my own life.
I trust that these reflections will challenge you to reflect on similar issues in your own spiritual life.