Summer Retreat 2017

This June I went on another retreat at Gethsemani Abbey. This is the third year I’ve started my summer with such a retreat. In 2015, I wrote about my initial experience at the abbey. Now the retreat has become an annual tradition for me, one that marks the transition into summer for me. The retreat also provides a framework that helps with the self-discipline required to sustain my writing efforts throughout the summer. And perhaps most important, my time at Gethsemani Abbey takes me outside the concerns of my own life and brings me in contact with something universal, expansive.

This past winter was a difficult time in my writing life. I wrote about my experience of writer’s block: Not Writing is Writing, and Not Writing is Not Writing. Summer retreats must be scheduled as early as February, so I had to set the intention early in the year. And as spring approached, I began looking forward to the summer months when I could devote several hours a day to my writing. In May I started writing a little more often than I had been throughout the winter months, bringing my laptop to the coffee house for a few hours each weekend. The repetitive or ritual aspect of these actions helps me to orient myself. And when the retreat finally happened, I found that not only was I able to focus on writing, but I was also able to refresh my spiritual and contemplative practices.

I brought Thomas Merton’s: Path to the Palace of Nowhere by James Finely along with me to listen to. This audiobook is structured as a series of talks or lectures preceding meditation, a format I am familiar with from Buddhist retreats I’ve gone on. Finley provides instruction on meditation, love, humility, contemplative prayer, and more based on Merton’s writing and his own experience as Merton’s student. These talks provided me focus for contemplation while on retreat.

On retreat, the silent company of others fosters a sense of intimacy. The absence of verbal communication highlights other forms of communication and other messages besides those communicated verbally. A powerful phatic message resounds in the shuffle of feet as each person makes their way to the church for prayer or to the dinning room for meals: we are here. It is perhaps the most relevant statement any of us can make, but it often gets drowned out by all our other discourse. On retreat, “we are here” is all there is.

While the retreat provides me an opportunity to transition into my summer and a chance to enrich my contemplative practice, my core motivation for going on retreat is to write. This summer I was able to revise several chapters of the novel I am currently working on. And I was able to establish a routine of writing for several hours a day that continued throughout the summer. I find starting this routine easier on retreat because there are fewer distractions, and the retreat provides a framework conducive to self-discipline because it is both unstructured and centered.

For retreatants, there are very few proscriptions except for silence and for meal times. But the monks form a highly structured community that begins each day with morning prayers at 3 AM. The bells ring throughout the day, calling everyone to prayer. But it is my own internal voice that gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me to sit at the computer to write. The bells are frequent reminders of a rigorous structure, but what I take away as a retreatant is an ear for my own voice prodding me to wake up and get to work.

After the retreat, I was able to sustain my writing through to the end of summer when I started a new job. The requirements of this job have once again limited how much time I can devote to writing. But I continue to keep up my reading and start each day with a cup of coffee and a few minutes making notes on this blog. Soon I will post a follow-up to my investigation of Text World Theory and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy. And when winter settles in, I plan to return to my novel with some fresh ideas and perhaps an entirely new direction.

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