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the unexpected retreat

Times Square Jan 2016
In early January I came upon an interesting symposium put on by the wonderful folks at City Seminary in New York City. The topic, Women in Leadership and Ministry, wasn't what really grabbed me, but I recognised one of the speakers and read up on a few of the others scheduled to give talks and thought I would really like to meet these people and hear what they have to say. Part of Saturday was to be spent on a prayer walk (what they call Pray and Break Bread) in Harlem. I really wanted to get in on that since we have done something similar in Montreal. So I made my plans (which took nearly a whole day because I had a tight schedule I was working with and a limited budget) and contacted some friends who said, yes, we'd love to see you when you come, so I decided to arrive a day early. Everything was set for an enriching time in New York City from January 21-23. And then winter storm Jonas appeared on the scene.

On Thursday I was about 5 hours into a 10-hour train ride when I got an email informing me that due to the approaching storm, the symposium was being postponed to some future date. I read the email again because it was a bit of a shock and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. What was happening? I had some pretty high hopes for the connections I would make and the input I would receive on this trip. I was also hoping that somewhere in the next 3 days my muddy way would become a bit clearer, that I would not feel so lost. Now, getting the news that my symposium was not going to happen made me feel more lost than ever. What was I doing on this train?

Since I had two pre-paid hotel nights in Manhattan and a return flight already booked, I decided that there was no use in turning back. A few days in NYC are always a treat. After I arrived at Penn Station and checked into my hotel a few blocks away, I walked to Times Square and took in the sights and sounds. I had supper overlooking the square and thought about what to do for the next few days. The next morning I contacted my friends and they let me know they were in the midst of a rather busy time and regrettably, could not meet up with me. Okay, then. It seemed like I was on my own with no plans. I asked God, "What now?" It soon became clear that this was a perfect opportunity to embark on a bit of a retreat - something I had been meaning to do for some time but never got around to.

I started it off by reading Parker Palmer's Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods. So many parts of his writing resonated with me: the idea of being alone and being content, the demands and worries which arrive uninvited, the desire for internal peace combined with the tendency to engage in spiritual striving, the hypocrisies of my life, regret about mistakes and screw-ups, and the notion that one can do a simple task and it be enough. I asked myself the question: What do I really desire right now? And the answer was simple: to be free from the heavy burden of the never-ending demands of school, church, and life for a bit. So I made a simple agenda: find places of silence and solitude and peace in the most densely populated city in North America and make plenty of time and space for contemplation. Take no thought for the upcoming months or weeks or even days. Live in the moment and find Jesus within and without me.

A few phrases from my reading in Romans 8 stood out and became themes for my time in NYC: "Instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us... Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God."

So I wandered through the city and happened upon the New York City Public Library. Inside, I found beautiful, open spaces, artwork, and plenty of reading rooms in which I could sit and enjoy a book. And so I did. I pulled out Thomas Merton's autobiography and read. After an hour or so, I received an email from a family member asking how things were going and if my flight home was still okay. Hmmm. I hadn't even thought of that. I checked my flight status and indeed, my flight was cancelled. Interesting. I felt no panic, no urge to do anything about it immediately. I still had a few more hours before I could check into my hotel for that night (I had reservations at two different hotels due to drastic changes in rates from night to night) so I continued reading.

Mid-afternoon, I walked over to the east side of Manhattan and checked into my hotel. All attempts to contact a living person at the airline were futile, and despite the automated attendant's promise to call me at the hotel within the hour, nothing materialised. I decided that waiting for a phone call that may or may not come was not how I wanted to spend my time, so I looked on the map and found that St. Michael's Cathedral was just a few blocks away, as was the East River. Those sounded like great places to visit on a retreat, so I stepped onto the streets once again. The cathedral was impressive with its large marble arches, ornate carvings in shades of white, and plenty of people milling about, some in prayer, some taking pictures. I sat for a bit and then wandered around for a bit, admiring the beauty. On my way to St. Michaels I had noticed a more humble church which had a line-up of street people outside waiting for the overnight shelter to open up. It had caught my attention, so I decided to see if it was still open.

I trekked for a few blocks in the cold wind and entered St. Bartholomew's Church. Inside the door, a simple wooden arrow pointed to the right and featured the words: Service in the Chapel. I sidestepped the arrow and entered the sanctuary, It was dark and woody with square brown tiles on the floor, the stained glass muted by the darkness inside and out. I sat for a bit, enjoying the warmth and closeness of the space, then decided to check out the service. A side chapel with a large painting of Jesus and Mary at the nativity dominated the front wall. The pastor (rector) was chatting with two people in the congregation so I took a seat near the back. The Friday evening prayer service was short (20 minutes) and taken from the Common Book of Prayer. It moved along at a fair clip; everyone seemed much more familiar with the format than I was, and I struggled to find all the readings in time, missing some of the cues. Nonetheless, it was a welcome point of contact with God and strangers. After the service, the rector introduced himself to me, as did the other two congregants. I told him I was from Montreal and that the event for which I came to NYC had been cancelled. He said, "Well, I hope you find some fun things to do while you are here." I replied, "I'm not looking for fun things. I'm looking for some contemplation." He just stared at me for a moment; apparently this was something he did not hear every day. Then he suggested a visit to another church in New York. I thanked him for the service and left.

I followed 51st street and found a narrow bridge which crossed over FDR Drive to a walkway along the East River. The wind coming off the black water was cold, but the view was stunning. I meandered up the coast for a bit, inspired by the contrast between the dark beauty and the bright lights, then headed back to my hotel. There was still no word from the airline. I tried again but couldn't get through. I checked the train schedule and saw there was a train back to Montreal the next morning, so I booked a ticket and then headed to a nearby soup eatery, sampling a very tasty bourbon butternut soup before I decided on a bowl of their really yummy 12-vegetable soup.

Walking back to my hotel, I realised that for the first time in many years, my mind was not cluttered with the weight of a huge project or the many little tasks that fell under my responsibility or the daunting task of applying for future opportunities. For one whole day I had been content to eat tasty meals, wander for miles and miles in the city, read some Merton, and enjoy the beauty of quiet places in a noisy city. Though I had no clearer sense of where I was headed, I didn't feel lost anymore. As Tolkein wrote, "Not all who wander are lost." That whole day I had not thought of all the decisions and tasks before me, had not even made them a subject of prayer. Instead, I cultivated contentment and that was a blessed change. To have a quiet, content mind at peace with its situation, that is quite a gift.

Back at the hotel, I printed out my train ticket, looked out the window at the snow beginning to fall, and set my alarm for 6:20 am. I did not know what the next day would bring and I was totally okay with that. The next morning I left the hotel just after 7 am and the streets were slushy, heavy with snow. For the most part, the sidewalks were not cleared and the wind whipped wet flakes of snow into my face making it difficult to see. After 38 minutes of trudging through the nearly deserted streets of Manhattan, I arrived at Penn Station, covered in wet snow. I checked the departures and the train to Montreal was one of the few not cancelled. I stopped to buy a few snacks for the trip and boarded the train. During my trip back to Montreal, I received another email from the airline letting me know that the flight they had re-booked me on was also cancelled and they were still working to get me home. I smiled and returned to my Merton book.

Arriving back in Montreal Saturday night, I realised that nearly everything that was supposed to happen on the trip ended up not happening: there was no symposium with interesting talks, I didn't meet up with my friends, I didn't make any connections with theological people, I didn't get to see Pray and Break Bread in action, and I didn't travel outside lower Manhattan. And yet, I knew that everything that was supposed to happen, had happened. I was more content, less stressed, more aware of Jesus in and around me, less focused on my own life and its challenges, and more sure than ever that the path ahead would be full and meaningful and precious, no matter what opportunities opened up for me or what doors closed. It seems ironic that I found a place of quietness, peace, and contemplation in NYC, but it also seems very appropriate. The context of the city is where I live my life, and if I cannot find stillness for my soul in that busy setting, I am indeed lost.


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