Advent Retreat

Cloister, Holy Cross Monastery. Photo by Brother Randy OHC, from a previous winter.

Sunday. Holy Cross Monastery

The snow looks like confectioner’s sugar dusted upon a chocolate tort in this light before sunrise.  I prayed a variation of the Angelus when the monastery bell rang, weeping in my prayer and for the concerns in my prayer and for the sheer comfort of the familiar resonance of the bell itself.  But I stayed at the computer and didn’t go to Matins.

Another Advent Retreat at Holy Cross.   I love this retreat, and the freedom the participants give Brother Bede and I to experiment or adjust and build on what we’ve done before, although we do something different every year.  But the last few years, we have had a pilgrimage to the crèche, nestled in the sunken pool,  a circular area beneath the Chapter Room in the enclosure library. “The cave,” Bede calls it when we turn it into the manger-crib.

On this Saturday night pilgrimage we gather in the chapel and we each burn a piece of paper upon which we’ve written something we want to “leave behind” this Advent.   We light our papers with the Gospel candle and drop them into a huge black kettle used for the lighting of the New Fire at the Easter Vigil.  We process to the Chapter Room to wash in a large bowl, renewing, refreshing ourselves.  Then we process down a stairway and through labyrinthine ways, really, to the darkened library where  Sister Helena Marie provides a live soundscape for our meditation.  Last night people sat at the illumined crèche for a long long time. 

My interest in progression – moving from room to room, station to station, soul-scape through soul scape, journeys (Bunyan, Dante), labyrinths and ladders of perfection, of humility, of divine ascent, intensifies every year.  My thinking about progressions began when I read Teresa’s Interior Castle when I was in my twenties.  And I quickly discovered the mysticism of the liturgical year with its progression of conversion and purgation, dark nights, illumination toward union, all the modes of the Christian year mirroring the seasons of the soul with Pentecost’s dramatic “sending out” of the adept soul into a broken, troubled, suffering but beautiful world.  After the “year” (Grace’s Window) I worked on the “day” (Praying the Hours).   For that matter, any story arc does the same thing – sets up the circumstances and challenges and works them out dramatically until the moral triumph (hopefully).

Retreats mime this progression.  You begin on Friday night with some sort of event to shake the soul up.  Saturday you begin working on “it” whatever that “it” might be, Saturday night you again enter some kind of event to heighten or bring to a climax the potential for an unnamed experience.  On Sunday, you “unpack” what has happened and share insights and pull it all together in words and personal testimony.

I see my life, too, as a progression with its varied geographies, Long Island to Holland, Michigan to Boston to Washington D.C. to San Antonio to Northern California to Germany to several locations in the Hudson Valley with the monastery as our center, to Ithaca, and now  the convent- farm.  Each place presented moral and spiritual and personal challenges.  This phrase just now came into my head: “sadder but wiser.”  I hope I’m wiser.  At least, I found friends at each resting place who love me and whom I deeply love.  And maybe love is enough for a good life.

Today after the Eucharist we have our final session.  I’m anxious to hear if people “got” it – or deepened in some way, at least embraced the analogy of the soul’s endless resources of rooms within.  Christ and ultimately the eternal beyond-time at the center.  And, through Christ … beyond.

Purify our hearts, Holy One,
that Jesus Christ
at his coming
may find in us
a mansion
prepared for himself.

Let every heart prepare him room.

(adapted from collect for 4th week in Advent, and a Christmas carol)

 Afterword.  I’m pleased with the response to the Advent Retreat.  And I came home to candles in the windows of Saint Aidan’s House, a silvery cover of snow and the change-ringers bells filling the last light of day with brilliant sound.

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2 Responses to “Advent Retreat”

  1. blithe spirit Says:

    Many years ago I read ‘The Art of Memory’ by Frances Yates, and I can remember being enchanted by the idea of the palace of memory. You have inspired me to go and read some more. Thank you.
    And yes, you are right, for a good life, for a meaningful life, I think love is enough…..

  2. Su Murdock Says:

    Sounds like a wonderful retreat. I am heading off for a day of quiet and will carry some of these images with me. Thanks!

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