“Sitting in a wooden spindle rocking chair, listening to the quiet metal crackling of the propane heater, attentive to the rhythmic beat of rain water insistently dropping from the roof into the puddles at the edge of the foundation…It is late afternoon on Sunday, and I am nestled into the near silence of my hermitage, an 11’ X 16’ structure whose main feature is a picture window that fills most of one wall. The little I brought along I have unpacked. Earlier I had eaten a pear and gone for a walk on the dirt road, the trails, and the prairie. The walk I cut short because a chilly drizzle began, so I have not yet seen Lake Tamarack up close. Tomorrow….
“After my walk, I enjoyed a snack that could turn out to be dinner: homemade wheat bread, an apple, and yellow ‘cheddar-y’ cheese, the simple provisions the on-site staff provides to hermits. Also in the basket are oranges, bananas, a bran muffin, and more apples, bread, and cheese: breakfast and lunch for Monday, and the next day, and the next….
“‘Deserts, silence, solitude’ – that is, in brief, what a hermitage experience offers. I’ve only arrived three hours ago, and still it feels odd to be here, ‘doing nothing,’ and having none of my usual comforts, conveniences, and diversions. And yet [I continued to write in my journal that first day], there is a peace, a letting go, a relaxing into the quiet–a settling into the privacy and aloneness.”
While I had made many retreats over the years, choosing to experience the life of a hermit for four days was a first for me, and a sort of growing edge choice, at that. I told friends I was making this particular retreat with no expectations, but I knew that was not completely true: I was bringing along–yikes!–seven books to read, as well as notes I had made at several conferences and workshops to review, and my journal, in which to write my reflections. It certainly did appear that I was going to my hermitage with an agenda!
The letting go and settling into the privacy that I sensed beginning on that first evening somehow slipped away. My growing edge question took over: Would I–could I–be comfortable with only myself for company? My answer the next morning appeared to be “No,” because I did read, review, and write. Now, looking back, I see I was afraid of being alone with myself, and fearful of truly letting go into the presence of God.
So what a joyful surprise it was on Wednesday night, when I found myself again rocking in the chair and gazing out the big window and NOT reading/ reviewing/ writing, AND NOT DOING ANYTHING ELSE either, but just looking at the trees and the lake and the sky–oh, the big and beautiful and vividly blue sky!–and paying attention to the clouds–ordinary clouds they were, but ever-changing in hue, taking on the tint of one pastel after another, amethyst, rose, amber, gray–and not merely hearing but listening to the geese and the ducks and the sandhill cranes and the lone woodpecker. What made it a joy was the realization that it was all there, all available, and all now–and also that it was good simply to watch and listen, to be witness to the wonderful ordinariness and simple majesty of God’s creation. I had some of that sense Sunday afternoon, and then I lost it for three days with my busy-ness and agenda and fear, but the gift of being fully present and alive to the here-and-now moment was regifted to me on Wednesday, and, oh, I am the better fort it!
Perhaps the real gift was/is the realization that such simple and full joy is always available if I but PAY ATTENTION right now to whatever or whomever is presented! And that is exactly what I did again on Thursday morning, first while lying in the bed of my hermitage, noticing the increasing light filling the room and listening to the mounting chatter of the geese, and then arising and moving to “my” rocking chair, my front row seat of witness to the beginning glory of a new day.
But here’s the deal: I don’t have to go away to a hermitage or to ANY sort of retreat, for that matter. And I do not need any special equipment, either. Most spiritual practices that enliven my soul and quicken my contact with the Holy One are available to me 24/7, wherever I happen to be.
Here’s my insight: My desire or intention, as well as my attention, are all that spiritual practices require! But, oh my goodness, it is ironically true that I had to go away to a hermitage to regain or remember this “insight.” I say ironically, because I have been engaging in a variety of spiritual practices, including the practice of silence, for years. Ironic also because I am a co-facilitator of Sacred Ground’s program, Exploring Spiritual Practices, where facilitators and participants together as a community set intentions and pay attention as we engage in spiritual practices.
So am I still a beginner with respect to spiritual practices? Well, I am invited to approach whatever practice(s) I choose with freshness and humility–or “beginner’s mind,” as Buddhists would say. That is, I am invited to engage in the practice(s), time after time, as if for the first time.
Here is an invitation to ALL beginners: Come join us on the evening of Monday, May 20, when together we will, with intention and attention, explore our spiritual path by engaging in practices that open us to the Holy One. Share with us, beginners all, in Exploring Spiritual Practices.
Through his practice, The Journey Within, John Pikala sits with men and women individually as a spiritual companion, offers group spiritual direction, leads retreats, facilitates spirituality groups, meets with people in Twelve Step recovery, receives Fifth Steps, and teaches at Sacred Ground. You may contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.801.3857. Visit John’s Web site at www.johnpikala.com.