Retreat for the Elite

Conception Abbey was intensely quiet.  The echoes of boy-noise stopped racketing off the walls of my brain as soon as I dropped into my sister’s car.  I’ve found my Personal Shout in our home because sometimes my sons’ shrieks and battle cries are too loud to merit my usual (pretty quiet) voice.  In the services at the monastery, the monks chant the psalms in quiet reverence, and to participate, I must needs let my voice out in little bitty mouse-squeaks.  Sometimes I wanted to pull out my Personal Shout and cry “Hallelujah!  Praise Jesus!” because that’s how all those psalms made me feel.

I felt like the abbey was a place where I could experience all of the worship and none of the grit of life.  Well-behaved retreatants, oblates, and seminary students conform to the daily liturgy of Conception.  To welcome all guests as Christ may, in fact, take a lot of quiet concentration.

To take the edge off of the quietness, I kind of stole a book from the seminary’s library (more on that later?) and read some Dorothy Day, a woman who knew a lot of Jesus but not a lot of quiet.

Her devotion to Jesus was a “voluntary poverty,” as she put it, among the poor in New York City — a grit she describes in her Meditations:

Our poverty is not a stark and dreary poverty, because we have the security which living together brings.  But it is that living together that is often hard.  Beds crowded together, much coming and going, people sleeping on the floor, no bathing facilities, only cold water.  These are the hardships.  Poverty means lack of paint, it means bedbugs, cockroaches and rats and the constant war against these.  Poverty means body lice….

I took my quietness at the monastery as a beautiful and rare gift, knowing that worshiping Jesus would have to look altogether different back in the trenches back home, just as Dorothy Day’s had:

And because I am a woman involved in practical cares, I…must meditate when I can, early in the morning and on the fly during the day.  Not in the privacy of a study—but here, there and everywhere—at the kitchen table, on the train, on the ferry, on my way to and from appointments and even while making supper or putting [my daughter] Teresa to bed.

With the worlds of Dorothy Day and Benedictine monks colliding into mine, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to what it would mean to offer the intense and intentional Jesus-worship of the abbey with Day’s lice-infested poverty battle.  And since I was the one mulling these things over; and since I had just witnessed a circle of hippie midwives warming themselves with nourishing soup; and since I had just stumbled on a passage in which Dorothy Day had referred to a farming commune… well, it seems natural to me to throw monks and homeless people into a big pot with sustainable, earth-honoring, whole foods living.  Sometimes I really can’t help myself.

And so my idealism has struck again.  And the coffee shop I’ve dreamed of creating may be expanding to a commune, of sorts.  We can still have coffee, of course.  But why not create the liturgy of quiet for the broken — the ones who need to hear the name of Jesus spoken over their lives again and again and again?

I certainly don’t think the poor ever get used to cockroaches, bedbugs, body lice, fleas, rats and such like vermin that go with poverty.  They merely endure them, sometimes with patience, sometimes with a corroding bitterness that the comfortable and pious stigmatize as envy.

When you love someone who hasn’t always known love, it can be a long road back to love.  I  forget this.  But why not create a space where I’ll be reminded?  Why not put away the token offerings of money, the advice to “be warmed and filled” and actually fill loud, dirty people with good soup?  If nature really heals, why not heal with it?  Why not dig hands into dirt to bring forth life in the form of tomatoes and peppers and peas, so that maybe one woman can see how Jesus is raising to life the death in her own heart?

Could we see the bread transformed into more than metaphor?

There’s something about Jesus-praise tolling the time of day that makes every person look sacred, and that begs to be repeated.  I loved the quiet, well-behaved people at the monastery.  And I was one of them (except for stealing library books).  But I couldn’t help but think that it was a retreat for the elite.

Jesus said the honored ones in his Kingdom are the lowly, the broken-down.  They are the true elite, the ones who are going to get the real love shower when the Kingdom comes.  And beings the Kingdom is already here in our hearts, I can’t help but get a bit idealistic.

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