I spent the weekend at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. It was a great weekend and I now find myself in a transitional space somewhere between Compline and the Superbowl. It was a retreat rich in metaphors too, at one point, requiring the aid and assistance of a monk, priest, and a retreatent to free my car from a snow drift.
It was very also very cold in Spencer, but this meant the rare opportunity for us (eight retreatents) to be shepherded through the cloisters to the Abbey Church for the Liturgy of the Hours.
I took two books from my own library as sustenance. The first was God and the New Haven Railway by George Dennis O’Brien and the second was When God Says No by Daniel Lanahan. I finished the former, but didn’t get a chance to re-read the latter.
I also play my own version of library roulette at the Abbey bookstore and “found” a wonderful little title by Jean-Pierre de Caussade called Abandonment to Divine Providence. This is a beautiful book and it’s gift unloosed in the first pages:
“At first I suffered greatly under a load of business worries, which of course are wholly at variance to my love of silence and solitude. But God came to my aid and gave me the grace to stay quite uninvolved in all these affairs. My spirit stays free. I am not plagued by many visitors, because I myself pay visits only when duty and sheer necessity make them essential. My fellow Jesuits, who know my feelings, finish their business with me as soon as possible. They are well aware that it is not pride or misanthropy which make me shun society, so not one of them objects to my behavior and some of them even appear edified by it.”
My notes from the weekend are still mostly indecipherable and private, however, there are a couple of quotes from my reading material worth transcribing. The first couple are from George Dennis O’Brien:
“Humankind is not free to do even small, unspectacular things, but it is wholly free to give value both to what can and cannot be done with ten fingers and a sharp pencil. Humans have a story to play in which the principal motif is freedom and dignity. Nothing has meaning for humanity except as it is set into that story. Any human limitation from death to drowsiness waits for humanity to assign it a value. In my pursuit of fame or sainthood, I will decide whether sleep is a blessed relief or a bothersome bore. Is it not the fact of sleep that plays in the human story, it is the value. Thus, in sovereign freedom, humanity can turn aside from death, deity, or taxes and claim they play no meaningful role in the story. They occur, but they reveal nothing about the meaning of my life, which is devoted to my craft and sullen art.”
“In the natural end of death and the historical circumstance of abandonment, Jesus refuses to accept these events as definitive of the meaning of his life. Jesus triumphs over nature and history by that refusal. In this interpretation Jesus is an exemplar – perhaps even a unique exemplar – of the spiritual triumph of humankind over the lordship of nature and history. We are all called to a similar moral heroism.”
“The scientist transcending his untenured assistant professorship into the world of eternal truth, proof, and rational argument; the Stoic emperor or slave seeking a tranquil mind as the empire collapses; the Epicurean gardener walled into a quietude of nature while the great world wages without; the playboy/playgirl abandoning the cares of office in the timeless moment of erotic bliss―all these good folk, if they adopt their escape mechanism as the meaning of human life, have decided that mere humanity either cannot or ought not be saved. What is shocking about the Bible is that it suggests a salvation for humankind while its deity chooses human history.”
“If one chooses neither to retreat from the world nor to spruce it up to better standards, what is the alternative? What would it mean to “affirm the world”? One might imagine an attitude of quietude and acceptance. It would have to be a special sort of acceptance, however, not the quietude of despair.”
“To play in this game we must accept a set of theological rules. In this game we are necessarily involved with godliness. The name of the game is “Make a Life.” Act, re-collect, and reposition acts so that at the end life has been more than a tourist’s itinerary. Winning the game is being somebody. Losing is refusing to be somebody or faking it. For humans, being some-body seems to require being a definite or “restricted” somebody. We play this game in the valley.”
The last two are from Jean-Pierre de Caussade:
“Consider your life, and you will see that it consists of countless trifling actions. Yet God is quite satisfied with them, for doing them as they should be done is the part we have to play in our striving for perfection.”
“For, to him, everything is the same, equally useful or equally useless. Without him everything is nothing, and with him nothing is everything. We may meditate, indulge in contemplation, pray aloud, practice interior silence, live an active life or one withdrawn from the world, and though they may all be valuable, there is nothing better for us than to do what God wants at any particular moment. We must regard everything else with complete indifference and as something worth nothing at all. As we see only God in everything, we must take or leave all things according to his will, so that we neither live, nor develop, nor hope except as he ordains, and never try to use things which have neither power nor worth except through him.”
I endeavor now to untangle my notes and compare them to the ones made before my silence and solitude with the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer.