Our group is just back from a weeklong retreat in Assisi, so this time I actually have an excuse for not writing for the past few days. My reflections from that week will trickle out onto this blog over the next few days and weeks. The first day´s reflection follows.
The theme of the retreat was “A Pilgrimage of Hope,” in line with the theme of our general chapter a few years back. In line with that theme, Br. André LaFlamme, the retreat director, started us with the text from John´s gospel in which the disciples of John the Baptist follow after Jesus, who asks them, “What are you looking for?” Like much of John´s gospel, their response to Jesus can seem cryptic, a non-answer to a (so it seems) straightforward question: “Where do you live?” Thinking about it though, I wonder if they ask because they genuinely don’t know what they are looking for. André gave us this question to prompt us to zero in on what we hope to gain from the retreat, and after several months of feeling like a spiritual black hole, I hardly even know where to begin with trying to identify a central goal of my pilgrimage. André told us at Mass that he would call us up one by one to receive the folders that contain our readings and reflections for the week, and that he would ask us the question from the gospel: “What are you looking for?” We were to respond with the subsequent line, “Where do you live?” but before he got to that second part, I was petrified that I was actually going to have to articulate what I was looking for during this retreat: petrified because I was not ready to admit how crushing this past year was for me, and because I hardly knew where to begin to dig out. Later, thinking about it, the first thing that came to mind was from the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, which we watched a couple of days before the retreat began: after having given away the expensive cloths owned by his cloth merchant father, Francis is asked by Bishop Guido what he wants, and he responds, “I – I want to be happy!” With all the wonderful corniness that only Zeffirelli movies can provide, that simple line cut through a year of restlessness and frustration. The feeling of having made so many wrong choices with my life, having closed so many doors, and now living so compromised a vision of the Gospel despite what feels like a genuine desire to follow Christ without compromise, has welled up into deep loneliness and disappointment again and again this past year. One of the readings that André gave us was about allowing ourselves to feel loved, using the image of critically ill persons spontaneously assuming the fetal position, as if knowing the desire to return now and again to a place of security. In any other situation I probably would have dismissed it as self-indulgent or narcissistic, but recognizing my own profound brittleness, it gave me permission to quit trying desperately to hold it all together by myself. In one way or another I have so locked myself out of allowing myself to feel loved, whether by God or other people, that it feels as if the weight of the world is upon me, and knowing I cannot shoulder it alone, I despair. To twist Spider-Man, “With no power comes great responsibility.” Most times I find it difficult to experience God as personally involved in or concerned about my life, so that if my life is to have any meaning as a tiny speck against the backdrop of endless space and time, I have to focus in on myself and wrest meaning from history, which of course ends up being even more narcissistic and futile than whatever else I might be overcompensating to avoid.
From the notes that André gave us: “The Prodigal Son cries out: ‘I´m restless and I need to journey to far-off lands.’ Time and time again we have re-echoed the that cry of the Prodigal Son, in the silence of our hearts, but also amid the buffeting winds of life, or more often at those times when we felt that we’re not being heard or listened to by our Brothers. Behind our experiences of life, the good ones as well as the not so good, there is that yearning to travel, to walk, to go on a pilgrimage, to see countries in order to discover the Essential, and in so doing, return to the womb of God Father or Mother.”
I felt several times like André was writing directly to me, and this was one of them. What am I looking for? As much as anything it is the autonomy to be able to explore, without feeling bound to someone else’s path, and to not feel like I am being disobedient or wilful for having that desire. More deeply than the desire to do my own thing, however, is the desire for love. I readily admit that I am not at the point at which I could say with Francis that I am seeking not to be loved but to love. My sense of self is so caught in the web of the unsatisfactoriness of so much of life that it weighs me down against the pursuit of that which can satisfy. For this week I am in search of the experience of feeling loved, and to let that experience ease the frantic sense that my life is slipping away from me, that I am not and can never be what I should be, a sort of Sisyphean sensation that the endless “shoulds” of life are weighing down upon me despite knowing better. Having grown up in a happy but more or less un-cosmopolitan corner of the world (small-town Mississippi) and now in my late twenties and early thirties just starting to see into the vast world of literature, scholarship, art, poetry, travel, food, music, languages and so on, the sensation is very nearly a panic attack, like there is so much out there and I have to take it all in and I need it now and I have to take the ocean in at a gulp and when I try it’s like drowning and the community is holding me back and GASP (if you didn’t get the tone of that last sentence, try reading it out loud without pausing for a breath). Okay, relax. After all the stuff I have written about not getting lost in the things we can pin on our chests, guess where I got lost – of course, I suppose that is EXACTLY why I have written so much about it. The night before the retreat began, I had a stack of books lined up to bring along – books I “should” have read ten years ago – until at our evening conference André encouraged us not to bring any books. Again, talking right to me. In my head, I know that no amount of frantic flitting around could even scratch the surface of all the worthwhile realities of this wonderful world, let alone get beyond the most superficial of exposures. But it’s hard to not only know in my head but taste it on my tongue, to know that no quantity of experiences or books read can combine to solve the question that I am.