Recently we hosted a weekend preached retreat here at the Hermitage. In setting up times for lectures and discussions with Sr. Donald Corcoran, our presenter, it happened that we left long blocks of free time for people. There were long stretches of free time early Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, again in the evening, and also early Sunday morning.
It was a picture-perfect May weekend: clear, mild, with a light breeze, all the trees and shrubs filled with new growth. People read, prayed in the chapel, walked the prayer trail, or simply snoozed. Many commented favorably on the long, quiet spaces, interspersed with presentations and discussion that gave rich food for thought and prayer. Such spaces and times felt like deep, refreshing breaths, filling our lungs with good air – truly the breath of the Spirit. As hosts for the retreat, Sr. Bernadette and I were busy, yet even so we were also able to breathe in some of the peace and blessed empty time and space which filled the Hermitage.
The weekend led me to reflect anew on those important Benedictine qualities of balance, rhythm, and moderation. What a blessing it was to have those long stretches of quiet, with nothing to do, no tasks to fill them. What a gift was the enforced idleness! What a blessing to have the rich and deep input. What a blessing to be sharing these times with others; all of us brought together by our common desire for God.
Balance, rhythm, moderation. These values are so counter-cultural today, in a world which rushes headlong into extremes. Ideas are totally right…or they are totally wrong. So are people. Or so we think! Emotions, actions and reactions are supercharged and supersized – much like the fries at a drive-through. Ordinary thoughts and emotions are not enough. Everything must be extreme or it won’t even be noticed.
In the midst of this insanity, Benedict’s fifteen-hundred year old Rule speaks of moderation and balance, of finding a deep, fundamental, humane rhythm to life. It says this obliquely, not directly. It models this through its own balance, for it braids together elements of the desert tradition of solitude with the cenobitic and communal tradition of Augustine and Basil. It weaves strands into the Divine Office from that same desert tradition, and also from the Roman office. It intermingles times of prayer with times of manual labor, time of lectio with times for meals and siesta and sleep. It suggests that the youngest members contribute to the community’s wisdom, as well as the eldest.
Balance. How hard it is to find balance today. A friend of ours who is a personal trainer tells us that people begin losing their physical balance by age thirty. How much earlier we lose our inner balance, our inner sense of what we need and when we need it. As infants, when we’re hungry we cry for food, when we’re sleepy we sleep. As we grow, we slowly become conditioned to ignoring our needs in favor of what the world around us expects of us. Some of these expectations are right and good, some not so good. But all need to be taken in moderation. Even our own wants and needs must be satisfied only in moderation. And all need to be held in a rhythm that is ever alert to balance the extremes of situations with their opposing and counteracting state. Too much work and pressure needs to be met with extra time for relaxation and rest. Too much prayer? (This only rarely happens!) We need diversion. Too much social interaction? We need to balance it with solitude. Too much attention to the world around us? We need to pay attention to the child of God who dwells within us. And so on….
A retreat can be a blessed reminder that our days on earth are limited, and we need to tend them carefully. God is to be found in all things: not work alone, not prayer alone, not the things of church (however wonderful and graced), not eating and drinking, not exercise, not any one thing. Rather God is present in all, and only discovered most powerfully when our lives are in balance, undominated by any one interest. God is all and in all and there to be discovered in gracious Presence.