Reflections after a retreat at the Abbey of Gesthemani.

I’m just back from a retreat at the Abbey of Gesthemani in KY that I’ve been to before. I had found in the months leading up to the retreat that although I was spending more time in prayer I was having trouble quieting my mind both in that setting and “in the world”. It took until the second day to slow down which is evidence of the benefit of longer, more quiet retreats. As this visit fell by happenstance the weekend before Ash Wednesday I hope my experiences will manifest as metanoia as befits the Lenten season.

The message I hope more deeply settles is to be gentler towards the world.

This insight inserted itself especially as it applies to the physical/natural world during a “mind as sky” meditation. I was seated on a rise overlooking a fallow hay field. I could hear sounds rising around me – bird song, woodpecker pecks, the wind in the trees, a far distant airplane. I could feel things – my right foot falling asleep, the cold air as I breathed in. I could see things – the lines of yellow field, green copse of firs, grey sandstone outcrop, pale blue sky, white cirrus clouds. I could think things – where shall I walk next, what should I read later. For a few breaths these all became individual experiences separate from my spirit yet all natural processes of which I am a part unfurling in God’s creation – a brief but powerful moment. Today I see the metaphor of the experience as a stream – drifting ice crusts , whirlpools, riffles – all following their separate paths yet all influenced by each other. Be gentle towards the world to which I am intimately related.

Loving Kindness meditation was my first practice and is still my most personally important. The Buddhists suggest a series of specific prayers during Loving Kindness directed first at yourself then your family then your friends then your enemies then all the world. I have rarely been able to move beyond a few friends or the occasional vague enemy. I was blessed with being able to briefly get to all the world during this retreat. I also had several very emotional experiences of my love for my family during this exercise. One occurred while at Gesthemani’s version of an Irish Holy well – the Rosary House – where written prayers are left. As I tried to write one for my family after an intense sitting I found myself clumsily scratching out a plea in school-child block printing complete with backward Rs and the like. It was a deeply concrete evocation of God’s love for me as I am his child as I love my children – and around and around.

Apart from these more profound episodes I had a particularly pleasing experience on the third day. My prayer technique is to say a rosary and at each decade pursue a more specific meditative goal. I’ve mentioned 2 above. Another is centering prayer. At this sitting I used Praise God as my Sacred Word – it just felt better than Hallelujah. As I hit “crown of thorns’ in the Sorrowful Mysteries a thrush began to sing loudly from the bramble patch next to me. I acknowledged a partner in my song of praise. Then the bells in the Abbey rang for the afternoon liturgy and I knew that soon the monks would join us.

By Conrad Foley