A silent retreat in Santa Barbara? At a Benedictine Monastery? For a whole week? Could I actually be silent for blocks of time while brushing energy fields with other humans?
I signed up. Even though I lived alone and had as much silence as I felt I needed, I wanted to test my ability to be with others in stretches of prescribed silence.
Just into the new millennium, we flew into the Los Angeles airport where a driver met us with a large van that would carry all dozen or so people. We were whisked off to a freeway that eventually brought us to Santa Barbara. The van slowly climbed the winding road to the top of Mount Calvary to its Retreat House.
The Monastery had been a huge ranch that flourished in the 1800s and was bequeathed to the Benedictine order of Monks who accepted it with a devout sense of stewardship in 1947. They had maintained and enhanced the gardens, the hiking trails, the buildings and the hospitality. The Benedictine Order commits to receiving guests as though each one was Jesus. Each person is given space, privacy, home cooked meals, a library, spiritual instruction, music, gardens, comfort and silence.
We were given the times when we were to be silent – always at dinner. We were given the parameters around which we were to respect the Monks’ tri-dimensional rhythm of life: work, leisure and spiritual practice. We were offered spiritual teachings on any subject from an appropriate Monk – to the group or individual. We could join the services offered in the Chapel, filled with glorious voices accustomed to blending angelically with each other.
I learned about the word THLIPSIS, a process of intense pressure that wears off the rough edges of personalities It’s this pressure of another human’s presence that causes some form of response from us. When we feel rankled or resentful or any one of a number of negative reactions, it’s a time when the intense pressure is at work. Eventually, it causes us to look at ourselves in a spirit of loving assessment. It means coming face to face with resentment, acceptance, forgiveness and renewal. It means facing the divine that dwells within each of us as we strive to view the divinity in another. I suspect the monastic life presents a concentrated dose of thlipsis. Being in a monastery, is surely the epitome of pouring Miracle Gro on one’s character defects. For the monks, it is pressure that is almost beyond human endurance. This word is often translated as hardship, suffering, trouble, tribulation and affliction.
Any relationship creates THLIPSIS, but, unlike the rest of us, the monastic devotee has few distractions to help avoid the demanding inner work. There was a gardener monk who laboured lovingly and devotedly over his herbal garden. He found me coming out to his garden in the early hours of the morning to snap off a few sprigs of heavenly sage to wipe all over my face and arms. The scent was profoundly more appealing than any manufactured perfume. At the time, I did not SEE myself as invasive. I arbitrarily decided the gardener monk would find my appreciation for his sage a delight. Maybe my presence was a demonstration of another predictable self-centered person bringing him to more thlipsis. Was he able to think of me as Jesus at that moment? Did he want to come out and say, “Here, take 10 more sprigs” or was his thought, “Please ASK to enter my garden.”
The garden experience gave me a beginner’s opportunity to have my eyes opened – to begin to understand the ever present need to consider one’s effect on others:
The next one came to me as we Anglicans awaited the Evening Service, sitting in the library/lounge. I said, “You know…I work in the church office and know all about your families, your holidays, your illnesses, your latest purchases. But I don’t know what you believe.”
There was complete silence. No one responded. They looked at one another and appeared to send silent messages of, “The poor dear just doesn’t quite fit in, does she?” Did I say something bad? Was this one of my rough edges? Or do I have a valid suspicion that inappropriate silence and privacy is contributing to our dwindling church numbers? See? There’s one of my edges – looking for the double edge of Thlipsis. Like humility, just when I think I’ve got it…
Another example came during an afternoon of prescribed silence for everyone in the Monastery. One of the Anglican women who was on my grudge list already, came up to me wanting my attention. She went through a barrage of movements, trying to tell me something that was unnecessary, mundane and non-urgent. I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. There was no love, compassion, understanding or empathy in my heart.
I don’t have a high grade in Thlipsis. I work at it every day. Relationships can be difficult with people we love; dealing with others is a constant look in the mirror until there is a wearing down of those sharp edges. In all cases, I see the need for honesty. When I think I’ve named the beast that gnaws at my soul, thlipsis demands I go four levels deeper to grasp the real truth.
I’m about level one…ready to take a flying leap to 1.25!