My Version of a Spiritual Retreat
Broadening the Definition of Spirituality
My wife and I are spending a couple of days at the Saint Andrew Abbey in Vayermo, California. It is this little oasis in the middle of the desert, a patch of greenery surrounded by a harsh and barren landscape. In other words, it is a perfect place for a monastery.
There was a time in my life when I had an idealized, romanticized concept of what a retreat was supposed to look like. Back in my more "spiritual" days, I would often perform some of the standard monastic practices: fasting, praying, scripture reading, the works. While I could definitely get into the reading, all of the meditative stuff usually did not do very much for me. It was not long before I would end up bored, distracted, and/or hungry, with my mind typically going off into whatever direction it wanted to go. I was always more of a philosopher than a mystic anyway.
Coming here this weekend, I have no expectations of having any deep insights or intense mystical experiences. If I did not hear the voice of God back when I was fairly certain that He was talking, there is little chance of me hearing him now. But that's all right. This retreat is simply about getting away for a couple days and having uninterrupted time to do whatever. Unlike those days when I tried to force a spiritual experience to happen, I may be finally starting to learn to go where the spirit leads.
If I reflect on my life both past and present, the closest things I have had to spiritual experiences have little to do with what we conventionally call religion. The closest I get to feeling deeply connected to my fellow humans is when I hear a really good song at the right time or when I am reading a great novel or watching a well made play or movie. Moments of spiritual ecstasy happen when I am playing racquetball and roll out a forehand off the back wall or when I have an orgasm - not while playing racquetball I should point out - that lasts a bit longer than usual. As is often said, life is about enjoying the little pleasures. And as should often be said, life is about absorbing the profound truths contained within the same old tired cliches.
So I will be doing some of the stuff that you are supposed to do on a retreat like reading, writing, and soaking in the beauty of nature. I really do like this place: the warm breezes before dusk, fluttering leaves that sound like a gentle rain, and stark but somehow beautiful landscape. It is not bringing me into a state of spiritual ecstasy, but it's nice to get away from the city for a couple days. But in addition to pondering whatever is on my mind while strolling around or getting in some reflective writing (like this little blog), I may also be found periodically squeezing in a few turns of my online strategy games, answering emails from students, taking pictures, posting stuff on Facebook, or reading "The Kite Runner." Sure, some of the more traditionally spiritual people currently residing at this monastery may be denying themselves these worldly pleasures and having more profound experiences than I. But maybe their spirituality isn't my spirituality, as God (maybe) intended.