Some people recharge by sitting in their hot tubs, near their fire pits, by participating in extreme sports or by traveling to exotic places. This rabbi regains his sense of personal balance and composure by hanging out with nuns.
The Catholic Church’s tradition of contemplative retreat – withdrawing from the world temporarily for solitude, prayer and personal reflection – is believed to be as old as the founder of Christianity itself. Jesus’ forty-day sojourn of solitude and fasting in the Judean desert is recorded in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is viewed as a foundational example of retreat, for the purposes of coming closer to God. The Catholic Encyclopedia emphasizes that “in the fever and agitation of modern life, the need of meditation and spiritual repose impresses itself on Christian souls who desire to reflect on their eternal destiny, and direct their life in this world towards God.”
So, why is this decidedly Jewish soul so emphatic about spending his free time as the guest of Christian contemplatives? Everyone’s peace of mind is challenged at times by the fever and agitation of modern life, which are equal opportunity tormentors of all human beings. I am blessed to be part of the Jewish tradition which invented Shabbat, the holy weekly Sabbath day, on which we Jews traditionally remove ourselves from those potential tormentors: technology, business, spending money, building and destroying things. However, I am also a pulpit rabbi; though my Sabbath observance is quite traditional, on Saturdays, I still must preside over services. Though exhilarating, this is hardly an effective means by which to fully experience Sabbath serenity. I need the added spiritual value of withdrawal from the world into retreat settings, which I find are best provided by Catholic religious orders.
I make personal retreats at the beautiful Linwood Spirituality Center, run by the Sisters of Saint Ursula, on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, New York. In all seasons, the center is for me a precious space to be experienced rather than described. Sun, water, flora, fauna, and especially silence combine from without to allow me the many openings – small and large - from within, so I can rediscover who I am and why that matters.
You might be waiting for me to tell you some grand story of how a retreat transformed me in a moment of “Road-To-Damascus” revelation. However, self-transforming insight doesn’t usually happen that way, but in smaller moments that ride on the currents of contemplative silence. One story from my time at the center should make this clearer. A few years ago, as I was editing a book before publication, my editor and I agreed that the conclusion needed total overhaul. Well into the second morning of quiet writing and thought, as I sat looking out at the river, I suddenly had a so-called stroke of genius; I began furiously writing a dramatic and heart-felt ending to my very serious book. Emerging from that explosion of creative inspiration, I proudly emailed the results to the editor. About two hours later, she wrote back to me, “Dan, you’re very creative. Now, I’d like you to look at my edited version, in which I’ve removed 60 percent of what you wrote.”
There are obvious insights for writing and for life that I acquired from that small event and interaction: less is more, ambition needs to be balanced with humility, reign in passionate spontaneity with sober discipline. However, as a writer whose artistic craft is an extension of his spiritual life, I gleaned another, less obvious lesson: God, the One-Beyond-Words, uses us as the pens and letters with which God writes the endless love story of existence that began in that first moment of creation.
In the noisier settings of my day, even if I am busy doing some of my most creative work, I lack the inner space to remember such an important thing about me, God, and our joint writing projects. Frankly, at those times, I barely remember God at all. I impatiently relegate my spiritual self-awareness to one of my perpetually extensive to-do lists, an annoying task to be turned to after I fire off a hundred emails and attend yet another committee meeting. Certainly, as the great masters of Hasidic Judaism teach, God is in all moments and no place is free of God’s presence; it’s just that I’m too busy filling my personal space with myself and my own nonsense to really embrace that presence. The space and time of retreat provide me with self-imposed respite to empty myself of my self-absorption.
As they shrink, religious orders like the Sisters of Saint Ursula risk closing forever. Their struggles are a microcosm of the drowning of contemplative life by a society awash in mindless busyness. Never have the Sisters and their offerings of silence spoken more loudly and urgently to our ears that are growing deaf from the world’s pointless noise. Would that we listened to their quiet call more closely.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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