I am writing to you from an undisclosed location on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Okay, I’ll confess — I’ve just always wanted to say those words, “from an undisclosed location,” because I have seen too many espionage movies and television shows.
Truthfully, I am in the final hours of a twenty-four hour personal “retreat”, an activity (or non-activity?) with which I have some discomfort. I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of the contemplative life as portrayed in many of the wonderful books out there; most days I am so palpably aware of the presence of God in every fiber of my being that I can barely function according to the rules and ways of the secular society within which I live. On those days, I wonder why, oh why, would someone need to go somewhere and be “quiet” to experience God’s presence? And, to tell the truth, on most days, I am jealous of those who can truly live into that model, because I think, well, they must be able to experience something there that just eludes me.
You can imagine, then, that the assignment to plan and carry out a day-long, personal, silent retreat was not one that I looked forward to completing (well, maybe the idea of completing it was okay, but the idea of doing it was another thing altogether). Here I am, though, in the final hours of my time with myself and with my God, and, I now have to admit, I needed this time — not because I have lost my connection with the divine presence in all things, but because, in the hustle and emotions of the holiday season and the doldrums and darkness of January, I had lost my sense of my own presence. For you see, God is always there — even when we are not.
Of course, I am not surprised that this time unfolded as what God wanted it to be, not as what I had planned. I noticed the beginning of that change as I piloted my little car across the long expanse of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge…after a blizzard and what seemed to me to have been many grey, yucky days of winter weather, the absolute bright blue water popped and sparkled around me in the light of the brightest sunshine. Yes, it is difficult to notice too much when you are driving the Bridge (particularly when it is a two-way traffic moment and you are in the single lane direction of traffic), but the color and the intense light-filled world around me was unmistakably beautiful.
I arrived at my destination, checked in, had lunch, and then took myself out into that sunshine, and sat down in an Adirondack chair beside the Bay. My purpose? To allow (or encourage), as my own spiritual director would say, my full self to arrive. The result? The result was the beginning of a day-long exploration of just how much presence I lacked.
I was quickly rewarded for my attempt to be present and accounted for. As I sat in my Adirondack chair, the only human anywhere in sight (because, despite the sunshine, it was barely 50 degrees warm), perfectly content to sit in the waning afternoon sunlight, I heard a sound in the distance — birds. It sounded so far away, but with every second the sound grew louder and louder. There was no sign of a bird anywhere, just that ever growing sound. And then, out of the corner of my right eye, I saw them: a huge flock of geese, maybe 100 or more, taking flight and claiming the airways over this little piece of the Bay.
My nature-parched, city-girl soul tingled at the presence of so many beautiful creatures. That tingle was indeed a resonance with all of creation — my presence responded to theirs. That might have been enough to start my time well, but then something unusual happened. The geese didn’t leave. They seemed to have no real destination. By all appearances they were out for, well, just out for an afternoon turn around the Bay.
Now, I know nothing about the behavior and habits of water fowl. I do, however, recognize the majesty present when a large number of God’s creatures take to the air simultaneously, turning and spinning over the water in a complex ballet that only they seem to understand. And that dance went on and on and on. Just as suddenly, after what seemed hours, the group split into three separate flocks and flew off in three separate directions. Each of the three corps de oies (or, French for geese), continued to circle and fly, until at last a group landed on the marsh in front of me.
This was how I began my time here, with the beautiful geese reminding me that I am here, on the planet, in nature, in my life and that my role in this creation requires me to show up. Perhaps I should live this life. Perhaps I should enjoy the circles and not be so intent on a destination. Perhaps, just being present is the real task at hand.
My feathery friends began the lesson of the day and the readings I had chosen for this time just continued the teaching. First, yesterday was the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus and the text was Luke 2:22-32, a story built around the idea of being present. Jesus is presented at the Temple, and Simeon is rewarded for a life of present waiting. And the final exclamation point on the day? That was the focus of my chapter from The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness by Mary C. Earle, which was, of course, the importance of presence in the lives of those desert ammas.
And now the sun is rising, hiding within the clouds above the water. I have been blessed with 24 hours to remember what should be obvious — that I am here, that I am an incarnated being, who not only can observe the beauty of the sun and the challenges of the rain and snow, but that I can live them. And that going forward, I must do my best to remember this bit of wisdom from my desert fore-mothers: “… (in) this desert tradition, the primordial sin is the sin of forgetting–forgetting that God brings us into being and that each life is a treasure; forgetting that at the end we return to the God who creates us, redeems us, and sanctifies us (LOC 164, Kindle Edition).” There are all kinds of desert experiences in this world, and all are as valid as any other, including the silence of a rainy day along the Chesapeake Bay.
Showing up, fully being here, is an act of remembering. That remembering, well, that is life. That, friends, is living. And so, everyday, if I have no other time or patience for silence or prayer, there is one little phrase that I will offer to my God: Present, Lord. That’s my goal from now on for every moment, and every day.