On a summer’s weekend, we gathered for our first Kalchaino Retreat Weekend. A spacious coast house, walks and swims at a beautiful beach, and a dynamic group of young people, made for a special experience for us all.
The theme for our retreat, ‘Contemplation and Vocation’ gave scope for exploring what it means to live a contemplative life, what resources and gifts enable us to be more contemplative, and how we can listen to our lives to discern our vocations.
With any weekend away, there are incidental and spontaneous conversations and experiences that contribute to the shape of things. These cannot be so easily captured afterwards, but stay in our memories as part of what we enjoyed and appreciated. What follows though is a brief description of our ‘Gatherings’ – the times we met to share reflections, stories, conversation and creative responses, as a small community.
Gathering One – Contemplation and Meditation
Contemplation is a way of seeing life, of looking at life from a particular viewpoint. It is essentially the recognition that reality is given, that God IS, and that we don’t have to make it all happen but can rest in this reality, allowing it to shape our lives and our responses. The contemplative movement is a profound response to the struggles of a frenetic, busy world, offering an alternative way to see and approach life.
There are many practices that support us in fostering a contemplative way of being in the world, practices that bring us back to places of stillness, silence and solitude, practices that connect us with the deepest places within us and the deepest reality beyond us, God.
Michael Leunig, in the introduction to his book ‘When I Talk to You,’ poetically describes the importance of fostering rituals which recognise the inner life and help us connect with it. He describes such rituals as ways of watering the garden that is our life, and suggests that meditation is a gentle way of doing this for ourselves. He describes meditation as a pathway that invites a freer way of being with ourselves and with God, a form of prayer that creates a spaciousness within us that flows into our life.
Meditation was an integral part of the weekend – both learning about it and practising silent meditation as a group. We talked about the barriers that are commonly cited about meditating – that it can be dull and it can seem like nothing happens, that we are restless and distracted and no good at it! But we also talked about how the invitation is simply to begin again each time, trusting that gradually we learn the practice and come to know how it nurtures us in our lives.
Mornings and evenings, we gathered to meditate, in silence, practising the use of a mantra to still our minds and using the breath to foster stillness.
Gathering Two – The Ishness of Life
In the contemplative tradition, a healthy way of being is described as ‘detachment’. This is a way of being where we are able to view ourselves and our lives from a place of inner freedom, a way of being where, because we know that we are accepted and loved in God, we can accept and love ourselves more easily.
We grow up and live in a world which is increasingly evaluative, comparative and judgemental. We are constantly expected to work competitively, measuring ourselves against criteria and against others. We begin to run a soundtrack in our heads about how we are going, whether we are good enough, how we measure up, how we compare. Whether judging ourselves positively or negatively, this soundtrack is self-oriented and often anxious. This incessant evaluation trips us at every turn and causes us to lose a sense of wholeness, enoughness and goodness.
In the story called ‘Ish’ by Peter H Reynolds, the child Ramon, goes on a journey of self discovery of this very nature. Drawing joyfully and constantly as a form of self-expression, Ramon is one day shocked by the ridicule of his brother. He then begins to screw up his drawings, feeling that they aren’t right. He is almost on the brink of giving up when he discovers that his sister has collected each of his drawings, claiming that they are ‘flower-ish’ and ‘vase-ish’ and created a ‘crumpled gallery’ of them all. This changes his whole view. Suddenly Ramon is free again to draw ‘ishly’ everything that he sees, thinks and feels. He sees his offerings differently and himself differently.
We are invited to recognise that a life lived ‘ishly’ is a freer life. We need not follow the path of perfectionism, the pressures of competition or the endless expectations from around. We can learn, instead, to offer what we offer in any given moment with openness and trust, without measuring it against some inner judgement. If we mess up, we will have a chance to sort it out. If we want to improve a skill, we can commit to practising it. If we want to achieve a particular goal, we can do so wholeheartedly. But we can do these things from a different place within ourselves – a place where we are detached from the cycle of praise and blame, from the cycle of making everything self-referencing, from the cycle of constant comparison and evaluation. We do not stop caring, but what we care about shifts. We begin to care deeply about offering our authentic self as wholeheartedly as we can.
To help us recognise the voices of expectation, pressure and opinion that are particularly loud for us personally, we explored some cartoons, by artist Kate Knapp from her book “It’s not always black and white.” In this delightful book, birds of various shape and size are quirkily depicted as having simple (but profound) conversations with one another. A few are photographed below:
Creative responses to these cartoons included colourful paintings, mini magazines, sketches, poetry and other creations. The consensus was clear – we all recognise the power of expectation and opinion in putting pressure on us, and the gift it would be to ourselves to gradually free ourselves from them. We can live from a place of healthy detachment and self-acceptance, a place of inner freedom and generosity. Such a place is gentler, more open, more compassionate, shaping not only how we regard ourselves but how we regard others and the world around us.
Gathering Three – The Meaning of Vocation
Listening to our lives is an invitation, a calling, a skill, a way of being. Listening to our lives is a way of paying attention to ourselves, our responses, our context, our community, our world. Listening to our lives enables an open and responsive way of living that changes the nature of our journey and our sense of vocation in the world.
To live as listeners is to allow life to unfold as we hear different things along the way. Rather than living a planned life in which we are enslaved by goals and expectations, we live instead a summoned life that is unfolding and relational.
We are responsive to what we notice about ourselves – our passions, feelings, interests, energies… We are responsive to the ‘Other’ – the network of relations in which we are embedded and ultimately to God’s Spirit, the energy that sustains all life.
From a stance of listening we begin to have a sense that our first vocation, our first calling, is to a way of being in the world, and from there to a way of living well in our particular circumstances and gradually to particular pathways that may include careers or relationships or specific contexts in which we offer what is ours to offer.
The storybook ‘What do you do with an idea?’ by Kobi Yamada offers a delightful way of exploring aspects of vocation. Through the imagery of what ‘an idea’ might look like in 3D and the conversations between this idea and the protagonist, readers are invited to wonder what ideas might be theirs to listen to, attend to, explore and follow. Our response to this story was to model, with clay, 3D ‘ideas’ that captured some part of our lives – something that captured our childhood experiences, something that captured our sense of where we are in life just now, something that suggested a possibility or hint about the future.
We then considered the kinds of questions that are asked when living a contemplative life; questions that can help us to discern our directions and choices.
Where is the energy for me in this situation?
What am I drawn to?
What is going on in my reactions, actions, thoughts and feelings?
Who do I identify with?
What am I paying attention to?
Gathering Four – Integrity and Story
To live with integrity is to live with honesty and truth, in a way that is whole; whole in its truthfulness to ourselves and whole in its response to what is around us.
Part of living from a place of an integrity involves knowing ourselves and coming to understand what goes on within us. We are more than the thoughts and ideas in our minds. We also have intelligence in other parts of our body – our heart and our gut. We use the language of this commonly: we talk about heartfelt responses and the thoughts of our hearts; or gut instincts and having a gut feeling about something. These intelligence require sensitive listening – for these parts of our body don’t use language; they use sensations. Another gift of meditation is that it is a way of stilling ourselves long enough such that we can notice these sensations more readily. We slow down enough to pay attention and get in touch with deeper parts of ourselves. When we can listen to the whole of ourselves, we have a rich resource of knowing that can guide us in our decision making and life choices. We can be more at ease within ourselves and more trusting of ourselves. Our knowing can help us feel more confident.
Living with integrity is also about honouring the relationships we have around us, the community and context in which we live and what it offers us and asks of us. We are in a diverse world full of complexities and struggles that we cannot ignore. There are people around us who can help us name and know parts of ourselves. There are issues that we care about and want to respond to. Holding all of this in the balance, as we try to make choices, shape our lives and live well, can be challenging.
Listening to and learning from stories, both our own and others’, is a powerful way of hearing new things. As we tell our own stories we often talk our way into a new truth or insight. As we hear others’ stories we recognise parts of ourselves or hear new perspectives or discover new ideas. Stories are a resource that offer us much as we learn to listen more attentively in life.
Telling stories from a particular perspective can be a rich source of insight. We discussed the profound words of Frederick Buechner:
“The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness
and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
When we think of ‘need’ in our world, it can be overwhelming. We cannot possibly meet the world’s needs. But we can do the true (sometimes small) things, that are ours to do, that have a ripple effect of goodness in the world.
We told each other stories of an experience we’d had in the past week that made us feel glad. We listened to this gladness and wondered about what it said to us and to each other about us. We realised that within the gladness were some truths about who we are and what we offer, and that in the experiences there was goodness and possibility for our small corners of the world.
Gathering Five – Trusting the Unfolding
The journey of life is an unfolding journey, when we hold it lightly, listen attentively and live responsively. When we live contemplatively, we see that our vocation is to live in congruence with our truest self, our own gifts, our particular offering… It is to do with listening for the ‘Other’ and what WE are called to be and bring – which won’t be the same as the next person.
As well as the other gifts it offers us, the practice of meditation enables us to trust this unfolding, to trust that we can live with unknowing, a sense of mystery and a belief in our connectedness to the ultimate reality of God.
When we are living an unfolding life, we learn to trust that there will be times of unknowing. As we pay attention to this way of living, we learn that things cycle around, that there are things that are coming to fruition now that began years ago and that there are seeds within us now that may not fruit for many years to come. We learn to trust ‘Kairos’ time – the ripening or fulfilment of time which cannot be hurried or grasped.
We can be helped to stay steady in times of unknowing and slow unfolding by remembering those things that we CAN trust and that we DO know. Each of us reflected on four knowings:
Something we can trust about ourselves…
Something we can trust about others…
Something we can trust about life…
Something we can trust about God…
Rich and varied responses included:
I can trust that I am committed to growth
I can trust that I always give things my best effort
I can trust that I always care about my values
I can trust that others will always offer another perspective
I can trust that there will always be someone around I can talk to
I can trust that life always changes and new things arise
I can trust that life is both impermanent and will go on
I can trust that God is there
I can trust that God is waiting and present
I can trust that God is the source of peace
We finished this final Gathering time together, by choosing a card from a beautiful selection of messages. Each card had an artistic representation of a phrase that began with the word ‘BE…’ and invited us to consider how we might ‘BE…’ in response to the retreat experience, how we might ‘BE…’ back in our everyday lives.
(‘be…’ tin of cards from http://www.theartofbeing.com.au )
And a final poem from John O’Donohue:
I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.