Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

The give and take during retreats

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you only get what you put in

Watching the dynamic process that happens when a group comes for retreats is fascinating. The size of these groups can go from 4 participants to 45. No matter the size, when people come together to listen, learn as well as to participate, there is often a deep bonding that happens. Strangers become friends, small groups will meet in our two parlors set aside for that very purpose and soon the other people are no longer strangers, but real people, complex and beautiful in their openness.

Some are open by listening deeply but may not say anything in the group. Others do both, they listen and share and they are perhaps the most blessed. They take a chance and become vulnerable, even if shy or frighten. They also discover that they have something to say about their life experiences. How they handle their struggles makes them wise and in the unique way that they express themselves, they find can be helpful for those who listen to them. They are often surprised at how deeply they touch their lives by simply sharing in an unpretentious manner, just by being honest, and straightforward.

When I am the only presenter and the nature of the retreat has to do with ‘life issues’ I find that having the group in a circle changes the whole dynamic flow of the group. When the presenter stands in front of a group, which is sometimes what should be done, people listen and might ask a question or two. However the presenter is the actual center of the room, all eyes are on him or her.

When making a circle there is always the chance that the group will lose focus if one or two people seek to control the time and discussion. So before making a circle it is important for the presenter to be able to keep the group on track. In the middle of the circle there is ‘nothing’ only silence. So the first time the people sit together, there can be a protracted time of silence, people looking at the center of the room, at nothing, perhaps looking inward for something to say. Soon, though it may seem like an extended period, people begin to share deeply. It is then that I invite anyone to respond and tell them that each person in the group has life experiences that have given them a rich perspective on their lives. By speaking out, by taking a chance, they may be surprised what they speak when trusting the people they are with enough to share. I also remind them that they re here for a reason, so the more they listen as well as share the deeper that experience will be. There has to be a place for the Spirit to work, by being overly cautious or allowing one,s shyness or fear to control them is counterproductive.

Sitting in a circle can give the sense of not being an observer or simply a student, but belonging, to being one with all those in the circle. There is not beginning or end to a circle, it simply is. In the center of the circle is emptiness, nothingness, silence which can draw those in who understand the significance of ‘nothing’, ‘no-thing’. There is a witness that the center of the circle symbolizes.

I am always amazed at the depth of my fellow human beings. Their complexity, as well as the childlike simplicity and trust in God that gives them the courage when challenged gently to respond wholeheartedly. One advantage in spending time with people that are strangers is that it can lend to listening more intently since there is no overlying baggage directed at the person speaking. This can be helpful and healing as well. People understand that they are not alone in their struggles and hopefully learn to communicate better with those they have to go back to.

We are a mixed bag. People are braver than they know. Also more intelligent and insightful, but are often not conscious of it. They just need a place where they can allow that to well-up within them, to give it voice, sound, form

When I give my orientation, I share with the new group the importance of silence in the disengaged areas. For there are people on retreat who really need that time to be silent and to deal with whatever they have come to deal with. I ask people to respect others boundaries, to not impose themselves on their fellow retreatants. However, I continue, we have speaking rooms for those who need that, for speaking and silence have equal worth if used properly while on retreat. So, some share, others just listen, and still others deiced after the 1st conference that they need the time apart to deal with their relationship with God, themselves and others in their lives.

They are all brave, beautiful and loved in ways that may not understand or perceive, yet many when they come here or go elsewhere to spend time apart, they will often get a glimmer of that underlying reality to different degrees…..they get what they need, not what they want.

It is just life

Each day all of us struggle
we desire meaning
so we seek each day
in the end it is just life.

Br. Mark Dohle, OCSO
Holy Spirit Monastery

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