I was on a hermit retreat the weekend I wrote this. The questions I was asking myself at that time were: what am I doing here; what am I after? On the surface, going to the retreat was my response to an invitation by my friend Sue to spend some time alone at her hermitage, Sacred Root Refuge.
At the time of the invite, I didn’t seriously examine the question of why go on a solitary retreat. Spending time alone seems a part of my personal makeup. True, I have been less observant of this habit in recent years due to the demands of family, work and community involvement. Still, a human being can be characterized by earlier habits. Spending time alone was certainly one of my earlier life habits. I was excited to have such a gorgeous opportunity to reacquaint myself with that habit while at Sacred Root Refuge.
The difference this time around, however, was significant. I was not at a monastery or convent or any other group facility, certainly not at an organized retreat setting. For the first time in my life, I was completely alone and off the grid. I will touch upon this reality of aloneness some more in a bit. And so my reflections …
On the bright side, this place speaks with amplified volume about its creative owner Sue. Such a lively, loving spirit in human form! There are artifacts all over this place testifying to her deep insights into life and human nature. Her hospitality and her deep care for others is unmistakably here. In her wise compassion, I know Sue will give me space to fully experience my experiences. She will not intrude until I have left this place for home again.
Am I lonely? A little bit, I admit. As time passes, I notice the feeling getting more pronounced. I catch myself looking through other people’s imagined eyes. I think as though thinking through other people’s minds. Even when rubbing my hands around the trunk of a small, smooth tree, I wonder about the similarity between the limbs of the plant and the limbs of a person. “You are always on my mind,” go the words to that Willie Nelson song. Persons are always on my mind, it seems. My wife Jeanne, the kids, my friends and family, even my co-workers are on my mind, invited or not. “Here I am,” I say to them, absent though they may be. “I want to show you something,” I say to them who live like multi-colored shadows in my deepest being
So, why come away from all my significant others to be alone? Truth is, I came here partly to appreciate them more and partly to depend on them less. I want to depend on them less as instruments of happiness and more just as subjects through whom I can exercise and be exercised into the art and discipline of human love. Now, you may reasonably ask, what does all this mean, Ray? My intention behind it seems to relate to the lines of a poem I recently read by W.H. Auden, The More Loving One.
If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.
I sense a need to love less from a position of neediness and more from a sense of appreciation. Of course, love is not a competition, not a win-lose necessarily, but a non-zero-sum game that seems a lofty and unreachable goal most of the time. Thus, it seems that Auden’s insight that an ‘equal affection cannot be’ is the typical situation in the usual course of human life. It is a simple idea with often very difficult implications.
Jesus of Nazareth didn’t wait for equal affection from other human beings before undergoing the many difficult things involved in being the more loving one in his historical situation. One of my favorite quotes from Dostoyevsky, that love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams is showing up in another of my reflections.
The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that Jesus changed his missionary focus somewhere in the middle of his public life due to a confrontation with something harsh and dreadful. His initial optimism about an impending arrival of the kingdom of God in his lifetime ran into a brick wall. The harsh reality is that human beings were not sufficiently able or willing to accept the challenges or changes implied by thy kingdom come, thy will be done. What was Jesus to do? Give up? Go home? Join a monastery? Instead, it seems to me, that Jesus, knowing the outcome would be a train wreck for his original plans and possibly a lynching for himself, deliberately decided to set his face towards Jerusalem. In other words, he decided to fully engage with the humanity around him in a relationship of unequal love.
What does this message have to do with you or me? Am I like Jesus? Only if I continue to strive to be a truly compassionate human being. It is all well and good to begin, like Jesus, in the wilderness where human nature comes closer to nature herself. The wilderness, like Sacred Root Refuge, is a supercharger for the human soul, but one is not meant to stay there. My task is not to find and then move permanently into some version of Shangri-la. I know I will eventually get lonely on the mountain slopes.
It is the same story by the river Jordan, where John the Baptist lived, or even in the desert realm where the temple gate to heaven opened, ever so briefly, to Jacob, as in a dream. Such states of consciousness, dream-like or real, are fine as far as they go, but this follower of the Nazarene is being encouraged to turn his face toward civilization, as towards the modern day Jerusalem (or Washington D.C. or Cincinnati, Ohio), as Jesus did.
When I peek at Jesus’ playbook for the spiritually mature, it includes this word to the wise - be prepared for the distressful stripping bare of your most hoped for dreams, dreams like and they shared everything in common and all things work together for those who love. Additionally, prepare yourself to accept and honor the people who strongly disagree with you, who aggressively denigrate you, even if they actively move to constrict and to crucify you.
I know this is a far cry from what I was up to on this retreat. Nobody’s going to physically lynch me (I hope) when I get home. My experiences of peace and harmony, however, will certainly fall to the ground as I juggle all the demands and distractions of life once again. It is especially clear to me, after this time seeking greater perspective, that so much of the noise of being human is unnecessary and curable.
And yet, here we are - still in this imperfect world! When someone’s unnecessary behavior pulls my kingdom dreams apart, I can repeat the most noble words to have ever come out of a human being - Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
Can I leave this sacred, holy place with this attitude cheerfully instilled in my heart, until it becomes, like Jesus, a default mood of my very being? Have mercy on us all till then.