Tag Archives: retreat

How to pray: The joys of walking

A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.

Richard Gere as King David (1985) dancing before the ark (2 Sam 6)

Praying with my body

I was reading  a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.

But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.

But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”

The joy of walking

I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.

Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.

When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.

walking the brick road assisi to santa maria degli angeli
Strada Mattonatta, the ancient pilgrim road

My walking experience in Assisi

This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.

I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.

I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.

Knowing that I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.

So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear

I am not sure how it happened. But I realized early on that loneliness and my sense of isolation as a Christian had a lot to do with my infantile sense of being the center of the universe and unattended by those upon whom I was dependent. Later on I met God through Jesus Christ and I realized I was mistaken. In him is life. When I am alone I am actually alone with God. This experience completely changed my life. But it did not change without a process, like Lent. Thank God the season will be here again, soon.

Lent is a fruitful wilderness

Lent grows people who know they are one with God in their isolation and can act out of that oneness, even when they feel lonely. We know about many examples of people with the spiritual capacity to listen in the wilderness and then and act out of the oneness with God they find there, especially to speak what needs to be said to people who need to hear.

I offered a few stories about this to North Broad in December. Let me revisit two, starting with my own experience of the wind in the wilderness in my splendid and disturbing isolation one summer.

Palmdale without Palmdale

Back in the day, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few retreat times alone in the Franciscan Spirituality Center outside Palmdale CA. Retreating made me a little strange, but I learned to love my wilderness experiences, especially in the desert. I love the desert. I have often met God there. The monks would give me the room of a visiting monk, which was pretty nice compared to the other rooms. I was often there all alone. It was a splendid kind of isolation.

One time I drove out to the center and I just felt terrible. I think I was having some kind of marriage issue. I think my close friendships were in a mess. And I was in a general thirtysomething angst fog. I got to my room and collapsed on my knees next to the bed. I felt blank. It felt like I needed to force myself to stay there on my knees, since I was on retreat and all. But I had no prayers. Not even “Help.”

After a few minutes I began to relax and felt so tired. I lay my head on the bed. Almost immediately I felt a little breeze. I looked over and the window was open a crack — for fresh air from some thoughtful Franciscan. I instinctively laid my head back down on my praying hands, and there was the wind. Dry desert wind gently blew over me until I began to feel it filling me and blowing through me, moving my feelings and reminding me that the Spirit of God was with me.

It was the beginning of a significant retreat. I went away with a marriage change to effect. And I went back with a direction: get beyond yourself and give my word to people. I experienced for myself a pattern often recounted in the Bible. The word of God comes to someone in the “wilderness.” Then the word of God comes through someone as they speak it with passion, authority and courage (although sometimes reluctantly). This all results in the person having a real relationship with the Word of God, Jesus, himself in a deeper and more satisfying, if often trying, way.

Over and over God meets people in their wilderness

Throughout the history of the church, we see again and again how God finds these out-of-place individuals, a bit wild like John the Baptist, nervous like Gideon, incapable feeling like Moses, scared like Peter. They are all thrust into the wilderness in one way or another, receive the word, bring it, and change their world in significant ways. We aspire to be those people. That’s why we remember them in our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body blog.

On November 18 we admired Odo of Cluny (a French way to spell Otto). It is a high-minded name, usually for the upper classes. It means “possessor of wealth.” The Cluny region in France, where he ended up, has always been a little hotbed of edgy Christianity. Today Cluny is about twenty minutes from Taize (whose music we sing), not far from Citeaux (home of Bernard of Claivaux), and Lake Geneva (where John Calvin built his community).

When Odo, was a young priest in Tours, he read The Rule of St. Benedict for himself for the first time. He was stunned. He realized he was not much of a Christian. He decided to leave his home town and become a Benedictine monk. You can imagine how this made him a little strange. In 909 he went to Beaume, a monastery (unlike many) where the Benedictine rule was strictly observed, and Abbot Berno received him into the community.

That same year, Berno started a new monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. He established it on the pattern of Beaume, insisting on a rigorous application of the Benedictine rule, which, to be honest, is not that rigorous compared to other rules, so you can see how lax and lifeless communities can get (note to self). In 927, Odo succeeded Berno as Cluny’s abbot and spread its influence to monasteries all over Europe. It turned out to be a huge influence, probably one of the most amazing movements of the Spirit you have never heard about.

Odo went to existing monastic communities and talked them into returning to the original pattern of the Benedictine rule of prayer, manual labor, and community life under the direction of a spiritual father. Imagine how hard it is to get our congregations to change how they do stuff. He was a change agent when he came to visit. Under his influence, monasteries chose more worthy abbots, cultivated a more committed spiritual life, and restored the depth of their daily worship. Odo helped lay the foundation for a renewal movement that went on for 200 years and reformed more than a thousand monastic communities. Those communities transformed the religious and political life of Europe.

The word of God came to Odo in the wilderness of his nominal Christianity. Then the word of God came through Odo as he spoke it with passion, authority and courage — so much so that he started a revival and became a peacemaker between warring kings. All this because the word of God, himself, the risen Jesus came to him to get his mission started.

Where do you think the Spirit is leading now?

The same Spirit that moved thirtysomething me, Odo, and others brought us together as Circle of Hope. The word of God came to us in Philadelphia, in the wilderness of postmodernity and vacuous expressions of the church.

Those strange people at Tenth and Locust

That Spirit also isolated us in ways. While we might seem normal to us, the reforms we instituted make us loved and resented in the BIC. A man is flying in from Kentucky to consult with us this month because he thinks he is as strange as us. But our bishops are never sure we are really team players. We don’t get along with Trump Christians, we deploy women pastors. We welcome gay people, accept cohabiting people as married. We listen instead of fighting and think reconciliation is more important than being right. We love psychotherapy. We believe black lives matter. We abhor war and suspect guns. We love immigrants. We talk about Jesus all the time to liberals and celebrate Lent with our spiritual ancestors. We practice contemplative prayer and don’t put men or anyone else at the top of a pyramidical structure. It goes on.

We are ambitious. We might go to your monastery tell you what God showed us. We might follow a radical rule of life together right in your backyard. So we might get as isolated like Moses, feared like Odo of Cluny. That might be Lent for many of us – receiving the wind of suffering, struggle, change, and reform that often isolates the reformers while they are bringing people together in Christ.

What is the word that Jesus wants to get out there now? — any new mouthpieces being grown up in the wilderness around here? I know there are. Do not let anyone shut you up. Tell the truth no matter what it costs. Love your hearers even if they don’t understand you right off. Give them what they need even if they throw it back in your face. The message is old. It came as a variation in the 900s and 1980s. But it always has a unique slant. What are you feeling? What does the wind of the Spirit blow into your mind and heart? Trust it!

During Lent we deliberately open ourselves to the disruption of death and resurrection. The discipline season leads us to the end of ourselves so we can rise again. We become isolated so we can be joined with God and others in a new way. As we have repeatedly experienced, through our times in the wilderness we end up being the vehicles for the Spirit, who come with a word from Jesus uniquely tailored to the needy world of today. What an honor! No matter where the wind of the Spirit blows me, I am always honored to feel it at all.

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The Art of Retreat

I’m energized by the Men’s Retreat. Just getting over 90 men in one place at one time, focused as best they can focus on the Lord — either it will wear you out or get you going! It got me going. I came away with many good memories and an admonition — “Let’s go ahead and change, Rod.” There are changes to be made.

I think changing may be the art of retreat. We need to go, get out, be away in order to stay, go forward, be present. Making that intentional change of pace for a weekend often breeds unexpected development. I think I am having that experience right now.

A view of our forest-found-object art

Our small group, motley crew that it was, symbolized the art of retreat with some retreat art. Obviously, when you look at the picture, you have to think, “I guess you had to be there.” True.

Our master’s-piece mostly derived from the camp’s giant compost pile. Our initial idea was to raise up some fallen, decaying nature in praise to the Lord (or something like that). But men like to build things; so our art piece sort of took on a life of it’s own. It kept changing until it provided enough interior space for something that ended up looking like an altar in the heart of it. Someone spontaneously dared us to circle the altar without destroying the structure — which we each accomplished as exactly who we are. It was trail of bowed-down men on a journey through the heart of fallen creation raised up in worship. I’m not kidding — at least that is what I was doing.

My symbolic journey has turned out to be a surprisingly abiding memory. (And I can’t forget Brian Dwyer lithely moving through it at comparatively breakneck speed, either). The memory is a good motivation for change. The whole weekend was a means to get moving — I had to get to the retreat place. I had to get in the group. Then I had to fall down a couple of times extracting limbs. I had to negotiate the vision of our art with my brothers. I had to shamelessly move around the altar like Samuel raising his Ebenezer.

Wonderful.

Today I am circling the altar in my heart and in my day. I have some more wilderness alive in me where Jesus is travelling with me.