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Notes From A Carmelite Retreat

alec vanderboom

"Your unique presence in your community is the way God wants you to be present to others. Different people have different ways to be present. You have to know and claim your way. That is why discernment is so important. Once you have an inner knowledge of your true vocation, you have a point of orientation. That will help you decide what to do and what to let go of, what to say and what to remain silent about, who to be with and who to avoid.

When you get exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, or run down your body is saying that you are doing things that are none of your business. God does not require of you what is beyond your ability, what leads you away from God, or what makes you depressed and sad.

God wants you to live for others and to live that presence well. Doing so might include suffering, fatigue, and even moments of great physical and emotional pain, but none of this must ever pull you away from your deepest self and God."

---Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

This quote I read from a handout on a retreat with a Carmelite priest last weekend really knocked me out. I loved the contrast. There are going to be moments of great emotional and physical pain during my walk with Christ. Yet I'm not supposed to feel chronically "exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed or run down." That is a sign that I'm "doing things that are none of my business."

The theme of this retreat was Mark 6:31 and the priest had us all memorize Jesus' four instructions to us.

--come away with me
--by yourself
--to a desert place
--and rest awhile

The traditional place that Jesus went to recharge from his ministry was the lake, the mountain and the desert. We need to get to those places. We need to take frequent retreats. Yet we also need to withdraw in prayer every day, whether it is 5 minutes or 30 minutes.

The priest talked about being alone with God helps us strip away the "false identities" the world is always forcing upon us. Time alone with God, is time to figure out our true talents, our vocation (to choose it or to stay on it), and also our desires. Prayer helps us "get on the path and stay on the path."

One of the fathers in my group said "this is the first time I'm hearing about desires being good. I thought we were supposed to die to Christ." (i.e. Aren't I supposed to aways ignore my desire to play golf on Saturday morning in order to be around my 5 kids).

To answer, the Carmelite priest pointed out a major difference between the Buddhism and Christianity. For the Buddhist, "all is suffering and the cause of all suffering is desire." In order to end suffering, one is supposed to annihilate the self.

In Christianity, the self is called into union with God. He said you can think of desires as "good energies" which launch us (the arrow) into God (the target). Now he cautioned us, we Christians need to work at purifying our desires. He gave us the example of Love. Good love leads us to Marriage with our spouse, and our path to union with God. Bad love is lust, which leads us to sin.

I was really encouraged after this talk to think about Talents, Vocation, and Desires. The fact that I'm a married women with six kids is going to impact how I pursue my talents and my desires, but it doesn't extinguish them. I can write. I can play the cello. I can be an entrepreneur and a social butterfly.

Obviously, I'm not going to play my favorite summer sport of tennis while I'm on modified bed rest during pregnancy. My baby's health comes first. But generally, there is going to be a way for me to express my talents and desires in a way that compliments my job as a mother rather than competes with it. Working with my unique desires means that for me personally, running on the treadmill at the YMCA feels like a job, but a game of tennis feels like play. This coming winter, when I'm trying to lose my baby weight and I've got a non-sleeping newborn in my house, hanging out some nights at an indoor tennis court might be just the thing I need to fight burn-out.

At this retreat, it felt good to just reclaim my identity as a Mary of Bethany follower in a world that seems overrun with Martha's complaining about a lack of help in the kitchen. The rest of the world can do motherhood their way. Me and Jesus we're just sitting here chillin' together. I'm taking on this giant hunk of family responsibility at a nice relaxed pace with lots of time for prayer and recreation.

St. John Vianney, pray for us!