A couple of weeks ago I packed a giant suitcase and prepared to head off for eight days into the unknown. I would join some thirty other Episcopal priests, fifty-five years old and older, from all over the country, for a time to reflect on our lives. We would gather at a retreat center in the heart of Mississippi. That fact alone, that we would be in Mississippi, was enough to cause me to be a little guarded. (Not that I had ever BEEN in Mississippi…).
I had to schedule this CREDO retreat sometime last summer – gotta claim one’s space when the invite comes – even though it is really hard to project out and decide when will actually be a good time to be gone for eight days. As it turns out this was probably the perfect time for me to go. I was exhausted, completely done in from a year of really GOOD hard work. I know this to be so, but I’ve come to realize just how true it is- good stress is just as wearing on the body as bad stress. As far as the body knows, stress is stress.
The retreat center could have been anywhere in the Midwest, nothing remarkable about it at first glance. Green grass fields covering gently rolling hills, huge trees, and a large pond. The buildings were clean enough and comfortable enough despite a little age and the effects of heat and high humidity. The food was simple, southern, delicious – smoked pork, baked sweet potatoes, fried catfish, collared greens and black-eyed peas, and crawfish etouffe. Oh my word, the etouffe had all of us begging for the recipe. And, we got it.
I arrived on a Monday afternoon, quickly unpacked my bag, located the various buildings, and set off for a walk. First I walked around the pond (see the photo in the header of this blog). They I walked out into the fields and toward the woods.
I saw lots of droppings from coyotes, and so I didn’t walk too far into the woods by myself. But everyday for the next six days I took a long walk through the fields and woods and around the pond. My goal, from this CREDO II was to remember what it feels like to fully relax. Lately I have noticed that even when I relax my mind in meditation, and relax my heart in trust and love, my body won’t let go. My body hangs on tight in a defensive state, on guard, ever protective. I first noticed this when I was meditating – my mind would find a state of peace but my body just got tighter. I’d come out of a meditation to find my hands is tight fists, my shoulder achey and my jaw clenched. I’d get a massage and it felt good but full relaxation evaded me. My goal for this CREDO was reset this body of mine and help it remember what it FEELS like to relax.
And so I walked. I walked a lot.
We were given a pedometer and taught that we should walk 10,000 steps three to four times a week. One day I walked 11,000 steps, the next day 15,000, another day 12,000. Not one day of the six days (not including days of travel), did I have less than 10,000 steps. Turns out 10,000 steps is roughly the equivalent of five miles.
I also made the effort to attend the daily yoga class which started at 6:30am. I’d rise early, 6am, and walk to the dining room for a cup of coffee. I’d return to my room with my Starbucks thermal coffee mug filled with coffee, cream, and local raw honey. I’d sip a small cup and look out at the pond watching the snowy egret. The egret would flutter around, and walk on its long legs as it sang its morning song. Then about 6:20 I’d gather my yoga mat and walk the other way to the room where the class was held.
I can still conjure in my mind’s eye – the opened window, the feel and scent of the gentle breeze, and the water fowl fussing in the pond. Salutation to the sun anointed by cool, slightly moist, fresh air in rhythm with the harmonics of morning birds finding breakfast.
The rest of the day was filled with learning opportunities, plenary group sessions, small group sessions, and one-on-one meetings with the professional faculty. We learned, discussed, reflected on our physical and emotional health, our spiritual and vocational health, and our finances. Each afternoon I’d find some time to go to my room and meditate, once again blessed by the healing breeze blowing across the pond and through the opened window to my room.
It took the better part of five days. And then it happened. My body remembered and relaxed. My jaw softened, my shoulders released, by hands unfolded and I relaxed….
… and rested in God.