By: Paul P. Jesep*/TRT Columnist—
Over the Christmas holiday, I spent three nights in Vermont’s Green Mountains on a spiritual retreat. Never before had I seen so many stars. Bright, magical, and twinkling. On Christmas Eve night, I wanted to believe I had seen the Bethlehem Star. And no, I didn’t have too much eggnog with rum while watching a Christmas-themed movie.
In most windows of the guest house were views of either forests or mountains. I had to walk a half mile each way from my room to the church for several services in the Benedictine tradition held throughout the day.
At night and early morning the day was blacker than black, but for the stars above. You needed a flashlight to walk the dirt road. The mountain winds were cold, strong, and empowering. Tree branches danced with the winds and together made hauntingly beautiful sounds.
As a fan of vampire and werewolf movies, I had to stop my mind from occasionally wandering from inner stillness to a comical, unsettledness about things that go bump in the night. The little critters like minks could easily be perceived as something supernatural wanting me for a meal.
Everyone—atheist, agnostic, believer, humanist, and searching—could benefit from at least one spiritual retreat each year. There are many types, some LGBTQ-themed, others LGBTQ inclusive, and many avoiding what’s been defined as the “culture wars.” These retreats can be directed by someone at the monastery or community or they can be self-driven where you make it what you want and participate in as many formal worship services as you think best.
Just before arriving at the monastery I drove my car into a ditch. I had no cell service. Snow clouds moved in. I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, and needed a tow truck. Obviously, I lived to write about it, but oy.
Let’s just say a Christmas miracle occurred when, as the snow fell, a rough-looking man came out of the woods. After I was towed, I made my way to the monastic retreat.
It had been a challenging 12 months personally and professionally and the New Year will offer greater tests spiritually, professionally, and emotionally. Also, the presidential election caused extraordinary angst and I listened to the concerns from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers needing a reassuring ear.
I was positive and genuine for all of them. It would be intellectually dishonest if I told you I had no anxiety regarding the next four years, especially about judicial appointments.
My reality, and possibly yours, is anxiety and it must be managed. I avoid bakeries and keep my cupboards empty or stocked with protein bars (ich). There are now longer and additional walks in my week. I look at the news less, though I stay connected. Patiently, I must still teach myself to respond, not react. I’m still learning to measure my responses to injustice.
In the end, my Vermont sojourn was the first step in a long road to a much-needed inner renewal, but hardly a spiritual awakening. I didn’t hear the voice of God. Problems and worry for others didn’t go away. I didn’t try to pray away poverty or injustice. Misguided prayer, if I did.
Walking the dirt road in Vermont through a mountain forest looking into the starlit sky, however, was a spiritual experience where time stood still. Sometimes I daringly flashed my light into a grove of trees in the dead of night and saw snow covered beauty. There were no evil creatures stalking me.
Perhaps seeing constellations and walking among trees while hearing them dance with the wind in the surrounding forest was the Creator working through Holy Sophia-Divine Wisdom. Maybe I was being taught another lesson about perspective. In hindsight, I heard the Giver of Life’s whisper as I walked under the stars, among the trees, and between the mountains.
Quiet time in Vermont fueled my humanity and supported personal courage to keep challenging uncertainty. I reflected on the past year during my drive through the mountains to and from New York reflecting on how to challenge uncertainty with integrity and persistence.
Unfortunately, my almost-mystical spiritual sojourn came to an end as Doris Day popped into my head singing “Que Sera, Sera”(“What will be, will be.”). The Creator has an odd, annoying sense of humor. Sometimes you just have to let things go, move on, and not overthink life. Que Sera, Sera.
*Paul is a corporate chaplain, lawyer in the Albany, NY area, and author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis.”