Snowmass, Colorado. The summer has swept by quickly, as I am sure you will agree. I had intended to blog for In All Things more than I managed to in the past weeks, but both time and inspiration were in short supply during the travels and writing projects of summer. In any case, this is a report – of no great import, to be sure, but perhaps of some interest to some – on my retreat at St. Benedict’s Abbey, Snowmass, Colorado, way up in the Rockies. As I reported the last time I was here five years ago, it is a spectacular setting for a retreat, simply for its natural beauty and for the gift of being near to the Abbey’s Trappist community, which welcomes you to prayer with them day and night. There seem to be about fifteen monks, with visitors from other monasteries, here and abroad, staying for a time. It is striking how the personalities of the monks begin to be manifest, even in silent prayer. Most well-known would be Fr. Thomas Keating and Fr. William Meninger, both leading figures in contemplative renewal world-wide. The Abbot, Joseph Boyle, is Regis High School ’59 (I am ’68), and he has been at Snowmass since two days after his Regis graduation. (Even Regians will be impressed by that!) The hermitages where guests stay are on the other side of the valley. You come and go as you wish, visitors joining the monks for the Hours, morning, evening, and even at 4:30 in the morning. All are welcome, of every tradition or none.
You can walk. There are wonderful places to walk in and around this valley in the mountains. Most easily, you can walk over to join the monks for the Hours in the Abbey, about three quarters of a mile walk, on an unpaved road that is largely flat or gently sloped, with spectacular views of the mountains and a chance to commune with the cattle and gophers along the way. (Cattle stare intensely, in a quiet sort of way.) If you are in reasonably good shape, you can also walk up to the rim of the valley, closer to 10,000 feet high (I am guessing) on faint trails (apparently used mostly by deer) that truly require discernment. Whether on the floor of the valley or near one of the peaks at its rim, nothing blocks your line of vision; you can always see, across unobstructed and vast space, in just about any direction. This nearly total openness is itself a metaphor for a retreat made with eyes wide open. I would add that this is a place of natural, innate silence, but in fact, during the day, there is a fairly constant chatter of birds and small animals and noisy insects. (But no noise from the deer, who in their sudden appearances seem to be utterly quiet beings.)
You can read. I do enjoy both walks, across and up, but I also need to sit quietly parts of the day. We are luckily out of the range of cell phone and wifi (I am writing this in the valley, but can post it only after the retreat), so one must bring along what one chooses to read (or use the small retreatant library or browse in the fine Abbey bookshop). Given my profession – ever reading, all the time – I don’t do much when on retreat, but do find some reading useful to break stale patterns of thought, stir new ideas. I have with me André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi, a superb scholarly reconstruction of Francis’ life and times (and noted by Kevin Spinale here in America, and a memorable, sad novel, The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre, about a priest in a small Canadian town today, struggling with his priestly identity in the face of loneliness and in the shadow of the sex abuse crisis of the past decade and in his very diocese. (The priest’s difficulty is due in part to the fact that he had not kept quiet and not looked the other way at instances of abuse. It is poignantly human, though thus far (I haven’t finished it yet) God is strikingly absent, unnoticed by the priest – but also by the author too? I also brought along the June-July Catholic Worker; reading it on retreat can be quite powerful: the simplest of testimonies of men and women, young and old, who have made lives out of living the Gospel, doing as Jesus did, a purity of witness that Francis of Assisi would recognize, and amazingly still fresh, some 75+ years after the CW was founded. More neutrally, I have two old copies of the New Yorker. It is striking what you can learn, of a spiritual nature and regarding human nature, if you work your way through any issue’s articles on the arts, books, politics, a take on the American scene today.
You can think. I also have time to ponder life, backward and forward. The book about which I have written here a number of times, His Hiding Place Is Darkness, a comparative reading of the theme of the beloved’s absence in the Biblical Song of Songs and the Hindu Holy Word of Mouth (Tiruvaymoli), should appear in October, from Stanford University Press. (Perfect Christmas gift for any member of the family…) Though even the absence of the beloved can be a great gift on retreat, if recognized as such, I have stayed away from the book. It is finished, after all, and I would only be tempted (in vain) to make further changes. I think ahead too. I will be on sabbatical this coming year, and thoughts about new projects come and go. (Sabbatical is surely a perhaps vanishing privilege of the professor, a rarity that many, many hard-working people need too. It also bears with it the expectation of new research and writing.) I have some small projects to work on – a translation project with a colleague; an essay, or series of essays, on the early Jesuit critique of reincarnation, in the two centuries before 1773 and the Society’s suppression. I have some book chapters and conference papers I’ve promised to write. Travel I casually agreed to, here and in India, Srilanka and Nepal, will eventually require preparation for lectures and classes. And most basically, sabbatical brings to the fore the prospect of a new book project. I am now doing very preliminary reading on a new project: how Hindu religious thinking pertaining to law and the interpretation of texts turned into a kind of systematic theology nonetheless very different from what happened in the West. The key materials (The Lamp of Tradition [Shastra Dipika], Garland of Ritual Theological Rules [Jaiminiya Nyaya Mala], etc.) are largely unfamiliar even among those who teach Hinduism, and it is fair to say that great majority of Hindus will not have read such texts either. (How many Catholics have actually read Abelard’s Sic et Non or Peter Lombard’s Sentences?) But the underlying issue is potentially important: how did and do Hindu religious intellectuals think through and organize the truths of their faith, outside the history of the Christian West? And how might we who are Christian learn from their alternate theological syntheses — that we might communicate better with Hindus today, in a way less indebted to what Christians instinctively think theology is? Such projects are definitely post-retreat and not for work as I write these words about them, but ideas for a new book often pass by as a wisp in the wind, stray insights that we can hold on to or let pass by, and what arises during retreat can make a difference later on. Even if praying and thinking are not the same, the intensity and purity of scholarship can presume that ideas, undeniably intellectual and rarified, arise from and mingle with prayer, partiuclarly in places like Snowmass, where everything inside and out is viewed in a unity that doesn’t harbor a firm distinction of “retreat” and “not-retreat.”
I might stop there, but the most obvious question lingers: aren’t you supposed to pray when on retreat? Of course, the main thing is to pray or, more simply, be with, encounter, see, listen to God; and certainly here you can pray. As mentioned, I join the monks in the Hours, but most of the day I am alone, and that is my primary time of prayer. For me at this point in my life, this prayer is necessarily unplanned, unorganized, unscripted time. I just make spaces. I plan things that need planning: my walks, my meals (here one shops and cooks for oneself), my bits of reading, when to sleep and when to rise. But the praying cannot be planned, and there is no need. “Be still and know that I am God,” we read in the Psalm. St. Paul advises us, “Pray always.” In the Exercises, Ignatius tells us to begin every time of prayer by an “act of the presence of God,” before moving into the planned next meditation. I have always found that presence, The Presence, more than enough for a retreat. (Even as a young Jesuit I rarely got through the actual meditations Ignatius prescribes.) Here, in this valley, surrounded by the very quiet hills and mountains, interrupted by all manner of wildlife small and large, and passing through the hours of day and night: all of it turns out to be places and times where God might visit, or not. (Some Hindu theologians have said that everything which is not-God is distinguished by names and forms we attribute to small portions of reality; remove those, and it is all God again. Not quite the way a Catholic might say it, but surely we can say something similar.) While this Presence is true every day of our lives, retreat is where we notice this dynamic most attentively: God’s Presence is where we are, when we stop fixing on anything else and let the smaller details for a time evaporate. And so, in a real way, the end of a retreat is as hard as or harder than the retreat itself. Afterwards, there is the task of finding a bit less of God, not seeing God in all things at all times, that the ordinary work of ordinary life might resume: instead of the magis, an Ignatian minus, so to speak: less and not more of God; veil God, and get back to work.