On Retreat: A God's-Eye Perspective

Snowmass, Colorado. As I start this reflection, I am finishing my annual retreat, this time at St. Benedict’s Abbey way up in the Rockies (and not very far from Aspen), where I’ve spent the last 10 days. Making an annual retreat is a wonderful thing, both for spiritual reasons — deeply imbedded in the Jesuit tradition — and for the quiet and respite it gives in the midst of a busy life. As Jesus said, Come away for a while, and rest.” Spiritual, mental, and physical rest go together, surely.

   St. Benedict’s — “Snowmass” — is a Trappist monastery founded in the 1950s. It is a notably welcoming setting for those preferring to be really alone, in simple but quite adequate housing. The retreatant is provided with a fine little “hermitage,” a small house, really, with a sitting room/bedroom area, a kitchenette, and bathroom. Retreatants are on their own, for food as well as finding their way spiritually (since the monks do not direct retreats), but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and some monks are occasionally available for advice or conversation. The entire scene is serene and quiet; my only visitor was a deer looking in my window early in the morning, occasionally with two fauns. It is a three-quarter of a mile walk across the valley to the monastery; guests are welcome to join the monks for prayer, recitation of the psalms, and readings at 430am, 7:30am (accompanied by Mass), and 7pm.

   I brought along just a few things to read — most notably, A Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s journals so wonderfully edited by Robert Ellsberg. But I read little, sat for long periods of time, and tended simply to take in the view. For the valley itself is most striking. About 9500 feet in elevation, it is surrounded by hills reaching higher, with mountains in the distance, snow-capped even in July. The result is a great open space; no matter where you are during one’s time of retreat, you can see everything, where you are coming from, where you are going. Even when I took walks in the surrounding hills, the view was more or less the same, only seen from different perspectives. At night, of course, the sky is vast and seemingly endless, the Milky Way in full glory, stars everywhere. For views of the monastery and surroundings, go to St. Benedict’s Abbey .

   I suppose each retreat setting has its own genius, but in three visits to Snowmass in the past decade, I have found that this particular setting places the retreatant in the situation of seeing spiritually what the geography suggests — seeing our whole life, the beginning and the end, all at once and in every direction. While this could be a frightening scenario — seeing everything, nowhere to hide, no doubts left — it is a gift of this holy place, that like nature itself, the vision rather promotes a certain equanimity. Life is deprived of its smaller dramas — what’s around that next corner, beyond those obstacles — yet, when it is seen as a whole, given already in fullness, even before life is finished, this must be something like a God’s-eye view. It certainly cannot be the only way to look at human life — the micro-dramas matter intensely — but once in a while, it is a good idea to see everything at once, as God might see us.

   If you can some day visit Snowmass, please do; if not, seek out some place that illumines your state of spirit, heart, and mind, and learn there to see yourself as God sees you.


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