So I was talking to somebody the other day, and she asked me why I hadn’t blogged about my pilgrimage that I took a couple of months ago. I tried to explain why, but half way through, realized that I didn’t really know why. I guess I didn’t want to exploit or cheapen the experience by immediately just blogging about it.. But, it’s been a little while now, and I think I can share some of the story without feeling like I’m cheapening it to myself. However, I don’t think it’s going to fit in one blog… So this may be a three or four part thing. We’ll see.
For those of you that don’t obsessively read and memorize every detail of all my tweets (which I’m sure there must be several of you out there somewhere), I should fill you in that I went on a spiritual pilgrimage in September. I spent a week in Assisi, Italy, and then a week on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The first week was a week of silence and meditation at a spiritual retreat that I found by googling “best spiritual retreats in the world”. Hmm, Microsoft Word still doesn’t know that “googling” is commonly used verb these days. It thinks I’m misspelling “goggling”. Get with the times, Mr. Gates.
The reason that I goggled something like “best spiritual retreats in the world” was because I was on the brink again. My pastor likes to tease me about my artistic temperament and all of the angst that often comes with it. In return, I like to tease him about the fact that he is an ass. This is why we have been able to remain such good friends since childhood. Also, before I continue, I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to those who may have been offended by me publicly calling my pastor an ass. It was said with the only the greatest love, respect, and of course, blatant honesty.
By, “on the brink”, I mean, I felt like I was starting to lose my way. I didn’t really know what I believed in. I often felt like I was going through the motions. I was about to turn 30, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. These things all concerned me that there was some fundamental heart and soul issues that needed to be dealt with quickly. I felt like I was supposed to get away from all the noise and try to find God. Solitude has always been one of the central disciplines of Jesus followers through our couple thousand years of history, and we see it in the actions of Jesus himself, as he would often withdraw from the crowd to be by himself and with God. I really felt like I was supposed to do an extended period of solitude.
So I asked Mr. Google, and he imparted his nearly omniscient advice. First, I would take a week of peaceful silence, and then a week of slightly less peaceful hiking towards the burial ground of St. James in Santiago, Spain.
It was surprisingly hard to find a two-week block of time in which I had nothing to do. So I ended up having to disappoint some people, lose some money, and cancel some things in hopes that the cost of this trip would be worth it. Jesus promised that anything we give up to follow him would be made up to us far more in this lifetime. So I decided to trust him in that, and just book the trip.
My wife wasn’t too excited about the prospect of me being gone for two weeks, leaving her alone with our new little baby, but she had seen how desperate I was becoming and how much I really needed to do it. So she graciously extended me her blessing, which I am extremely grateful for.
It’s funny, but as soon as I decided to go ahead and do the pilgrimage, I already felt healing start in my heart. I felt peace start rising up where there was only noise and chaos. I felt life pushing up on the soil of busyness and doubt and fear and selfishness, and the soil started breaking apart before I even started my retreat. It was as though I finally stepped into the river that was going to take me to the waterfall.
When I arrived in Italy, it was a Sunday morning, and I didn’t have to catch my train to Assisi until that evening, so I decided to go to this little church, ah, wait what’s it called again..? Oh yes, the Vatican. Maybe you’ve heard of a guy named Pope something or other… Yeah, he was the speaker there that day, so I thought it might be cool to check him out too. Anyway, not a bad way to start out my spiritual journey. Made me want to be Catholic actually.
After mass at the Vatican, I walked around ancient Rome a bit before heading back to the train station to take my train to Assisi. All throughout my journey, I was trying to create room in my mind and heart for God to be able to break through to me. Normally, on an international flight, I just try to fill up the time by watching as many movies as possible. I didn’t do that this time. I just sat there a lot. I listened to a couple Rob Bell sermons on my ipod. A little music. I read a little bit. So when I finally arrived at the farmhouse in the hills of Assisi that first night, I was ready, at least I thought I was.
A week of silence is a unique experience after all. By day 3 or 4, I was wondering why people talk so much. I wasn’t talking at all, and I was the most content that I had been in quite some time. Basically our schedule at the retreat went something like this:
Wake up, get ready, prepare and eat breakfast in silence. Then we’d all (there were 4 of us, plus the couple that runs the retreat) get together for morning meditation. It wasn’t a “Christian” retreat. It was a cross religious retreat, so they had statues of Mary in the room next to a Buddha next to a Hindu something or other. But since we weren’t talking to each other, I had no idea whether the people in the room were Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist, or anything else. We didn’t know how much money each other made, what kind of political positions we adhered to, or what kinds of music we preferred. We were all just human beings, and that was very refreshing actually.
We’d meditate for an hour together in silence. At the beginning of the session, the leader would say something ambiguous and confusing like “Today we are going to spend time with lady poverty. We will go now into our hearts and sink into the ocean of our retreat.” I don’t think any of us really knew what he was talking about, but he spoke in a nice, soothing tone, and I personally enjoyed it very much. Then we were just thrown into the silence. Afterwards, we had the one opportunity to actually talk to someone by having a private counseling session with the leader, which I tried out once or twice, but it was a lot of the same soothing ambiguity, so I eventually just opted for the silence.
Then about an hour later, we would do our prayer movements. I’m sure that if anyone would have watched us, we would have looked like a bunch of idiots slowly waving our arms around, turning in circles and kneeling in the grass, but I enjoyed that as well. It was a lot of “now the river that gave us everything is taking everything back” kind of stuff. Ambiguous enough for me to be thinking about the infinitude of God and my neighbor to be thinking about, I don’t know, human compassion or something.
Then in the afternoons, we were free to either roam the seemingly endless, beautiful, rolling hills of Assisi in solitude, or take a taxi into town to go to some of the historic sacred sites like St. Francis’ birth place or his tomb, or St. Claire’s garden. They provided us with a meditation guide to those places, and I’ll talk a bit more about some of that in the next blog.
Then, in the evening, we’d have another meditation session together before going to bed in absolute peace and quiet. This was the structure of our days, and it was quite life giving. I’ll talk more in the next blog about what happened inside of me as a result of this. But as a little preview, here’s a little excerpt from my personal journal on the first day of the retreat.
“Peace. We just came back from our first prayer movement meditation, and I feel so close to God right now. So close that “You” almost feels funny. I get why one might say close to everything. I was going to say some sort of defensive, fearful statement clarifying that I’m not talking about pantheism. But I don’t need to be afraid.
God is beautiful.
Light and essence and love of the purest kind. God is something to be experienced not to “believe” in? God is too big to be believed in or not believed in. God is. Am I? Today, yes.”