Last week I attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at Mercy Center, which is part of their East-West Meditation Center. I’ve been on shorter meditation retreats, but this one had us scheduled for 7.5 hours a day of silent meditation. It was broken up into smaller chunks, but still. It was very challenging, and also very rewarding, and I’m so grateful I was able to attend.
First, about Mercy Center
I’ve been there many times for various retreats and conferences. It is like a second spiritual home to me. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, and not much has changed at all. I was struck by how worn down the path of the labyrinth has become. Many thousands of feet have walked it over the years.
The trees, birds, squirrels, and flowers all create a haven of peace and serenity. Inside it is quiet and homey, the food is delicious and plentiful, and the rooms are simple, cozy, and restful. If you’ve never been and are in the area, please check it out. You won’t be sorry.
About the retreat
There were between 20-25 people in attendance. Most had been to at least one of these before. Father Greg was the leader, a kindly, older priest with much experience in meditation. We were silent all the time, even at meals and in the hallways. The days were broken up like this: 6:30-8am – meditation, break for breakfast, 9:30-10 – meditation, 10-10:30 – talk by Fr. Greg, 10:30-12 – meditation, break for lunch, 2:30-4 – mediation, 4-4:30, walking meditation outdoors, 4:30-6 – meditation, break for dinner, 7:30-9 – meditation. We sat in Mercy Center’s Rose Room, a room specifically designed and set up for meditation.
I must confess that except for the first morning, I did not attend the pre-breakfast sessions. I just couldn’t make it. But I did the best I could. I walked the labyrinth every day. Sometimes it was easy to sit, and other times I couldn’t wait for the bell to sound! Such is the nature of meditation. I told Fr. Greg, “This is hard. I was expecting it to be hard, and I was expecting that it would be harder than I was expecting, but this is really hard.” He just smiled and nodded. Still, I said, that didn’t mean I wanted to give it up. He understood that, too.
My experience was that I vascillated between boredom and moments of intense serenity and awareness. So what did I learn, or find, or discover? What follows is “religious-y” stuff, so stop here if you’re not interested in that!
What I learned
Two things. Things that I had already been aware of, but became much more real to me during the week.
Forgiveness. Think of God’s forgiveness as a stream or river. We live in that river. We breathe in God’s forgiveness like fish take in oxygen in the water through their gills. But then they have to exhale, or they’ll drown. If we don’t pass on that forgiveness to others, we too will drown, in a sense. It’s a flow, a way to be alive. God forgives me, I forgive you, you forgive someone else, that person forgives me, and on and on. It’s not a shameful or punitive thing, it is how to be alive. And as we know, you “can’t step into the same river twice.” (How Zen is that?) In other words, the river now is not the same river as a minute ago. That water has flowed on, and this is different water. Everything that is alive changes constantly. So forgive as often and as much as needed (70 times 7?); that’s ok because the river is new each time. There’s always more in God’s river and it’s always new.
A mantra for life. We Episcopalians love our “three-legged stool.” It’s how we do theology: on the three legs of scripture, tradition, and reason. Take away one and it falls apart. There’s another three-legged stool:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Do justice. Love kindness (or mercy, in other translations). Walk humbly. They need to be in balance or it all falls apart. The arrogance of dogma has no place here.
Also learned much from Fr. Greg’s talks. He recommended a book, “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. (I ordered it and will read it as soon as I’m done with the class I’m teaching at church in December.) Set aside the male language for the moment. It relates all the new science about how the brain works, how the right and left sides talk to each other (or not), I’m very eager to read it. The book isn’t religious in any way, but the implications for the value of contemplative practices are profound. As he explained it, the right brain (the “Master”) sees the whole of everything available to it in each moment. In a few milliseconds, it transfers that info to the left brain (the “Emissary). The left brain chops up that info, categorizes it, dumps what it doesn’t think is important, and so on. That is what allows us to function, to remember the past and plan for the future. But much awareness is also lost. That’s all I can say about it without reading the book. But it made me think of all the things that humans have done over the generations to access the right side of the brain: music, art, meditation, walking the labyrinth, walking “widdershins,” (counter clock-wise), all to access the right side of the brain (which controls the left side of the body). Fascinating stuff.
That’s about it, at least what I want to share. Oh, and Mercy Center has this wonderful new piece hanging in one of the corridors. I was totally captivated by this painting – icon, really – of the resurrected Christ.