Preparing for our upcoming Fall retreat in Maine, this word “oblique” keeps coming up for me… and let me quickly add that it is NOT about getting back to the gym, fall resolutions and all, and working on protruding parts of your body.
No, “oblique” came up as a poetic reference to the light this time of year; a friend commented on the beauty of the fall light, its way of focusing on things obliquely. The different slant… not summer’s full-on basking of sun… something subtler, quieter, less direct but at the same time clearly announcing a new season, both inner and outer.
I got to thinking about retreats and realized one reason I love them so much is that they give people, myself included, time to listen around the edges of our lives… to hear the “obliques” that may be tugging at our sleeves.
The dictionary elaborates: “Oblique is an adjective that means indirect or departing from the accepted or proper way…” Ah… even better! Yes, there is something counter-cultural about going on a retreat where the purpose is to slow down, to treat yourself to time and space to listen for what matter most or what is trying to emerge.
These stirrings often come at us from the side, hesitantly, indirectly. It can be hard to catch them. Retreats help us hear and hold them, and by doing that in community with other fellow travelers, we are supported and encouraged.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote about poetry: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant…” Yes… another way of lifting up how much that is bedrock and vital comes from the side.
My hunch is that all of us are being addressed by this fall… messages both direct and oblique; starts and stops; hunches and hopes. A retreat helps us listen and listen well, and to start to move in the direction of what we hear.
The wonderful poet, writer, and philosopher John O’Donohue spoke about how it is so common to “reduce identity to biography.” The oblique listening a retreat opens us up to reminds us of the largeness of our identity… not in an ego way, but in a soul way. There is more, if we would listen. Come and hear…. And blessings on all your fall slants and surprises.
While we tend to offer retreats in the fall and spring, those times of year that so palpably usher in the newness of their seasons, I suspect the three of us here at Creative Contemplatives are fed in deep ways by the mysterious and myriad gifts of summer.
Consider this quote from our friend, mentor and fellow contemplative writer Marv Hiles, a man who knows his way around the seasons:
“Summer may be the most unconscious and muddled of the seasons. There is divine wisdom in this. We desperately need time to deflect from the tiresome egotism of being forever useful and the pressure to know everything…. Winter, stripped to its essentials, confronted us with the cold, clear light of conscious truth. Summer, by contrast, draws us into a labyrinth of sacred confusion where by becoming lost we rediscover aspects of ourselves that habit, routine and duty have held in check…. In fact, our inability to comprehend our lives or to contain them, may be our greatest gift. We are over-dosed on data and underfed on the mysterious…”
I love this call to not knowing, to letting go, drifting, even. I need to make sure my schedule actually looks different in summer… to accommodate the space, rest and discovery he writes of. Otherwise, the season will slip by and I will miss its needed pause, its essential gap.
“Underfed on the mysterious.” The divine wisdom in the unconscious. One reason I love both giving and participating in retreats is that whatever the season, they traffic in the mysterious; they welcome the unconscious!
How do they do that? Retreats, like summer, are time out of time. They combine a special setting, a focus, a gathered community and the invitation to look deeply, joyfully and unpredictably at the ways we are called to ride life’s waves. We get to share what we know, what we have lost, what we have found.
A family forms, for these fleeting hours, and what matters most—different for everyone—has a place to emerge from the clutter of our lives and briefly but crucially stand there… asking to be remembered anew.
Indeed, retreats are about remembering and re-calibration, and they are also a misnomer: They are not so much about withdrawing as about stepping towards… beginning again… or maybe, finally, coming home. And doing it with fellow pilgrims.
As a confirmed, card-carrying introvert, nothing still surprises me more than my joy in doing retreats. But then again, the soul has her own ways of both feeding and confounding. In that respect, the soul is a summer animal.
May your summer bless you with space, divine wisdom, surprise and time to savor her bounty.
Spring in the Southern United States is glorious!! Spring in Maine is non-existent. Mainers don’t even use the word “spring”. We call that period of time between winter and summer “mud season”. It is not glorious. What was once a beautiful, pristine drift of snow is now so covered with dirt, it is just an inconvenient frozen brown lump in the yard. The beckoning empty garden exists as an inch or two of mud, covering 6 inches of still frozen earth. In the South, mud stays in the bottom of creeks and marshes, where it belongs. In Maine, mud is now everywhere!
At the Creative Contemplative Retreat in Chincoteague last weekend, Nina spoke of “throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks for you”. As I sit in my yard, wearing a heavy jacket over my new spring blouse, I look at the mud surrounding me and think of Nina’s metaphor. Today I’m feeling overwhelmed with mud. Like my yard, there is too much mud, too much going on, too many choices. I don’t know where to start pruning, where to start planting, where to just leave well enough alone. Mud season is a transition time, a time for continued reflection and discernment. It is time to start slowly coming out of our winter cocoon and start figuring out what we will do when the time of rebirth begins.
Don’t feel sorry for those of us experiencing our own mud season (whether it is real or metaphorical). Mud season is not a time of discontent, because we know that when our long-awaited summer finally comes (in Maine that is around the fourth of July), we will have the sweetest strawberries you have ever tasted. We will also have the brightest flowers of all, not just because of our long daylight hours, but because we had an extra couple of months to peruse the seed catalogs and make the best choices.
Where ever you are, you don’t need to spring into spring. Come out at your own pace. Remember Nina’s words about seeing what sticks. You don’t need to do everything, just pick what sticks for you.
A Contemplative Camping Trip
I just came back from a contemplative camping trip. It was not the swimming, canoeing, campfire type camping trip you might be imagining. Not hardly. It was the end of December in Maine. This was the camped-out-on-the-couch-in-the-living-room-for-a-week-with-a-bad-cold type of camping trip. The fireplace was my campfire. My books were my camp mates. An intermittent sore throat created forced silence. A snow storm and an ice storm made leaving the camp site difficult. (In case you are wondering, husband Jack has many friends in the neighborhood to visit, including sports fan friends with big screen TVs.)
The camping trip on the couch became a spiritual reading marathon. The first book I read was Serving with Grace, a small book written by Unitarian Universalist minister Erik Walker Wilstrom. It is a book concerning how to serve the church, but is really a book full of wisdom about living life. Two key points: (1) “no” is just as sacred as “yes” and (2) we should drop our attachment to results of any type by constantly asking ourselves, “What is really the purpose of what I am doing?” The next book I read was The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. As I became absorbed in the rhythm of the Benedictine monastery, I contemplated how little I pay attention to the rhythm of my daily life. I vowed to stop mindlessly wolfing down my breakfast and unconsciously driving to work. Next, I needed some humor to cheer me up, so I chose Anne Lamott’s Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith. Anne reminded me that spirituality doesn’t need to be all that serious. After Anne Lamott, I read Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart. I was attracted by the title. One of the gems I gleamed from it was his statement, “Contemplative prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them.” He compared the spiritual level of our being with a river and described our thoughts as boats and debris floating on the surface of the river. I realized that not only when I am trying to meditate, does my mind float to the surface, but I also spend much of my life focusing on the debris on the surface of life.
My camping trip on the couch was a reminder that I spend too much time aimlessly, thoughtlessly drifting through life. A week of spiritual contemplation, fed by some great books, helped me put my life back into focus. Hopefully, the next time I need to spend some time in contemplation camped out on the couch, it won’t take a bad cold and an ice storm to get me there.
Autumn is a time for reflection
Last year we offered our first fall retreat. We reflected that Autumn in all her beauty calls us to slow down, open our eyes and appreciate her fleeting light and magnificent color. Moses recognized a bush “on fire” as a call to turn aside, stop and listen. Autumn offers a pause and opportunity between the energy of summer and the busyness of the holidays to take time and reflect.
Autumn is a season of contrast. While there is a sense of the harvest and a “job well done,” there can also be an awareness of the need to “let go.” Only after the leaves fall can we comprehend the simplicity and splendor of the bare tree. Only after the leaves fall does the opportunity arise for new buds to form.
Nina led us in a “letting go” meditation. I was reminded of mixed emotions I have about releasing parts of my life that seem over too soon. But during the guided meditation, I was surprised with a vision of something “more.” I glimpsed the possibility of luminous new adventures! I realized that to the extent I can let go of what is past and over; I can make room for new life chapters. I am enchanted by this brief vision!
Autumn brings the challenge to be vulnerable to the new. The gift of this retreat for me was a resolve to let go of my personal “dry leaves” and welcome new life chapters. Debbie
What is a “Creative Contemplative Retreat”?