My annual retreat was cancelled because of the pandemic. The retreat director, though, is offering an alternative, on-line retreat. Instead of eight days, she is offering eight weeks of virtual retreat.
Every Sunday, she sends prayers, scripture passages, reflection questions and poetry, plus a link to a video with reflections and guided meditations.
Last Sunday, during a guided meditation, the director invited us to recall a time when we felt safe—perhaps a childhood memory or a particular place or person. She gave us a bit of silence to recall.
But the recollection time she allotted was not enough for me, because I could not remember a time when I felt safe.
I had to pause the video, as I flipped through memories of my childhood and came up empty—no places or events when I felt safe for any length of time.
There were moments, glimpses into how safety might feel, but my anxiety and feelings of dread usually rush in before I can hunker down into a deep sense of security.
I am the person who asks, “Is it safe?” when someone tells me she is going for a walk in a park or for a bike ride alone. I am attuned to incidents of unsafety—a runner mugged, someone carjacked, purses snatched, etc. Every incident reinforces my not feeling safe.
Even where I go on retreat is carefully researched. A friend once suggested a place he had gone—”lots of woods nearby for walking,” he said. “I can’t walk through the woods,” I said. I need a retreat center with open grounds.
Eventually, a memory surfaced from when I was thirty-five—a weeklong windjammer cruise off the coast of Maine, my first real vacation.
I grew up in a house where planning a vacation was useless because something always happened to cause plans to be abandoned, or at least changed so dramatically that they bore little resemblance to what had been planned. The lesson was don’t make plans.
But after several years of therapy, I was ready to move against my history and plan a vacation. I loved being on the water and a windjammer cruise sounded like something I could relax into.
A friend agreed to go with me, and we booked our August trip the prior January—eight months of worry about what could go wrong. But, other than a minor traffic delay on the way to Maine, the trip happened as planned.
Every morning, I would wake at my usual 6:00 a.m. and sit in silence on the deck, sipping my coffee and praying in gratitude. Throughout that week, I remember being aware of how relaxed I was, how comfortable I was in my own skin. This is what it is like to feel safe, I remember thinking.
Then another memory surfaced: A massage therapist suggesting that every night before I go to sleep, I take a deep breath and say, “I am safe.”
I returned to the retreat video gratefully holding these two memories.
A recent magazine article evoked memories of something that
happened thirty years ago, a short chapter in my life I had not thought about in
all these years.
As I allowed the scene to play out in my mind, certain
details of the people involved came into sharp focus. I remember the names and
faces of people who were part of my life for only a few months.
Two men came into my life because one of the men was dying
and needed a place to go for the final weeks of his life. I was living in a
guest house and was happy to welcome them during this difficult time.
Once this memory resurfaced, I let it play out, allowing the
scenes of everyday life with these two men to present themselves. I recalled
the people who came to visit them, and I remembered one visitor in particular whose
fidelity I greatly admired.
And then I asked God what invitation this memory is offering me. Why now? Why these people and their situation? Why such sharp details?
St. Paul encourages us to forget the past and move on to the
future (Philippians 3:13), and I get that. But sometimes the past can hold an
invitation or a gift that is helpful to the present.
I have chapters in my past that I would rather not revisit—dark
times when I behaved badly and did hurtful things. But just because I try to
ignore them does not mean they go away. And sometimes revisiting them can offer
a clue to some healing that I need now.
Evelyn Underhill prayed, O Lord, penetrate those murky
corners where I hide memories and tendencies on which I do not care to look,
but which I will not disinter and yield freely up to you, that you may purify
and transmute them.
I have been praying this prayer for the past six months or
so, and maybe God is answering with memories like this one from thirty years
ago. Maybe it is revealing a tendency on which I do not care to look but which
needs to not only be looked at but offered to God for healing.
Underhill ends her prayer, Lord, I bring all these to you, and I review them in your steadfast light.
For me, the goal and the gift of the spiritual life is freedom—the
freedom to live with open hands, accepting whatever comes to me. To do that, I
need God’s light to shine a spotlight on those places where I am unfree—my comfort
God invites me to move beyond my comfort zone and to face
what limits my freedom.
Unfortunately, a large portion of my comfort zone is filled
with negativity and insecurity, and I struggle to see my own goodness.
God invites me to replace negative self-talk with affirmations.
Maybe this memory came back to me to remind me of my generosity in giving this man a place to live his final days.
We took my mom’s car when we went up north a few weeks ago; it is a classic “low mileage, only driven to church and shopping” elderly person’s car. As I adjusted the mirrors, I was aware that the blind spot on the driver’s side was a bit different from the blind spot in my car, and I made a note to pay attention.
A few days after that trip, the idea of blind spots came back to me—not the car kind but the psychological sort. I had been reflecting on a conversation from earlier that day; I had been criticizing someone’s behavior. In replaying my words, though, I realized I was actually envious.
It was an epiphany.
I pride myself on being able to accept life as it is, on being content with what I have. But, I now see that this has been a blind spot, and I am not as content as I like to think—at least in some parts of my life.Our brains are predisposed toward patterns (or so says the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon) so once our brains register something new, we are naturally more inclined to see this thing again.
My first awareness of being envious happened a few months ago, and I was surprised to recognize this trait in myself. But now, a few months later, I can see much more clearly that envy has long been part of my life. It was probably there all along, but I was blind to it.
Now that my eyes have been opened, though, I am quite aware of how often I think and say things that betray my idealized self-portrayal.
And upon reflection, I see past times when I thought I was merely being observational, but really I was envious.
I remember one incident from college that I now see in a different light. I went to a Catholic college run by Augustinian Friars who take a vow of poverty. Fr. John was my confessor. He was smart, kind and compassionate. And he was a frequent traveler—to Florida over Christmas break or Rome on spring break or someone’s shore house in the summer or….
“My goal,” I told him, “is to be as poor as you are so I can see the world on someone else’s dime.” He laughed. At the time, I thought I was merely being observational (and perhaps witty); now I can see that I was envious.
Ironically, I have traveled the world on other people’s money. I have been showered with an abundance of opportunity, generosity and kindness. And I am deeply grateful.
Yet, here I was the other day, grousing about someone getting a workshop paid for—even though a month earlier, I had attended a workshop that someone else paid for. Talk about a blind spot!
Now that this blind spot have been revealed, I can be more attentive to the insecurity that causes me to be envious and take steps toward being more grateful and content.