Art and Prayer

Personal Advent Retreat

I spent a wonderful 24 hours at Holy Cross Monastery this week. While I didn’t have a particularly Advent-themed plan for my retreat, I had wanted to take time for silence and reflection at the start of Advent, which is also the start of the Church Year. The monastery was in complete silence for their Advent Contemplative Days, and the whole time there was richly quiet.

I went with the idea of pondering a Rule of Life for this season of my life and as a new liturgical year begins (a Rule of Life is a way of intentionally planning for the pattern and practices of one’s life, in particular for holistic spiritual growth in relationships and rhythms). My spiritual director had suggested I allow intimacy with Jesus to drive my discernment in developing a helpful rhythm, rather than starting from a list of all sorts of “good” practices that were making me feel overwhelmed and like I should but couldn’t add them all into my rule of life in some way.

I started my retreat Thursday afternoon, a chilly, breezy, but sunny day, by walking down to the Hudson River. The tide was lower than I’ve ever seen it (the Hudson River is tidal a long way up from the ocean), with quite a breadth of beach exposed, so I wandered the shore, listening to the gentle lapping of the ripple-like waves on the flat stones (which are perfect for skipping stones). A tree further up from the water caught my eye because of the way it leaned toward the river, reaching all its boughs out over the water. As I looked at it, the opening words of Psalm 63 jumped into my mind, and I meditated on them all the time I sketched the tree– appropriate words for Advent, as we await the coming of Christ.

O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you…

Friday morning I again walked by the river and sat in the sun on a log along the shore. The water level was much higher than yesterday, and at first I thought the tide was coming in, because the ripples and little waves were flowing north, up river, but then I noticed that where the waves were lapping the shore, the water line was very slowly but steadily receding. Then I noticed a log a bit farther up river very slowly moving down until it was almost in front of me. I continued to watch as the log moved just downriver from me. Then it got into a region where the surface current turned it around, and it just sat there for as long as I watched. Meanwhile, two other logs, both farther out toward the center of the river, were moving downriver at a steady clip, and both soon passed the stalled log.

Help me, Lord, never to get caught up in the surface currents of the world. I want your deep current of living water to carry me along in the life you have for me.

Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.                  Romans 12:1-2 The Message    

I didn’t do any specific Rule of Life crafting, but throughout the retreat I simply showed up, ready for whatever God might have for me. I had a couple times during my stay at the monastery when I had such a strong sensation of God’s presence that I have a new picture of what intimacy with Christ can be. I can’t really put it into words, but it was sweet and gives me a better sense of what my purpose is in crafting a Rule of Life– it’s to have a pattern or rhythm of my days that gives time and opportunity for me to be present to God.

I wrapped up my retreat by sketching the venerable old oak that has stood steadfastly for over 300 years in the monastery cloister courtyard. This oak invites reflection and has surely been witness to the prayers of perhaps thousands of God’s people over the years since the monastery was built. It is comforting, encouraging, and motivating to be in that company of watchers.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
                                                Isaiah 61:3  

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope… Psalm 130:5

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