Scenes from the first day in Sydney

Scenes from the first day in Sydney
D, the Opera House, and the Bridge

Monday, April 27, 2009

Moving Beyond the Long Retreat

Greetings all,

This isn't quite the order of photos I wanted but I haven't figured out how to shift them. In any case, they might better be understood in reverse. This one above is a stained glass of the resurrection from the Cathedral in Adelaide; the next is of a cow and the calf she gave birth to in the third week of the retreat; the two pictures that follow are "before and after" shots of our group.

Several people have asked about the experience of the Long Retreat... for instance asking, "did it fulfill your expectations?" or "how did you manage the silence?" Some people have asked whether or not I feel changed by the experience. As you know, there are simply some events and experiences in our lives that have such a surplus of meaning and personal significance that it takes years really to understand them, let alone adequately express what they mean to us. The Long Retreat is like that. The 13 of us making the retreat each followed the general format that St. Ignatius outlines for the form and substance of the four weeks (focusing on the lights and shadows of our response to God's love, the life and ministry of Jesus, his final days and death in Jerusalem, and his resurrection); however, each of us also had a very distinct experience of what God's Spirit was doing in and through us.

I can only speak for myself here, but I found that the retreat brought up all kinds of old lines and patterns that I've been working on with God over the years, and then revealed in a rather deep and surprisingly integrated way how these lines and patterns connect. More specifically, I've struggled over the years, as perhaps many of us have, with my relationships to material possessions (excessive desire for security and comfort), with my need for the recognition and esteem of others (sometimes this can be so tedious for others in my life), and with my attraction to power and influence (I'm not quite a megalomaniac, but the potential is there)-- the basics, right? And beyond those things, (which are all good in their own right, but dangerous when they become attachments or idols), I have struggled with selfishness,vanity, anxiety around success and failure, resistance to authorities, fear of looking foolish or incompetent, etc. (I'm just hitting the highlights here.)

But on this retreat, God revealed something that is somehow at the heart of all this, and that is that I have an illusion of self-sufficiency-- of thinking that I know better than anyone else how to take care of myself... and then that somehow I have enough ability not only to take care of myself but of everyone else as well. This has made it difficult at times for me to accept being taught, led, and loved by others. This list is long, and it included God. Somehow, I have lived with this blind spot for a very long time, and gotten along fairly well in fact. But in discovering my limitations and powerlessness to work my way through a few challenges that came up on the retreat, the illusion began to fall apart. The beauty of it was that as my illusion of self-sufficiency was crumbling away, I began discovering a new level of faith in God's love. In fact, the image I had was of being held fast in God's "right hand" so to speak... of discovering just how finite I am and how this is exactly what God's needs in order to work through me.

I wish that I could express this more clearly, and in fact, it sounds trite when I re-read what I have written, but I hope that this makes some sense and that it might even resonate with your own experience. You may even be saying to yourself, "duh!" Of course you're finite and God is infinite! The fact is, some of us are very slow learners, and having a lot of education, training, and experience can actually get in the way. So, moving on to the next picture...

This calf was born on the retreat house property during the third week of our retreat. A cute little feller with a doting mom. A little wobbly, but what would you expect. But as I watched the mom taking care of and nursing this calf, I couldn't help but make the link with the retreat. If there is anything that Jesus wanted to make clear to us, it is that God longs to be in relationship with us as a loving mother or father is with her/his children. And while the notion of dependency may grate against us, I do not think that the relationship is so simple as a baby depending on her/his mother. The truth is that God delights in our maturity and in the development of all of the gifts we have been given... and that a degree of self-authorship is essential. But I never had such a powerful sense of how it grieves God when we live as if we can do it all by ourselves. Rather, I felt God calling me into an "interdependent" partnership, where we have a mutual relationship and mission in the world. Does this make sense? I know it may be simple sounding, but I know from experience that living this way takes day to day practice.

But enough of my blather... the bottom picture is our "before" shot and the one just below is the end of the retreat. In the blogs to follow, I will share pictures and stories from the bushwalking adventures that we had in Central Australia.


  1. I am curious about the relationship between "God revealed to me" and "I have come to realize" or even "I have have learned."

    I do not mean to make light of your realization or any of your professed weaknesses. Rather, as someone else who might be suffering under the illusion self-sufficiency, how do you recognize the differences between these?

    Do you feel that God might always be involved in your developing self-awareness? Do you feel that God was particularly invovled because of the nature of your Long Retreat? Do you think that your view of God's role in your Long Retreat is different now than it was before your Long Retreat?

  2. Alex,

    This is a great question and a perennial one in the context of theology. Essentially, it is the issue of nature and grace: where does one end and the other begin? Or perhaps more subtly, as we move from a dualistic way of thinking about the distinction between divine and human agency, how do we describe the way that divine agency works in, through, and sometimes despite human agency?

    It's been a while since I have thought/written about such things, but to ground it in my recent experience, I would say that while I was active in this process of discovery, learning, understanding, etc, so to was the Spirit of God involved in disposing me toward greater openness, freedom from fear of surrender-- and then helping to direct my attention to key issues and away from distractions. For instance, a great deal of my resistance was in relationship to my spiritual director, who had a very different style of directing than I like and am accustomed to. However, as the frustration and resistance became more and more intense, I also found myself repeating an old pattern of resistance to authority, rationalizing that "I know better." And as the pattern began to repeat itself, I began to feel rather hopelessly stuck in my own little hamster wheel, running and running without knowing how to stop and get out of the damn loop. That is when I had to come to the realization of my own limits to change myself, my old patterns and ways of relating to others... and as I surrendered to God, I "discovered" that the real issue wasn't my director or his style, it was this underlying illusion of my own self-sufficiency, a sort of pride developed over the years as a coping mechanism and defense... this was the real issue. So, I do feel like there is this subtle yet very real difference between what I can do under my own steam, so to speak, and what the Spirit, or Divine Agency, can facilitate.

    This may not be as clear as I would like it, but it is the best I can do on my first cup of coffee.

  3. let's pray that you will find the freedom to surround yourself less with people who might perceive you as more capable, strong and knowledgeable than they are, and stop hiding/ducking/resisting those who see through the facade

  4. I just found this reply from May 4. Not sure what to make of it. Anonymous, would you like to say more?