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Retreat Update--Looking At the Bigger Picture

alec vanderboom

I walked into this retreat feeling pretty lousy. Physically, I'm weak from my pregnancy. Emotionally, I felt low. I'm at 12 weeks. I've lost one son at 13 weeks and another son (less than 6 months ago) at 15 weeks. I felt like I kept asking myself "Who does this?" Who decides to have a baby only a few months after a loss? Who has 6 kids anymore? Even if some women do, I'm not the "together Mom" who finds pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum nursing life easy. Why the heck am I trying to do this again at age 39?

I went to a retreat wit 50 Lay Carmelites from 4 different states. The experience was so amazing! I felt like God was backing me up and encouraging me to look at the bigger picture. I'd gotten so hung up in what felt like a "Y" in the road ahead of me. Either I was going to be adding another baby's name to the cemetery stone in a few weeks or I would go through many more weeks of uncertainty and end up with a newborn. I had zero control of this outcome and that feeling of being out of control was causing me so much anxiety.

The bigger picture is a reminder of why I was on this path in the first place. I had these vivid memories of being 21 and single as a college student in London. I used to hang out at the churches of Westminister and St. Paul's and listen to the choir sing Vespers. I loved it so much. To me it was like a free choir concert. I couldn't figure out why all the tourists weren't hanging out there at 5 PM like me. I know now that this was my first experience praying the Daily Office. Now that is my job as a Carmelite.

It was so beautiful to remember all these happy memories I had of praying in church when I was 5 and 21 and 32. In the Carmelite tradition, we talk about this notion of being "seized by God." Faith isn't something that is about "choice" or "reason." I didn't chose to be a Christian that same way I picked out what gym I wanted to belong to or what diet to feed my children.

In this retreat, I felt this clarity about what my mission is on earth. Everything sort of "fit." I figured out a better way to do homeschooling. I figured out why I was being asked to do this move. I felt community. I gained peace. I made a promise to better practice solitude, get to the gym more and eat better food.

The heart is a tricky muscle. I feel that once I get my heart clear, everything else becomes easier.

During the retreat we gave a lot of thought to Pope Francis' advice to our Carmelite Order. "Within your Rule is the heart of the Carmelite mission then and now. As you approach the eight centenary of the death of Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1214, you will recall that he formulated 'a way of life' a space that enables you to live a spirituality that is orientated towards Christ. he outlines both external and internal elements, a physical ecology of space and the spiritual armor needed in order to fulfill one's vocation and mission.

In a world that often misunderstands Christ, and in fact rejects him, you are invited to draw near and to unite yourselves more closely with him. It is a continuous call to follow Christ and be conformed to him. This is of vital importance in our world so disoriented, "for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim." (Lumen Fidei 4) Christ is present in your fraternity, your common worship and in the ministry entrusted to you; renew the allegiance of your whole life!"

The main theme of this retreat was the importance of Memory. Our retreat leader, Father Jim, said "Negative Memories kill! Positive Memories give us life and propel us forward!" He talked about the formation of our order in the 12th Century. Our order came out of the trauma of the Crusades. This is my modern words, but I think there were about 30 soldiers who probably had a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They had gone to the Holy Land out of obedience to their Faith. They had seen such horrible bloodshed. They had seen their Christian leaders not act well. They were ordered to do acts that made them ashamed. Everything they held as a core belief now felt totally lost and mixed up.

When the army was told to pack up and go home to Europe, about 30 of these soldiers felt like they couldn't go home. They had these horrible, crippling, negative memories. Instead, they set up camp on the beautiful, garden like area of Mount Carmel. The monks wrote beautifully about how 30 years of watching sunrises on Mount Carmel cleansed every negative memory. Their positive memories on Mount Carmel gave them a new life. Over time, the monks got organized under a "way of life" set down by the Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Albert. We still follow the "Rule of St. Albert" today.

Then disaster happened. A hostile army came too Mount Carmel and started killing people. A lot of monks watched their good friends get beheaded on this peaceful mountain top. The few survivors had to go back to Europe after an absence of more than 30 years. The monks really started to panic. They felt like migrants inside their own country. They worried that everything they had built up on Mount Carmel would fall away.

Instead, they established an order that has lasted 800 years! These monks found that they could carry the peace of Mount Carmel inside themselves, as they went back into the modern world. They were "contemplatives in the world."

It's so amazing to be apart of something that is so old and yet so current. I could relate so well to this part of history so well. We're in the middle of a ten year war in Afghanistan. My sister is actually in Kabal right now. This same struggle of how to replace negative memories with positive memories is also happening every Thursday in my 12 step program.

I feel so energized. I feel really hopeful. I'm excited to be in this forgotten corner of earth doing hidden daily work that is going to matter far into the future. Go Carmel!