Psalm 121: 1-8
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
A few years ago I went on a spiritual retreat to Mepkin Abbey. For the time that I was there, I embraced the rhythms of the monastery and participated in the lifestyle and habits of the resident monks. These included prayer services throughout the day, with reading of the Psalms. We began the day with prayer at 4:30 a.m., observed silence during meals, and avoided all idle conversation. Evening prayer ended the day, with bedtime at around 8 p.m.
The retreat center also, by design, had no wireless or cell phone service. You had to walk to the parking area, outside the grounds, to check your messages or make a phone call.
I benefited from my brief time in the monastery, and appreciated its focus on solitude and prayer. For people like us, our brand of Christianity calls us to go out into the world, not to retreat from it. And yet, we can value those who seek to live a life focused only on God and prayer. Those of us who seek the path of engagement of the world also know what the Scriptures teach – that sometimes through that engagement, we lose sight of God. We become consumed by the activities and pleasures of the world.
When that happens, one way to recover our awareness of God is through practices such as intentional silence, solitude, and separation from the world at large.
I was reminded of my time in the monastery when I ran across a piece this week in “The Christian Century” entitled “The Pandemic Has Made Us Unintentional Monastics.” The author, Lucila Crena, writes:
“It is to this place that we have been called. Some of us to a sort of hermitage, if we live alone; some of us to a kind of monastery, if we live with others. But all of us, usually distracted and pulled by the struggle to make a life, are being implored to go into our home-cells and, for the love of all that is holy, stay there. We now know isolation is no vacation. Unintentional monastics, we are urged into the desert of retreat, and we are afraid.”
Indeed, today there is much to be afraid of out there in the world. As far as our current lifestyle change and forced retreat to our separate places, some have adapted well, and others less so. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, where some days we are better at living the unintended monastic life than on other days.
For those not-so-good days, Lucila Crena has a suggestion for us. She writes:
“May I offer some of the grace I received? Whatever you do, don’t harden your heart. When you find little graces, enjoy them with gratitude. And when the structures that propped up your identity go, and your plans for the socially isolated life fail, and insecurities and self-accusation ring in your ear, exert your will not to respond: do not tense up to muster virtue, or withdraw in angry despair, or argue back your merits. Confess your faults to God and neighbor, but don’t negotiate with your compulsions—or, to put it more shockingly, with demons.”
In other words, use this time “away from the world” as an opportunity to renew your awareness of God’s rhythms in your own life. Remember that God is with us always, even in our solitude and isolation. As the Psalmist said “He will not let your foot be moved: he who keeps you will not slumber.”
A song that speaks to us today is the Afro-American spiritual, “Give Me Jesus” (performed magnificently in our worship service today by Melissa, Maddie, Chris, and Stephen on the piano).
The song offers this prayer:
In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
When I am alone, when I am alone When I am alone, give me Jesus.
When I come to die, when I come to die O when I come to die, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus You can have all this world, you can have all this world You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.
The Psalmist reminds us: The Lord will keep your life. He will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. As we travel in and out of the world, this is our great promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Entrance to the gardens at Mepkin Abbey