Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Faith Walk: Prologue

This prologue begins a series of transcription of journal entries I made during my second retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY that occurred from May 28 to May 30, 2004.

Prologue: 1st Gethsemani Retreat August 15-17, 2003
Thomas Merton, in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, wrote, “Without a life of the spirit our whole existence becomes unsubstantial and illusory.”[1] In May of 2003 when I booked an August weekend retreat at Gethesemani Abbey, I had not yet read these words. I did not realize at the time that God’s spirit was influencing me, hoping that in my free will that I would act on His exhortation. I did act and His paternal love and mercy were revealed to me those many months later.

Gethsemani is situated among the rolling hills in the middle of Kentucky well off the main highways. The Abbey is surrounded by fields and miles of wooded land in which several small lakes are hidden. When you are on retreat at Gethsemani, it is almost entirely a silent respite. Your time is not directed. You are free to attend any of the eight daily prayer and worship periods of the monks with the first, Vigils, occurring at 3:15 AM. You have a room with linens supplied and meals are provided. You are absolved of any duties during your stay according to Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, which states the guest represents Christ and has a claim on the welcome and care of the community. The monks, the facilities, the worship services, and the surrounding miles of nature see to it that external distractions are removed. Merton, a monk at Gethsemani for twenty-seven years, described this atmosphere as a place “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God—to pray for your own discovery.” The purpose of a Gethsemani retreat is communion with God through prayer, meditation, worship, and personal reflection. I cannot imagine anyone having a lukewarm experience in this place.

On the second day of my retreat, a beautiful Saturday morning with the sun burning off the early morning mist, I went for a walk to the statues of the Garden of Gethsemane. The statues are two life size sculptures, one depicting the apostles sleeping in the garden and the other of Christ praying in agony.[2] A serene hike through the woods and over a hill brings you to an opening meadow. In this large, mowed meadow is a copse engulfing a small hill where the statues are located. I did not proceed directly into the woods via the statue path, but decided to walk around the edge of the thicket in the meadow.

The edge of the thicket was a deep, impenetrable wall of wild flowers with bees and insects performing a wonderful symphony of nature. I was completely alone as I strolled around the far side of the hill. As I walked, I began to concentrate and reflect on the main purpose I had for this retreat. Not a purpose I consciously had three months prior, but a thorn that had recently moved from periodic discomfort to a pain of very sharp focus.

Over the last three years, I had been struggling with stress and unhappiness, even though my religious life was more active than ever. I was more involved at church, and I had started attending a small, intimate men’s fellowship. Yet, I was not content. Job stress seemed never ending. My marriage was not as intimate as it should be and was even contentious at times. I was searching for inner peace, but it eluded me. The only things that were bringing me happiness were my precious daughter, worship, listening to music or reading in solitude, and my men’s group. My unhappiness at work and home quickly brought me out of those fleeting moments of peace.

My crisis was that I was miserable trying to please others. I felt I could not do enough to please my wife, my boss, or the company president. This is not necessarily an indictment of these individuals; they were just the people in my life that required the most time and accountability. My self worth and acceptance have always been tied too much to what I perceived others think. I tend to associate my mistakes with failure. Small embarrassments become lingering trauma. I worry about what my peers’ and my acquaintances’ opinions of me are. Of all the circles in which I have moved throughout my life, schools, jobs, churches, etc., only in a very few have I felt that I truly fit. This behavior was slowly devouring me. In my men’s fellowship, we were studying simplicity and a contemplative life. I defined what this meant to me as peace of soul, a contentment that is removed from circumstance. I defined it, but why could I not achieve it?

I had discussed my struggles with a counselor and she asked me if I thought God was ever unhappy with me? I answered most assuredly. I sin, and He must get angry over some of the things I do. “Does this depress you in the same way?” she asked? I answered “no”, and she questioned, “why not?” I thought hard on this for a week. The answer I arrived at was God’s assured love for me, His grace through Christ. I have salvation despite my failings. She posed the question, “If you can see God this way and accept yourself because of it, even with sin, why do you elevate the opinion of others above this?” Merton described this paradox so well when he wrote:

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real! [1]

Coming to Gethsemani I had reached a breaking point and God knew it. I just could not survive work and home anymore basing my feelings of self on the emotions of those around me. As I moved around the backside of the hill, I began to contemplate and pray about my unhappiness. I realized that I was basing my identity, not on Christ, but on my perceptions of the judgments of others. My minister, Tim Woodroof, had said we must find our identity in Christ alone. We are not spouses, fathers and mothers, business people, doctors, ministers etc. We are Christians.
I knew it as truth but I was not practicing it. Alone in contemplation and prayer, all this came to me in internal acceptance and understanding. How often do we know a truth in our minds, but fail to accept it in our hearts?

The light hit me in this meadow, my road to Damascus. God said to my heart, “I am your identity, accept it. Let go of what others think of you, or worse, what you think they think. I let my Son die for you. What more do you need to know about yourself?” [Ro. 5:1-5] Tears flowed. I am okay; not perfect, but loved by God. It is only through Christ that I am made perfect, and He loved me enough to die doing so. [Jn. 16:33]

I proceeded back to the statues and entered the wood to view them. I knelt down to pray in front of the sculpture of Jesus on His knees, head lifted heavenward, hands clasped over His face, praying in agony. I lifted up a prayer of thanks for God’s revelation and the peace I was feeling. I began by petitioning the Lord to empty me of myself and to fill me with His Holy Spirit. I then asked God to help me not focus on the people at work, to let me not judge myself through them, to help me be a good father, a good husband, and to ….

I realized I was immediately falling into the same ironic trap by praying for assistance in being those things that are not my root identity. They were not necessarily bad things to pray for, but off the mark at that moment. I emptied my heart. I prayed, “Let me focus on being your creature.” If I can do this then I cannot help but be a good father, husband, or employee. If I know my root identity, I will act from it. I had taken the first infant steps toward contentment that is removed from circumstance. I tried to record my emotions and contemplation in a psalm.

A Prayer of Supplication and Identity
Prayer and Lamentation
1 O Lord God, I came to you burdened and alone. My spirit pained; torment and ridicule haunted me.
2 Am I not a good husband, a loving father God? Am I not diligent and concerned at my work?
3 O why then, Father, cannot I make the world happy with me? Why do those surrounding me chastise me, O Lord?
4 Why am I not satisfied with myself? Why do I despair in my heart and beat upon my own soul?
5 O Father, it is not because I have turned from you! I worship and pray fervently. I serve you in more earthly ways than ever before.
6 Lord, my sins are fewer and less frequent than times past. Yet Your peace eludes me!
7 Why cannot I put on Your mantle of love and wear it like armour?
8 Your peace and love I taste at the plate of worship. Yet I cannot carry the fullness of the feast outside your Church.
9 The stomach of my soul growls with emptiness when I return to the world.

10 In the solitude of Your splendor, Lord, You answered me.
11 Do I not love you!
12 Do not My blessings and grace sustain you!
13 Stop searching for worldly approval and human justification.
14 It is I who justified you through creation. It is I who justified you through My only Son.
15 He gave His life to earthly death, was crucified for you. What other justification do you require?
16 Wake up child and become a man in Christ! Your identity is found solely in My Son and Him alone.
17 Let the feast of His sacrifice fill you and sustain you forever!


I had not read Merton’s comment on a life removed from the spirit when I booked the retreat. Yet those profound words succinctly express what God revealed to me that weekend. Although I had been a Christian all my life and I had a strong relationship with the Father, I still was not truly living in the Spirit. I had not completely undergone the spiritual transformation that is available to us when we accept Christ as our crucified and risen Savior, the One who died so that we might live eternally. That transformation for me is not being a Christian as a statement of fact, but being unable to separate my Christianity from myself anymore than being brown-eyed or being male. That my behavior and acts of charity are no longer motivated by Christian duty, but become an uncontrollable sharing of the overwhelming gift of grace.

Because I was not fully living in the Spirit, I was still a broken man. The truth is that much of my mental and emotional suffering was self-inflicted when I placed my identity in anything but Christ. I could not possibly achieve lasting peace and contentment independent of circumstance, because my life outside the spirit was not substantial and so much of what I thought I was, or supposed to be, was an illusion. Furthermore, I had never had a permanent movement of my will toward God’s will. Thus, my morals, my ethics, my actions, although sincere and good were at risk of being dead in the flesh, not alive in the Spirit. What is my purpose outside of Christ? What meaning does my life have outside the Spirit?

The struggle with my identity and my purpose are inevitable. It comes as I try to be in the world but not of the world. The busyness of my life, even in Christian activities, can allow Satan to systematically and covertly rob me of my true identity and cause me to seek justification through worldly actions. The primary avenues of his attacks are pride and the absence of stillness in my life. Only through regular removal from earthly matters to periods of contemplative prayer and meditation, can I retrench to the fundamental truths and renew myself in the Spirit—resulting in the rededication of my will to His will. Even Christ, in all His power and perfection, needed such time with His Father. Who am I, as a weaker creation, to need less?

So it is with all of us. We must constantly root our identity in the firm foundation of God’s living grace. Brothers and sisters, when you struggle with your identity, when you feel assailed and embattled by the world, I encourage you to take solace in Psalm 62: 1-8. [3]

1 My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
3 How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.
[1] Merton, Thomas. The Seven Story Mountain. Harvest Book Fiftieth Anniversary Ed., Harcourt Brace & Company 1999. ISBN 0-15-601086-0.

[2] The statues were donated in honor of a young seminarian who traveled to Alabama during the civil rights movement. Witnessing an escalating argument between a young women and a law enforcement officer who raised his weapon to shoot, he stepped in and took the bullet for her. A plaque at the path entrance to the statues reads: In memory of Jonathon M Daniel. Episcopal seminarian martyred in Alabama Aug. 20, 1965. Donated to the Monastery by William Coolidge of Boston, MA. Walker Hancock sculptor. May we always remember that the Church exists to lead men to Christ in many and varied ways, but it is always the same Christ.

[3] Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. The NIV and New International Version trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

A version of this post first appeared in NewWineskins Magazine in the March/April Spiritual Formation Issue.


Amanda said...

Wow, Tony.

I don't know what to say other than, "Thank you," for being so honest in your struggle and the presentation of that to us.

Phil said...

So I have this question (and btw, I agree with Amanda).

Is the corporate worship setting the appropriate place for these kind of confession? For this kind of openness? I would hope so, but it seems less and less so.

Tony Arnold said...

Thanks Amanda!

Phil, several responses. Postively, if we did this at Church, it would stop be corporate worship, which would be a very good thing. We have got to start making the worship assembly more interactive among each other so that it can be more vertical. Ex: last night with the Rubio's!!!! That kind of sharing should be available to and used by everyone.

Caution response: at least in this presentation manner, the audience can choose itself -- read or don't read. At church everyone would have to listen and we would have to listen to everyone elses too. Maybe not such a bad thing either.

Sarcastic (humorous?) response: too long for the Ministry Moment. Would take the whole time and that is a whole other issue. The pulpit is reserved and I don't have a PSL.

Thanks for the support sister and brother.

Preston said...

I've got to go to Gethsemani.

Malia said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog. The timing of my last entry and your blog today are so perfect. I was having a "nobody like me, everybody hates me" moment and that obviously came across on my post. Your thoughts today on being only concerned with God's view of us instead with how the world/friends/family/spouses views us hit home - big time! I needed that reality check.

Matt said...

Just checking in. Great discussion. Thomas Merton has always been a favorite of mine--helping me keep my faith in dark times.

Contemplation seems a ready friend cloistered in a monastery, but it is hard to find in the hustling and bustling life that most of us lead.

Tony Arnold said...

Amen to that Matt. That is why I go on the silent retreats.

Peace brother.