Cambridge, MA. I am just back from a month of travels, and offer that as my excuse for being absent from In All Things these past weeks. Nothing exotic — academic conferences and seminars in Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta — but then off to Dublin, Ireland, for lectures at the Irish School of Ecumenics and Trinity College —which gave me the opportunity to stay on for an extra week and make my annual retreat at Manresa, the Jesuit Spirituality Centre just outside the city. It is on the harbor, with a long, long beach for walks, and a very large St. Anne’s Park nearby. Several days I went over to Howth, a kind of peninsula out into the ocean, with a spectacular cliff walk and views of the ocean and city. All blessed by mild June days — 70 and sunny — weather not to be taken for granted in Ireland in June.
A lovely peaceful place, in a lovely setting: you are right if you think that this emphasis suggests that my retreat was more about sitting and walking and mixing with the elements, and less about words and reading and writing. Daily Eucharist, usually with Manresa’s Jesuit community, was a blessing, but even there it was a grace simply to be in “the congregation,” not even having to read, much less preside. I would even dare to say that although I was silent the whole time, alone most of it, as it were on a retreat schedule, I did little praying too, if you mean by “prayer” planned spiritual exercises carried out in a purposeful manner; even the Spiritual Exercises did not intrude much upon my retreat. I like to think that this non-action and non-deliberateness is compensation for spending much of my life doing too much talking and writing and planning ahead; to be on retreat is a time to leave behind our agent-self, doer-self, and instead to be with God, communing at a level whence little that makes it to a surface where we can hear or repeat what God says to us. It is rather simpler: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46.10)
Great retreat insight: once again, as on other retreats, I ended up admiring trees a great deal — and this time also the roses in the lovely gardens in St. Anne’s Park — since these living beings give a good and solid meaning to “vegetate,” that is to say, “be rooted, flourishing in a given place, growing there as the sun and rain and other gifts of God come and go.”
All of that was a gift, particularly since on July 1, while still hidden away on retreat, I officially became Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. Now I have lots to think about, worry about, and indeed, to do.
I am sure I will have much to write about regarding the Center in time to come (over the four years of my commitment), and you can read about the Center here. But for the moment, I highlight just one connection to what I have been saying: the Center too is most simply about having a center, being a center, less a place which generates its own business and busy-ness, and more about providing a quieter space, at the center of Harvard Divinity School and then too at the center of a University (that may not think of itself as having a center), wherein our professors’ and students’ energies can be released and allowed to flow across the boundaries of individualities and agendas and religions — in a context intentionally attentive to the meeting/s of religions, intellectually, ethically, spiritually, in today’s university and today’s American culture.
As I was a visitor to Ireland and guest at Manresa and gifted by nature in that beautiful space, perhaps I will accomplish something of the same if I start by seeing CSWR as itself a gift, space in which intellectual/spiritual things can happen at Harvard too.
Wish me luck, say a prayer!