30 August, 2017

Retreat, Renewal, and Arrival: From Gethsamani to Trumplandia

The Wild Man doesn’t come to full life through being “natural,” going with the flow, smoking weed, reading nothing, and being generally groovy. Ecstasy amounts to living within reach of the high voltage of the golden gifts. The ecstasy comes after thought, after discipline imposed on ourselves, after grief.― Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men 


It's good to get away. It's good for me and it's good for my family, too. It's not that they don't love me or that I don't love them. But sometimes I go away for a bit BECAUSE I love them, and I'm very lucky that they understand this part of me that has cost me jobs, relationships, and respect.

Not that I've gone out on a proper jaunt in a while. I haven't, really. And it's not that they would hold it against me  (much) if I did. But it's difficult for me to plan a jaunt with an end point. Jaunts, for me, are by nature open-ended.  Sure, there's some kind of end point -- or a break point, I should say. Generally when I jaunt, it's simply a way to amble between stops, as I traditionally break up traveling with visits. And while the visits are always wonderful, my jaunts more about the motion. Travel is it's own kind of meditation.

But there are other forms of meditation. At least twice a year, I try to get out to the Abbey at Gethsemani, outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. If you're not familiar with this Trappist monastery's significance, beyond the religious, it was also the monastery where Thomas Merton lived and worked and wrote. His hermitage is still off limits to non-Religious folk. But as a retreatant there, you can walk the same woods, soak in the same silence. It's not necessary to be Catholic, or to be particularly religious at all. They operate the retreat house based on the Benedictine Rule of Hospitality. This rule is one of five Benedictines base their daily spiritual practice around.

I go there for the silence. There's a special quality to the silence there. While the monks don't actually take a vow of silence, they do try to cultivate silence as part of their practice of  active listening and worship.

There are some kinds of silence that are empty. This kind of silence works like a vacuum, a black hole in the brain and in the heart just eating everything around it, never to be sated.

Then there's another kind of silence. This silence fills and pushes out the constant white noise that seems to fill every part of contemporary life. I go and wander the west trails, or sit in the chapel during the singing of the The Hours or when it's empty. There's a rejuvenative quality to the silence that I find helps remind me of things. Like how important daily practice is. Like how important it is to work to cultivate silence in my daily life... not just for the sake of practice, but so that I can actively listen. The Benedictine rules of prayer, work, study, hospitality, and renewal aren't as easy to apply to life here. But I think they're good rules to live by. They echo the language I've read from other spiritual leaders, including Buddhists like Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The challenge for me be active in my practice, especially when I feel so pulled by events out in larger Trumplandia. I left for retreat watching people fight over unnecessary monuments to people who were not heroes and should not be treated as such, and wondering if the solar eclipse was itself going to be eclipsed by nuclear war with North Korea.

It made a certain amount of sense to me, since Trump doesn't do anything new. It's natural that he would take up an old war to make his own (and to avoid possible impeachment) because that's how he's made his way in the world -- copying other people.

I came back to find out that he's decided to make Afghanistan is war -- which actually makes more sense because North Korea, while a credible threat, doesn't quite measure up to his hubris. He made some noise towards Venezuela, too. But that, too, doesn't have the grandiosity that, say, stating his intention to march into Afghanistan does. This puts him on par with every other deluded historical leader who has had the same intentions.

Whether a person is religious or not, whether a person is spiritual or not, whether you don't believe in the historical existence of Jesus, the fact is that the idea of a Living Christ (in the vein discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ) isn't a bad one to use as an example. The monks at Gethsamani practice the elements they see in the life of Jesus as an active, spiritual practice. And even if you're not spiritual, there's nothing wrong about being mindful (a kind of prayer), as well as focusing on good and useful work, practicing hospitality, and being open to renewal. As a writer, I see a lot in common between renewal and revision. Life is constantly under revision. If it isn't, then it's not a life. It's a dead, useless monument.



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