Drink freely from the life you have been given

I ask for the gift
of a moment
to sit by Your side
The work that I have in hand
I can finish afterwards.

Now it is time to sit quiet
alone with You
and to Sing
a re-dedication of my life
in this Silent
and overflowing joy.

—Rabindranath Tagore

I have been away on a silent retreat this past week at a small retreat house in lower Austria called Die Quelle (meaning “The Source.”)  I went for a number of reasons: spending time in deep silence is integral to my spiritual life and my call to ministry; I wanted to reconnect with Sister Ishpriya with whom I participated in a very meaningful contemplative retreat many years ago; and being in this place of profound transition I wanted to offer myself the gift of a holy pause, to reflect on what is being called forth from me in this time.

The retreat is at a simple center in lower Austria, up on a hill, 1000 meters up, and adjacent to the beautiful forest.  12 single bedrooms and a rhythm of life that includes two periods each day for silent prayer, one teaching session where Sr. Ishpriya offers a direction for the day, time for cooking and cleaning on behalf of the community (everyone spends two hours each day in some kind of manual labor), and then large periods of time in silence where you can walk, journal, pray, or follow whatever longing your heart desires.

The poem above began our time together: this invitation to sit in silence by the side of God, the Source, the ground of Love.  Silence is, of course, not an absence, but a profound kind of presence, a pathway into a deep communication.

The line from the poem which shimmered for me throughout the week was to “Sing a redication of my life.”  When I read those words I knew that is why I had come to this place: to rededicate myself to this path, to deepen into stillness, to commit again to the contemplative way in the midst of life.

The first two days of the retreat were more challenging as I settled into the rhythm of the place, trying to find my way among fellow journeyers, and as I quieted enough to hear the thoughts clamoring for my attention. I was surprised by the level of self-judgment and criticism that arose in that space, the old voices of my father, the barrage of inner noise.

Thankfully, I have been on silent retreat often enough that I knew I needed to keep releasing these distractions and stay on the path.  Several times I found myself doubting whether I should even be there with so much work to do to prepare for the fall, when a wiser voice rose up in the midst: what better preparation than this?

Often when we first settle into silence we experience this inner barrage of demands, doubts, critical voices, and then we back away, deciding that we aren’t cut out for this kind of thing after all.  This is so unfortunate.

Because if we can stay with the practice, noticing the thoughts as they arise, but not letting them take root, noticing as our mind wanders down this unfruitful path and gently bring it back to center, we slowly drop down beneath into a wide expanse of stillness.

The evening of the second day something broke me open.  I began to weep freely and I recognized this as the moment I was finally letting my defenses down, I was finally softening into this gift.  The desert monks tell us that these tears are a gift, they signal an opening, a willingness to receive, a desire to be shaped.

By day three I felt a marked shift in my prayer. I sat in spiritual direction with Sr. Ishpriya, and at the end of our time she asked me, “what is your purpose?”  Not what I do for work, but what is my deeper purpose as a human being in this life?

I went on a long hike.  The day was hot and humid, but the forest provided some relief.  Still, I was hiking up and up and up, into the beauty of the silent woods.  Not a single other person there, only a pair of deer, and ants scrambling over the ground.  As I climbed I could feel my heart beat loudly in my chest and I relished the experience of being alive.  After about an hour it was time to turn back so that I would not be late for evening meditation.  I descended carefully and at the entrance to the hike found a water trough, with free flowing ice cold water.  I stood there, hot and sweaty from the exertion, under the bright blue sunlit sky, and I plunged my hands into the pool of water and was enlivened by this gift.  I drank thirstily to quench myself.   I splashed the water on my face and neck and blessed myself.  I felt alive and grateful.

I returned for silent meditation, feeling the exhilaration of the journey I had been on.  As I settled into the quiet, Ishpriya’s question about my purpose came to me, and a phrase shimmered forth in response: “Drink freely of the life you have been given.”  I paused for a moment to ponder these words.  I settled into meditation savoring this experience of receiving the gift of cold mountain water at the end of the long hot hike, and how this was like my life: the call to become willing to receive freely the gift of refreshment and nourishment so generously offered to me.

Ten minutes into our half hour of prayer I heard the sound of rain begin to fall outside on the roof.  By the time prayer was over and we went to dinner, the sky was pouring forth water, where just a little while ago there had been nothing but clear sky.  I felt like God was telling me, “see, there is not just a fountain to drink from, but an abundance being offered to you.”

After dinner as the rain subsided I went out to dance barefoot in the wet grass in celebration.

The rest of my retreat was a breaking open of this invitation, this “word” I had received in prayer:

“Drink freely. . . “ meaning do not hold yourself back, allow yourself to be quenched, to give yourself over to the offering.  Those voices of criticism and judgment are just ways you hold yourself back from receiving the fullness being offered, just ways of rejecting the love so generously poured out.  I was being called to consider all the ways I reject this love, all the ways these inner voices serve me by keeping me from the deep call in my heart, the one that feels so liberating, but also terrifying.  It is amazing how hard we work to keep ourselves from freedom.

“. . . of the life you have been given,” meaning the one, brilliant, beautiful, and unique experience of being me in this moment of time.  I was reminded of the poet Rilke and his invitation, again and again in his poems to savor the inner landscape of our lives, to recognize that we are here to experience the fullness of ourselves in ache and in joy, to welcome in the entirety of who we are.

In some ways, this phrase that was gifted to me seems so simple, so basic, something I knew already.  In other ways, I am struck by how hard it is to live a life of not holding ourselves back from God and of giving ourselves so freely to the one wondrous existence we have been given.

Each day on the retreat, in the morning and evening, we lit a small fire as part of our ritual of reminding ourselves that another 12 hours had passed.  Sr. Ishpriya would ask again and again, what choices had we made?  How would we live this next 12 hours?  Each time I was reminded of my own experience with a pulmonary embolism over a year and a half ago, here in Vienna.  The experience that would thrust me into a deep relishing of life, in ways I hadn’t before and really which was the seed for making this journey to live in a foreign land.  How will I drink freely in the hours to come?

How quickly we fall asleep again and again to this truth: that life is extraordinarily precious, that each of us is a unique expression of the divine, and there is the paradox that within the felt limits of chronological time, there is a generosity beyond our imagining pouring forth life into us.  The question becomes: how do we stay awake?  how do we drink freely and abundantly? how do we stop holding back?

For the rest of the retreat I returned to the forest whenever I could, making that climb up the mountain again and again so that I could feel the brilliant beating heart of being alive and return to the cold refreshment of that fountain.  In the clearings along the way I danced a “rededication of my life” with joyful abandon.  No one there to witness me except for the wisdom of trees and the wise Spirit accompanying me each step.

And as I return home, I will struggle again and again to remember these moments, to feel their gravity in my bones.  So much conspires to make me forget, so many forces and thoughts want me to hold back.  This is being a monk in the world: to stay committed to awakening each moment to the truth of life’s generosity, to give myself over to the immense love beating through me, to allow it to spill over into everything I do and with everyone I meet.

Every threshold in life is an invitation to this kind of rededicaton.  As we cross over into something new, we pause, we commit ourselves anew.

Is there a threshold in your own life beckoning to you?

Do you want to join a community where we help each other remember the generosity of Source in our lives?  Where we can celebrate the one unique life we have been given and practice drinking freely from it with no holding back?

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