A Few Days with the Monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan
When the year tumbles from Epiphany into Lent, my wife reminds me to set up my annual retreat, this year again to St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan. I returned this weekend to the bishop’s visit and the swirl of an active parish. We were reminded a couple of times by the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hoagland that we are now the largest congregation in the diocese, which was nice and also a challenge. I hear that and a list cascades down in my mind of the things we are doing, should be doing, and according to plan will be doing in the next year. And beside that is a list, no a web of names that spreads out of who and when each step and conversation should be had. Work. And like every system that reaches out into the future it quickly becomes a chaos. A storm cloud and a wind.
Now, wind and rain are good for the farmer and the crop, but the farmer’s anticipation is a work and shelter. I have been planning, implementing, coping, and planning, implementing and looking ahead for a while out of these last five years of discipleship and growth into the future with plans and hopes. I have been implementing past plans and coping with blowback from decisions, some good and some bad, and change and growth and challenges. But then there is the putting your head down and planning the next while . . . you get the idea. It has been a busy and productive time of ministry.
And when the webs and lists become a chaos of storm clouds on the horizon, it is usually time to pull away into the arms of the Lord of my life. I do this in little daily doses of prayer and meditation, and in regular runs into the wild. (Road running is prayer, but the wilderness is another thing altogether.) But the daily doses are not enough, and my wife spots it and reminds me to go away.
Retreat. To pull away into God’s presence can happen anywhere, of course. I have camped in the wilds of desert and forests. I have been alone. But these days I really find myself held by the community at St. Gregory’s. The monks and a few visitors, this year a principal of a Canadian Christian school and an aspirant for holy orders from another diocese, and the rhythm of the Hours of the Benedictine Rule. Rising for prayer at four in the morning keeps my retreat from devolving into vacation. It also means that I am set day by day, hour by hour, on course for the wandering.
It is time to let the Logos be my logic and order, to reorder my internal world. It is not so much active, though I have things to do and study, but rather soul massage. This year I started learning the Hebrew language, again, and I read a novel and studied. I wrote a letter and set some courses for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations. I prayed a lot. I ran ten miles or so.
It was quiet. These hours of rising into activity and thought were balanced by the settling back into the quiet embrace of God. I know that this type of thing often gets somehow reserved for clergy, and it seems that most lay people do not pull away until life wrecks them. I think this is a mistake. Time away with God, daily, weekly, and annually, is part of a natural rhythm of life. Wise farmers let the fields lie between activities, hay to dry and recovery between crops. We are no different.
God is our root and source, our life and logic. We need time to set our roots down deep and to grow them into the soil. Growth does not happen well in the seasons of growth and change. It is warped by our plans and implementations. We can let the logic of our desires and hopes slowly change our patterns of maturation away from God’s good intentions. It is not that there is necessarily wrong in it, but I have discovered a “not the best” tendency over time that twists me inside a little with too long a season without times to reorder. If I am to have something to offer, love or wisdom, listening or word, I have to stay set deep into the source of agape and sophia, quiet and voice.
My life is a harvest of wisdom and love, or at least I hope so! But I am not the source of those things. As Wisdom’s daughter at Grace often says, “I can’t whoop that up.” I need God, and I need God in doses beyond the minimum effective dose for me. I need the abundance of God that comes with time. The I Am of God takes time, and I am not shepherd beyond the wilderness following my father-in-law’s sheep in the quiet wilderness of Sinai. I have to create and protect the time.
Jesus is the Word in John’s Gospel. That philosopher-poet who wrote John takes a hymn to Sophia and replaces Holy Wisdom with the word logos which we translate as the word. This word is only a hint at the multivalent vocabulary of myth and philosophy that lies behind logos for the Greek philosophical tradition. It was the name used for the force that gave order (logic) to the chaotic swirl of undifferentiated elements of creation in neoplatonism It is the root of our words for logic and areas of study. It is word in the Levi-Strauss sense of vocabulary of meaning. To say that Jesus is logos is very much like saying that Jesus is the Tao. Jesus is the order of creation. Jesus is wisdom, if you understand what they meant by Holy Wisdom; he is the wisdom of the world.
Now wisdom is not just a figure to be known, like a mystery or a person you can only meet in one place. Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is both a figure like the Holy Spirit, part of God and with God in creation, ordering and creating with God, but she is also the very order of things that can be observed in the dance and order of creation itself. To say that Jesus is Wisdom is to make some claims about knowing him and the world itself. This is, as I used to say to the children at St. Michael’s Day School, a very big idea.
The person of Jesus is my logos, my logic, the word that created me and creates me, orders me and gives me life. But in the midst of my plans and implementations, I tend to get twisted around and start to think (in my own disordered way) that I can speak the word myself. I have to be reordered. So I retreat.
I retreated into the order of St. Benedict, into the rhythm of prayer and work, running and learning, wilderness and wild deer, turkey, and foxes. I retreated to St. Gregory and the arms of God, the whispered words of Psalms and prayers like a father’s tender words sung into my soul for my re-alignment to his order, and the fields within me grew wild and rich again as I got rerooted into my Lord.