A Benedictine Retreat

Dear Friends at St. Paul’s,

I just came back from a retreat in Healdsburg, CA – a Benedictine Experience! Thought I’d tell a story about it …

Visiting my spiritual director last year, I scampered around her bookshelves, peering at titles of tomes. A small, slender volume squeaked from the shelf, its title faded, “Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict” by Esther de Waal. Nudging it out of its hiding place, revealed a sort of cheesy 80’s-style cover, but it passed the skinny-ness test.
“Not too long for my attention span, and not too heavy to lug back to San Diego!” I thought.

But more enticing were the purple and yellow highlighted passages in the book.
“Well, if she digested it – there must be something nourishing in there, and then there are Cliff’s notes!” I chuckled to myself.

This book promised to shed light on another book that I had read and frankly, hadn’t digested: The Rule of St. Benedict.

“Oh the Benedictines? They were before the split.” my spiritual director said. Okay, I guess that meant PG-13 reading then.

So, I legitimately borrowed and lugged the book down to San Diego and read it over the next few months. Wow, the book was slender, but rich and dense – picture slice after slice of flourless dark chocolate torte. Delicious and lots of calories. It was a lesson in moderation; I had to learn to ration the intake, or suffer spiritual indigestion from snarfing too much in one go – in one end and out the other – the choice between nourishment or nada.

Listening with the ear of the heart, prayer and work, hospitality …

What about the actual Way itself? Lucky for me, I got a call from my friend the spiritual director early this year, “There is this Benedictine Experience retreat – I think you would like it.”

And so I went on this spiritual time-share – a week with a bunch of strangers seeking to live Benedictine spirituality at a retreat center called The Bishop’s Ranch. As a scientist, this would be an interesting experiment indeed.

My first retreat ever, was last year and that was with a women’s monastic community in Augusta, GA. That was like dropping into another world. During that retreat, I remember becoming acutely aware as the week went on and I could listen better, of the baggage and mess that I brought to the monastic liturgy. The sisters’ hospitality shared their presence in space and time with the chaos that I brought. I brought myself as fully and consciously as I could. There was nothing I could do to lessen the ripples of unresolved spiritual mess that perturbed the chanting. Only God’s grace could begin to heal the unresolved garbage of a lifetime for a person who had never been on a retreat to listen to God. It was a very intense experience, and meaningful, intentional, gifted silence was a door the opened for me there.

A key question for me in this Benedictine Experience retreat was, if I could intuit the effect of chaos in the monastic liturgy with a bunch of monastics, how would chaos bear out in a temporary intentional community where each one of us brought a diversity of chaos? I was like the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, looking for healing to happen, hiding in the crowd. Something would be healed, but what and how?

At times, we did fall off the trolley in the liturgy. Wow, we really did have a lot of chaos after all.

As this week went on, I began to love these strangers and their voices in a way that was beyond knowing anything about their story, their worldly accomplishments, or their ministries. I began to feel a deep gratitude for them, as they were, and their honest hard work at showing up every day to pray. And I could also begin to see and appreciate a part of me in them.

I experienced a change of heart. I started the week looking for chaos and a resolution which I had defined to be lack of chaos, as if chaos were somehow a “bad germ” and needed going away forever. I started the week thinking that the Way was about reaching a destination and then not needing to do any more work. The Holy Spirit colon cleanse was going to come through and fix everything once and for all. But as the week ended I realized that as I live, I need to continue to eat, and need to continue to be cleansed.

It’s a lot of hard work to show up and be present to myself and those around me every day wherever I am. I can say that my experience of Benedictine spirituality with other seekers of God, was to experience the ordinary. And in the conscious, intentional experience of the ordinary in God, I can glimpse some of the extra-ordinary depth of meaning in God’s creation.

There’s nothing special in Benedictine spirituality, in the sense that there’s nothing apart or beyond following Jesus and living the Gospel. There’s no absolute standard for how to live, who to be, or how to express piety – nothing to accomplish and be done with, and no static definition of enlightenment or perfection.

There ARE tools and examples of how to keep working hard at cultivating a life of being receptive to God’s transforming action in my life.

There IS practice, discipline, and concentrated effort to bring as much of me and my messy life, in faith, to be in the Presence of God’s community over and over again, where the Holy Spirit refines.

As the week came to a close, I became convinced that the time and space, whether together and apart, that we shared: in prayer, fellowship, study, meditation, silence, visioning the connection of the physical and the spiritual, chanting, singing, eating, sleeping- every aspect of life- could be a door to experience more and more the expansiveness, totality, and intimacy of God’s love.

The choice is to be made over and over again, to be in relationship, to try to be receptive to the Presence and keep still instead of screaming and running away.
There is great encouragement, wisdom, and love flowing from other seekers who show up over and over again too.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)

There is the great Gift of Love that asks and waits for me to receive Love, as ordinary as I am, so that the extra-ordinary can be revealed to all of Creation.

Thanks be to God!

Helena Chan

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1 thought on “A Benedictine Retreat”

  1. What a rich, insightful post! I almost felt like I was there. It's certainly making me think more closely about my own spiritual life and what the possibilities may be for further exploration. This is also very much in tune with recent sermons in which we've been asked, "OK, so you're a Christian. What are you going to DO about it?" Thanks for so wonderfully illustrating some options.


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