Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Sunday Morning Thought

Sometimes the message you need to take to heart springs in front of you as you're quietly walking along.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Surprise of Family in the Loire Valley

It was another June not too long ago, and the world economy was friendlier to the American dollar. Marc and I were heading to France for two weeks in Paris as a celebration of his fiftieth birthday. Friends would join us for part of the time, but I had decided to spend a couple of days on my own outside the city in some setting conducive to retreat and recollection. It had been my dream to find a quiet Romanesque church in the countryside for my time of prayer. One website I consulted linked a Benedictine monastery in the Loire Valley with French poet Max Jacob, a Catholic convert from Judaism who had died in the internment camp in Drancy in 1944.

I could not have found a more fitting site than Abbaye de Fleury in the village of St.-Benoit-sur-Loire. The afternoon of my arrival I was able to pace up and down the sun-filled aisles with only the rarest of tourist visitors to interrupt the silence. There were tapers to light and occasional vases of garden flowers to enjoy throughout this abbey church, parts of which date as far back as the seventh century.

One day I ended up almost by chance at the tomb of Max Jacob in the village cemetery an hour’s walk from the abbey. It hadn’t been clear to me at first that planning such a visit would actually fit the nature of my days of retreat. After all, it was the abbey church itself that had been Max Jacob’s passion. I had come to understand what it would be like for someone to become attached to this place of prayer and to think of it as his own. Kneeling in a spot marked by a commemorative stone as Max Jacob’s favorite place of prayer, I had felt close to the spirit of this man.

One afternoon’s cooler weather, however, prompted a walk through the surrounding countryside. I was glad to see the basilica from various angles across the fields. The magic of its immensity rising above trees and green and gold expanses of Loire Valley growth was breathtaking. These walks, I realized as I followed the simple paths, were ones Max Jacob himself had regularly made. I did not expect that one of the collections of houses in the near distance surrounded the village cemetery in which he was buried. Locating his gravestone with little difficulty, I settled into a visit both unexpected and moving.

Sitting by his tomb, I sensed a friend was near. This friend, I began to feel, had called out somehow to me and brought me to this church and even to his tomb. I was able to talk to him there that afternoon and thank him for giving me this experience of a place of prayer so beautiful and majestic. I thanked him too for wanting me there. I realized how much I wanted him as an older brother, someone who would know what I was about in my life and in my prayer. I sensed that I would need someone to help me grow into an older man and into a prayerful man. I sensed that his own experiences of loneliness could prepare me to expect and accept them when they came.

Do we keep calling to people to be our friends even after we have died? I wonder.

It seemed so that day in St. Benoit-sur-Loire.

Photo of St.-Benoit-sur-Loire by antiguide

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ten Views of a Retreat House Dining Room

Summers typically find me with a plan to make a retreat. This summer is no exception; in fact, I received a confirmation today that a space is available in a nearby retreat house the first weekend of July. Last year I began writing about what someone new to making retreats might expect on a first venture. I offer here ten perspectives on a key part of the retreat experience.

1. Like the refectory in ancient monasteries, the dining room of a retreat house is a community room. Like the chapel, the dining room tends to be of a size that can provide us a sense of personal space in the visible company of others. The dining room is an acknowledgement of our ordinary human needs and the care and attention that they require; the dining room can serve as a reminder of the care and attention that those needs ordinarily do or do not receive from us.

2. In most cases, the dining room is a place we can count on being three times each day of a retreat. This commitment of time is not a negligible part of the schedule of a retreat. The dining room is ideally a place where the atmosphere of the retreat is not interrupted, where the graces of retreat actually have a chance to grow and deepen. Even in situations where part of the dining room is reserved for the retreat facility staff or actual residents of the house, a section of the room can be dedicated to individuals or groups on retreat.

3. The experience of stopping at very definite times in the day to go to a meal may be different from our usual daily schedule. For many of us, what is also significantly different about each of the meal times in a day of retreat is that we are not responsible for planning and cooking and serving the meal; we are not juggling lots of other activities and claims on our time in order to find those minutes when we can fix a meal and then eat it in peace.

4. Some of us will be early to meals; some of us will report to the dining room promptly at twelve for a meal listed on the schedule for noon; some of us will be able to wait for the initial press of people to have gone through the serving line before darkening the door of the dining room. The expectations of the leaders of the retreat and the customs of the house (for example, a common grace at the start of the meal) will be factors in making the decision when to show up.

5. Some of us are not used to sitting regularly with a number of other people who are not related to us or known to us. Social instincts that come from eating out with friends are not always easy to put aside. Without the responsibility or distraction of conversation, we are left with our own thoughts at a meal during retreat. It may be a different experience for us to be able to sit at a table in silence and to eat a meal at our own pace and not to have to take care of others. Our sense of being indispensable to someone else’s comfort or of having our worth or importance defined by the role we play at home may be challenged.

6. At a meal during a retreat, the needs of others for anything more in the way of companionship than quiet proximity are not our concern. That suspension of our normal roles may leave some of us sad or confused or even a little lost, and it may be helpful to talk with one of the retreat leaders about this reaction if it affects our mood outside of mealtimes. This is the kind of opportunity that retreat provides some of us – hearing other voices within asking to be heard rather than those of the people by whom we are normally surrounded.

7. Water pitchers or serving dishes may need to be passed from one diner to another, and signaling our neighbors about our need for these items may take practice. Some retreatants have a knack for making items available to their neighbors while not intruding and demanding another’s attention or thanks. It is not normally considered rude to refrain from saying thanks to someone who provides you with an item at the dining room table during a retreat. There ought to be a shared sense of responsibility and respect for someone else’s recollection. We sometimes just want to stay with our own thoughts; we may be remembering the people with whom we last shared a meal twenty-four hours ago or even twenty-four years ago.

8. There may be pleasant surprises on the serving table at the place where we are staying. I myself rarely think of having anything more at home than a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee for breakfast. I sometimes enjoy eggs and bacon and toast on a Saturday or Sunday morning when there is more leisure to plan a meal and eat it. One retreat house, however, regularly makes available at breakfast a plate of cheeses and a choice of breads, and I have come to relish the different way of eating that those items enjoin on me when I am there. I get to use my hands with a breakfast like this – not just moving food with a fork or a spoon. There is something contemplative and soothing about the mood those actions engender.

9. There are occasions when the fare at a retreat house or a religious house may not match the variety of the meals or the quality of the ingredients to which we are accustomed. There may be something about our own adaptability or sense of entitlement that becomes apparent to us then. We might remind ourselves that at times it is easier for us to grouse about food than it is to face squarely the parts of our life about which we are ashamed or angry or in grief. On the other hand, most settings will be explicit about their ability or readiness to accommodate diet restrictions that result from serious health concerns.

10. From time to time, something about eating a meal in silence or just eating a particular food prepared a particular way will tickle us. In a similar vein, we may find that the best-intentioned courtesy on the part of one person at table strikes deep at someone else’s sense of the ludicrous, and the urge to giggles will come close to the surface. The more the people at a table know one another from other circumstances, the more likely the incongruity of eating a meal in silence with others will hit our funny bone. We ought to be easy on ourselves at those times and just enjoy this reminder of our lack of control.

Photos of Loyola Hall, Manresa in Gozo, and Connors Family Retreat Center at Boston College

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Memories of Last Summer

There was lightning on the mountains.

Whenever the skies behind the evergreens on Dartmouth campus darkened last July, I made sure to head inside.

My favorite place to watch a thunderstorm roll in was the Tower Reading Room in the Baker Library.

In a century-old room of endless shelves and dark paneling, a green plush chair faced each of the twenty-pane windows that opened onto the Dartmouth Green. Arriving between classes during the Summer Institute of the Classical Association of New England, I was able to settle into something like a private arbor, enclosed by bookcases to my right and to my left. They made possible an easy scan of well-worn spines and titles when my attention occasionally wandered from the book of Ovid on my lap.

If Mount Olympus is the home of Jupiter Tonans -- Jupiter the Thunderer, then there was something Olympian about this vantage point from which to watch storms move over the mountains and onto the Green.

If Mount Parnassus is the haunt of the Muses, then there was also something Parnassian about this vantage point from which to watch the mythological storms move across the pages of the Metamorphoses.

Menagerie, phantasmagoria, tapestry, scroll -- the tales of Ovid, both those that were familiar and those that felt thrillingly new, burst upon me those four days in July with delight and luxuriance and ferocity.

And then the surprise.

Early one morning I walked to a nearby church for services and listened to a reading from the Book of Genesis -- the familiar story of Joseph in Egypt. In Chapter 42, Joseph has not yet revealed himself to his brothers who have come to beg food during a famine. Unaware that this Egyptian governor can understand their language, the brothers talk to one another about Joseph and about the brutality with which they treated him long ago when they sold him into slavery:

"Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us."

Joseph chooses not to show his brothers that he knows what they are saying and what they are feeling. Their words, nonetheless, have touched something in him and brought it back. The reading concludes:

But turning away from them, he wept.

Another ancient story in a week of ancient stories. Another metamorphosis in a week of metamorphoses.

And this one struck home.

Will the adult Joseph at the height of his professional wisdom and stature be willing to change back to a younger Joseph, to re-enter a landscape where love and hurt are still fresh realities, to speak for the first time the saving news of who he is?

Of course he wept.

Breakthroughs are a sign, Ovid suggests, of the presence of the gods.

There is lightning on the mountains.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bookbinding on a Green Mountain

Above the storefronts of the Vermont town rose the tree-covered crest of a mountain.

On a lunch break from our bookbinding workshop this past weekend, a handful of us ate our sandwiches and drank from cold bottles of root beer. Seated at a table next to the glass front of the sandwich shop, we looked down a quiet Main Street at this once busy factory town.

The nearby arts center was one of a number of ventures reflecting the community’s determination to become a place more people wanted to visit. The bookbinding workshop was not the only arts program offered that weekend, and the inn where a number of us were staying allowed us to swap impressions – invariably positive ones – of the instructors brought in for the classes at the center.

Unassuming and simply dressed, the man offering the bookbinding workshop owns and operates his own press in upstate New York. We got to handle samples of his work, each volume marked by a careful attention to color and texture and dimension. The simplest of his projects was exquisite. I was encouraged by the confidence he had that we could acquire the skills needed to get ourselves well started in this work. His dedication to the artistry possible in bookbinding was inspiring, and I found myself at times in the weekend hoping to go further in the crafting of books, perhaps even under his tutelage.

Those of us staying in the inn also got to share brief stories about our lives and our interests. Each of us seemed to have a tale about someone in our workshop with more experience or talent than we could yet claim for ourselves. What was sometimes harder for us to share was the motivation that had led us to take this time off from our normal lives. Which of us was ready to explain how the world of the artist – or of the artisan – promised something for which we had not yet given ourselves enough time in those normal lives we had constructed over the years?

No one enrolled in the bookbinding workshop was under the impression that the kinds of small books we would be creating were rare or unavailable in paper and stationery stores closer to home. The internal invitation we were each answering was about daring to become different kinds of people – people who were growing in the belief that their lives could sometimes be about creating things that were important because they were our personal handiwork.

Probably none of us felt quite so odd or quirky for having the urge to create something with our hands once we found ourselves in this weekend community of artists and artisans. Watching someone else sewing together the pages that she had cut and folded herself and then catching her eye when a book of her design lay compact and finished in her hand was a delightful collusion – to draw on the Latin roots, a playing together at something at once diverting and transformative. There was a kind of conversation available to two such people that would not be possible with many others. In this way, the experience of the weekend workshop at times reminded me of the experience of retreat. The benefit of the time away was not only to take time to practice certain skills or postures or perspectives but to pursue a goal in the company of other individuals who were responding to a similar urging in their own lives.

I would like to return one day to that Main Street and that tree-covered crest of a mountain.

Photo of Bellows Falls, VT uploaded on Flickr by LinnMarr

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gray Afternoon

A transplanted Southerner, I have had thirty years' practice watching New England weather change dramatically from one day to the next. The traditional summer months particularly surprise me when a day like today -- damp, cool, gray, rainy -- can recall for me something of Louisiana winter.

Some of that wet greyness is captured in a YouTube video shot in Venice in January 2007. The cemetery island of San Michele captivated me when I took a vaporetto ride out there a few years back, leaving my travelling companions one morning to their more cheerful pursuits along the Rialto. Watching the foggy afternoon in the video, hearing the familiar motor of the vaporetto, and counting the lights marking the route from San Michele back to Venice managed to get me into a reflective mood today.

Isola San Michele by anglofille on YouTube

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fierce June Color

This first week of June is witness to the arrival of fierce color in our yard and in the beds along the side of our New England house. The full work slate of the next two weeks can be momentarily forgotten after I pull the car into the garage at the end of the day. I get to stand in the driveway then and look at the rhododendron blooms that mark the back border of the property.

Balm in Gilead.

Photo of rhododendrons from the Virtual Rhododendron Garden