"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reflections After a Retreat

A few weeks ago, my family and I had the privilege of traveling to the motherhouse of the the Rivendell Community for a weekend retreat.  Rivendell is a religious community within the Episcopal Church.  The following is from their website:

"Rivendell’s professed members (called “Companions”—those who break bread and share the journey together) include women and men, lay and ordained, married and single. Some live together in residential community, while the majority live in private homes, coming together for worship, prayer, conversation, study, and active ministry. All follow a common Rule, or pattern of life and prayer, which sustains and nourishes us to live active lives of service in our particular and diverse ministries.
The work of the Rivendell Community is focused on prayer and hospitality: the constant offering of prayer and worship on behalf of the Church and the world, and hospitality both physical and spiritual. Through its life and work, the Community seeks to foster the contemplative dimension of Christian faith—not as self-seeking spirituality but as self-giving availability to the transformative power of the Gospel, and loving obedience to the purposes of God."

I became aware of the existence of the community some time ago, but this was my first experience of it. I had been particularly eager for the experience, as the idea of living according to a vowed common rule of life has held a great attraction for me as of late. Those who live by such a rule must, I think, be well disposed to grow deeper into God by virtue of the nearly constant mindfulness of God that the rule necessitates. There is also an invitation to community offered by such religious orders, even among a group of people who are dispersed geographically. Meaningful Christian fellowship in community is, as I've noted before, something I greatly desire.

My excitement before the retreat was tempered, however, by realism. As my wife and I were bringing our entire brood along, we both went into the weekend without high hopes for being able to participate in the rhythm of reflective study and worship to the extent that we would have sans children. That certainly turned out to be the right attitude for avoiding frustration, as our kids brought their own rhythms with them. Consequently, our participation throughout the retreat was haphazard, as is the entirety of our existence at this point in life's journey. We were blessed, nonetheless.

Our rector (who is also a professed companion of Rivendell) had graciously invited us for the weekend. The retreat was focused on the writings of the early twentieth century English mystic, Evelyn Underhill. I knew of Underhill, but had not previously read any of her works. Over the last several weeks I have been delving into her writings. Wholly apart from the blessings of the retreat itself, introduction to Underhill has been blessing enough for me. A theme of her work (at least as I have encountered it so far) is the living of the interior life of the Spirit in the midst of the daily responsibilities of life. Again and again she stresses this, as a selection of excerpts below demonstrates. From The School of Charity:

"The creative action of the Spirit penetrates the whole of life, and is felt by us in all sorts of ways. If our idea of that creative action is so restricted that we fail to recognize it working within the homely necessities and opportunities of our visible life, we may well suspect the quality of those invisible experiences to which we like to give spiritual status. 'I found Him very easily among the pots and pans,' said St. Teresa. 'The duties of my position take precedence of everything else,' said Elizabeth Leseur; pinned down by those duties to a life which was a constant check on the devotional practices she loved. She recognized the totality of God's creative action, penetrating and controlling the whole web of life."

and again,

"We see the child in the carpenter's workshop.  He does not go outside the frame of the homely life in which He appeared.  It did quite well for Him, and will do quite well for us; there is no need for peculiar conditions in order to grow in the spiritual life, for the pressure of God's Spirit is present everywhere and at all times.  Our environment itself, our home and job, is the medium through which we experience His moulding action and His besetting love.  It is not Christian to try to get out of our frame, or separate our outward life from our life of prayer, since both are the creation of one Charity.  The third-rate little town in the hills, with its limited social contacts and monotonous manual work, reproves us when we begin to fuss about our opportunities and our scope."

Finally, from The Spiritual Life:

"Therefore our favourite distinction between the spiritual life and the practical life is false.  We cannot divide them.  One affects the other all the time: for we are creatures of sense and spirit, and must live an amphibious life.  Christ's whole ministry was an exhibition, first in one way and then in another, of this mysterious truth.  It is through all the circumstances of existence, inward and outward, not only those we like to label spiritual, that we are pressed to our right position and given our supernatural food.  For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of His reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of His will."

These are words that speak to me where I am. This is my struggle, not to balance family responsibilities with my spiritual life, but to understand that my duty as a father is currently my primary opportunity for the living out of the life I profess to walk in Christ. It is no good to devote myself to praying the Daily Office, to serious study of the Scriptures, to the composing of posts for a blog (oh, the bitter irony), if I do so at the cost of neglecting my family, even for a moment. My wife and I were discussing this the other night. I confessed that I felt that if I am to be the loving, involved father that I feel I should be (and that I want to be), I must commit to nothing else. To attempt to do anything other than be a devoted father seems futile, a guaranteed recipe for frustration. And while I want to be that father, I also want (perhaps need) to have other outlets as well; to read, to write, to work, to have adult conversation. I think there is much that could be interestingly developed here on the topic of parenting in the modern era, and gender roles and expectations, but that conversation will have to wait for another day. I really do believe parenthood is one of the greatest responsibilities and privileges life offers. It is certainly the prevailing responsibility of my life at this point in time. But it is so hard. As my wife said, "Supposedly, other people are going through the same thing." I guess, but why does it seem so much crazier for us? To say our life right now is controlled chaos gives us a bit too much credit. So, yes, this is my struggle, and I need grace anew every day.

Not incidentally, this is also one of my recurring concerns/questions about ordained ministry. How does one manage to be both a husband/father and priest/pastor? I mean, it's one thing to leave the business office early so you can see your kid's ball game; priorities seem pretty clear to me there. But what if it's a choice between your kid's game and attending the bedside of a dying parishioner? That's quite a tougher call. And if I'm not mistaken, having to make that type of decision is not an uncommon occurrence for those who have answered the call to a vocation in ordained ministry. I can see how being a young priest with a family could have its benefits (and I'm also not a believer in putting life on hold until the kids are all grown up), but I can also see how it would make sense to wait until life has slowed down a bit and one has had a chance to accumulate additional "life experience", and the wisdom that comes with the years. But then again, maybe life never does slow down.


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