Inheriting Tabor: Lenten Retreat

Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Mepkin Abbey

I am back down from the mountain. I once again spent a week on my annual Lenten retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist (strict Cistercian) monastery just north of Charleston, South Carolina. Last year I went on retreat the First Week of Lent so this year I decided to go the Second Week of Lent (February 27 – March 5). God willing I can continue incrementing the weeks one at a time and, fifty years from now, I will have spent a year in a Trappist monastery. Mepkin Abbey is unique in that while the community does not offer guided retreats, much as one might find at other retreat centers, guests are welcome to participate in nearly all aspects of monastic life. Rising for Vigils at 3:00AM retreatants may join the monks in choir for the entire horarium (schedule) of the seven [divine] offices of the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass throughout the day. Guests are further welcome to share the vegetarian meals in silence with the monks in the adjoining guest refectory and, together with the monks, observe the sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict, dividing the rest of the day between manual labor and lectio divina (RB 48).

Lectio divina is sacred reading and generally is the prayerful reading of scripture which seeks a word or phrase given to the reader from God, a word on which one meditates (or ruminates) by repeating it over and over throughout the remainder of the day in order to savor its flavor and extract its meaning. Although I first started learning about lectio divina over two years ago (see my post on Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey, OCSO) and practiced it some last year, it was not really until this retreat that I systematically followed a method of lectio divina, cultivating a discipline which bore better fruit than I could have expected especially given that I had deliberately chosen what I had assumed to be the barren soil of the historical books of Joshua and Judges as a sort of proving ground. Quite simply lectio divina amounts to a reversal of the process through which the Bible came into being: we invoke the same Spirit through whom the sacred authors were inspired to write their experience of the divine in order to, by means of that same scripture, come to a contemporary experience, personal to me as a member of the people of God, that leads to my partnership or cooperation in producing the experience of the mystery symbolized in the text (David Stanley, A Suggested Approach to Lectio Divina, American Benedictine Review 23, 1972: 453-5). The intent, therefore, is to experience union with God in the same way in which Abrahm and Moses did in the flaming torch and burning bush, respectively (as we heard the Second and Third Sundays of Lent this year), and as did the disciples witnessing the Transfiguration upon Mount Tabor (as we always hear on the Second Sunday of Lent).

Reading to Live

Between Vigils and Morning Prayer (Lauds) and again after Morning Prayer until the Mass I joined with the monks in lectio divina—each in our own rooms and in our own way. I found my sacred reading enriched by finishing during other parts of the day several books about the practice of lectio divina which I had begun previously including Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina by Raymond Studzinski, OSB (Cistercian Publications, 2009) and Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Archbishop Mariano Magrassi, OSB (Liturgical Press, 1998). The former especially provided excellent models of a typological reading of scripture, a topic on which I had given a presentation at a neighboring parish a few weeks ago as the basis of their parish retreat on Old Testament Origins of the Eucharist. Studzinski’s excellent and recent study of the history and revival of lectio divina is an erudite genealogy of the Christian use of scripture as divine revelation for the formation of a new self. Weaving together insights from Origen, Augustine, Bernard, and contemporary authors with the precise analysis of literary theory and the philosophy of reading, Studzinski lays the groundwork for the recovery of spiritual literacy through the art of lectio divina. I am now in the process of distilling some of this and applying it to the use of scripture within Christian initiation ministry for LTP‘s Catechumenate in order to supplement the existing analogy of breaking open the Word with the rich notion of unveiling God in his Word through lectio divina.

In the Book of Joshua I was shown a glimpse of this kind of spiritual reading as my reading lead me to somehow identify myself with Caleb who, at the command of the Lord through Joshua (the same name as Jesus, really), had been sent to reconnoitre the land the Lord had promised to the Israelites. This land, it turned out, included Mount Tabor. Caleb is told that “the land his foot has trodden will be a heritage for him and his children forever” (Josh 14:9). Here, in this, was the Lord speaking to me that the highlands of Judea, the same Mount Tabor where God revealed his glory in his Son, would belong to me and to my children—though not exclusively of course. I’ve experienced this as indicating that the nearness of God I have beheld, the fulfillment of the promises made to me ad I crossed the waters of baptism to be elected as his beloved son, would never be lost. Later on, as the chosen people are to take possession of the land the difficulty of clearing the high mountain of its forest and driving out the powerful Canaanites (Josh 17:18) becomes the focus. Herein I was lead to see that, just as the choice Pilate puts before the crowd to release either the rebel or the obedient servant of the Lord, I too must decide to do the work of driving out or cutting down the elements within me, the inhabitants of my own land so to speak, that are not obedient to the will of the Lord if I am to know him upon the heights that remain mine. Within this same land, the former city of Kiriath-Arba (now Hebron) comes subsequently to be taken, to be set-apart from the inheritance of Caleb, itself within the patrimony of Judah, as a city for the sons of Aaron (the priests) as a city of refuge. Here I am at this abbey, experiencing the peace, the sanctuary and refuge of the Lord, and this is a part of my heritage being singled-out and set apart for the Lord in sacrificial service. Of course the Book of Joshua then ends with the assembly of all the faithful, each now with their own inheritance, who promise together with Joshua, that the Lord our God is the one whom we shall serve; his voice alone shall we obey (Josh 24:24). Herein I have heard the voice of God telling me to enter fully, not partially, not tentatively, not temporarily like one in a tent, but fully, completely, and permanently into the vocation, the inheritance, he has set before me and promised me. As I come down from Mount Tabor it is no time for setting up booths or tents but rather it is time to drive out all that prevents me from living fully in Joshua who said, As for me and my family, we shall serve the Lord (24:15).

During other parts of the day, thanks to the otium that accompanies such a retreat from the world, I had plenty of time for additional reading. Silence, a compelling and disquieting novel by the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo, explored the silence of God in the face of the persecution of the 17th century missionary to Japan, Giuseppe Chiara, fictionalized by Endo as the Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues. Partnership with Christ: A Cistercian Retreat by Eugene Boylan, OCSO (Cistercian, 2008) provided a deceptively simple but no less profound and poignant structure to my week at Mepkin as I followed along the seventeen conferences the late Irish Trappist had delivered at this very place in 1958 as well as at Mepkin’s mother and sister houses, Gethsemani and Conyers, respectively. I also managed to do some reading in Mepkin’s extensive library including some insightful conferences, papers, and homilies given by the late Abbot Francis Kline, OCSO and a beautiful photo book, L’abbaye cistercienne en France from which I took notes of places I hope to visit with Miriam and Michelle this summer.

On two days I was able to share with the monks in some of their manual labor. On Tuesday I worked with Brother Alan, a postulant responsible for the cultivation of the oyster mushroom by means of which Mepkin Abbey now largely sustains itself. I carried spent mushroom columns from the trailer in which they’re grown to a truck and transported them to a Quonset-hut where I cut them open and added the mycelia, straw, and other media to an enormous vermicompost mound that will become another crop the community sells, Earth Healer. The subsequent day I worked with Rodney, an observer who has been living at Mepkin for nearly a year, in order to prepare the straw and other filler which we inoculated with the mushroom spores, loaded into bags, and placed them in a temperature- and humidity-controlled trailer where they will incubate before the fruit is harvested. What I found was that, just like the juxtaposition of prayer and various kinds of reading on other days fosters creative connections to be made between the manifold ideas, so too did the the manual labor allow me to ruminate on the word I had been given earlier that day in lectio divina and to see connections between the processes of disposing and making mushroom media and the spiritual life in the same way that these monks have found a way not only to make a living but also to find peace by bringing life forth from darkness wherein others would only have seen detritus and the victory of their enemies over them.

Fortunately I was given great graces to conquer the land I had been given as, like the disciples returning with Jesus from the mountain where he had lead them to be alone with him, I too was besieged upon my return (Luke 6:12, 17-18) which in my case included trying to communicate with an irate neighbor, tending to my wife made ill by her flight to California with Miriam (about which there is a forthcoming post), coping with our beagle who is dying of throat cancer, consoling my mother who is being forced to resign from her job under unjust pretenses, and ministerial responsibilities that included the spiritual retreat for the elect in anticipation of the First Scrutiny and the the liturgical preparation thereof, filling in for a catechumenate catechist who’d forgotten he was scheduled, and setting up for and leading discussions in conjunction with an advance screening of the first episode of Father Robert Barron’s ten-part documentary, Catholicism, after all Masses this past weekend. In the end, as was the core of Partnership with Christ, it must be said of my retreat that he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) for since when I am emptied and have passed fully over to God he alone will dwell in me and do his will, a will which is perfect and will bring me and others abundant life in the land he has promised such as none can imagine.

One thought on “Inheriting Tabor: Lenten Retreat

  1. Pingback: Soil and Sacrament | iCasad

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