[Warning: this is longer than many of my posts.]
My world is now post-pandemic. Not post- in the sense of “pandemic all gone”; I suspect that’s Not A Thing for the next few years as we shuttle from steady loss of life in unvaccinated/less-vaccinated locations (like (sadly) the majority-world) to loss of life and risk-of-non-fatal COVID19 illness everywhere. But post- in the sense of “leaving home to go on a retreat with non-relatives.”
I feel brave and unpracticed. I can only wave at my former retreat-going-regular self right now — I almost forgot to bring my multi-outlet power/USB adapter, a staple of the modern retreatant. (Mine is whimsically round and blue.) How would I write if I couldn’t recharge my laptop?!?
I’m writing this on my Full Day One at Laity Lodge in one of the Lodge rooms. Since the remodel completed (in 2017, I was reminded-!) the rooms are spacious and well-appointed, each with picture window over the former lawn, now a Hill Country meadow. Bizarrely for the end of June, it’s been raining. And cool. And breezy. I’m watching the rain drip from the eaves onto the sunflowers and winecups through my big window as I write.
They’re calling this week “the Quiet Retreat.” Which I thought would have to do with programmatic silence or sculpted stillnesses, but has turned out to have to do with Zero Formal Content on offer. This sifts out to the same thing for me, really, and is probably better overall. Because: Not Actually Silent, or even necessarily quiet. I can chatter all I like at meals.
[Chattering at meals is an important part of my wholeness. The Retreat is a selective container of folk who are statistically more likely to be interested in what also interests me, and who are culturally encouraged to talk with strangers. Perfect.]
As I drove the three hours into Laity Lodge itself (within the HEB Foundation property… there are multiple encampments here), I felt fizzy. Excited & delighted fizzy. Overly compressed fizzy. Yeah, I arrived pressurized. My intention is to equilibrate.
Last year at the end of June I was pattern-breathing through the bare-metal flux of days — the uncertainty inherent in life pressed up against my face (our faces) without pause. We’re not wired for spending our days that way; we keep trying to build and trust predictions even when they’re steadily disassembled.
One of my buildings last year was to find all the scholarly articles that mentioned “theopoetics”, read them, and decide whether I’d want to hang out with the author over a meal. How else would I find a home for my doctoral work under pandemic circumstances? I wouldn’t, as it happened. I was just as perplexed and tangled at the end of the summer and the end of a dozen articles/authors as at the beginning. What’s the deal, God?!? What am I supposed to do now?!
This year, as my MDiv studies wrapped up, I confronted — as one does — the patter of “Congratulations! What’s next for you?” To which I generally answer, “I don’t know; I hope to figure that out this summer.”
Yet this year I have conversation partners. Proximate ones, in fact.
Perhaps it’s the nuance of having been a senior bringing me into a different sort of conversation with these professors. (It’s a small school; I’ve known them for a while.)
And some of it comes from my knowing different/additional things than last year… about them, about their expertise. About the internal workings of the disciplines that comprise seminaries. About the ways the term I thought was magic — theopoetics — is both highly descriptive and unhelpfully imprecise,
making its absence from all degree program descriptions understandable.
To me now, anyway.
One glorious gift in this summer has been an image that’s served as the first set of tumblers in the multi-phase lock that My Next has turned out to be:
To paraphrase, she said, “It sounds as if what you’re interested in is at the intersection of two things, like the fixed foot and the floating foot of a compass.” My John Donne-trained brain seized on that mid-May comment and has been ruminating on it ever since.
This same she also said, “Just write. And get a little church where you can preach and love on them on Sundays. You don’t need another degree.”
Which has several versions of truth to it. I have taken it quite seriously. At the same time it feels off, somehow, in ways that I didn’t have words for.
(I give my wordlessnesses a lot more attention than I once did. My growing edges live here, I think. And as someone pointing to the importance of mystery in one’s life (of faith), it behooves me to grant them places of honor.)
It took about a month before I was able to meet with another of my professors, one that I now suspect may take up residence in my mentor-space. I had other fruitful conversations with other folk (profs and ‘regular people’ <wink>) in the meantime,
and it’s been his and my two hours a week ago that have been wonder-fully, alarmingly? expanding and expanding inside me ever since.
Today is the first full day of Quiet Retreat. After breakfast and morning prayer (and my own morning devotion practice), I took time to travel-journal
then settled in with a paper notebook and pen to crack the valve(s) open and let the ideas escape. I’m up to six pages thus far… of blocks, for crying out loud, shaped chunks that belong together — are interrelated — but also have their own reach and possibilities.
And then it was lunchtime. Have I mentioned that part of the pressure (and the delight) is that I’ve been speaking these elements and ideas in various stacks and shapes and patterns for… well, for my whole MDiv in some respects-? During Laity Lodge mealtimes I keep finding new people — strangers! — to build my towers for, which feels crazy and indulgent. After lunch though, I thought, I’ll read.
Instead I came back to my room and flipped through my iOS Notes
to see this comment (likely an unattributed quote) from March 2018:
“Listen to your most frivolous voice.”
I’d been arguing this at lunch. Not that my tablemate said this. She said, Why not just get a PhD for fun? I said: because it’s five years, not one. Because it’s five years out of my husband’s life as well as mine. Because it’s expensive, said another tablemate. Because my seminary trained me that my talent-gifts are consecrated to God, I thought.
Not that I can’t have fun serving God. More that God intends these gifts for God’s Realm, which is larger than private pleasure.
My most frivolous voice wants a PhD. Since forever? Since long before my mother gently took me aside at age 11 and said, “You know, not all professions require PhDs. For library science, a Master’s is plenty unless you want to teach librarianship.” And here I had assumed that one moved from kindergarten through dissertation-! That took a lot of internal regrouping.
And still. As I wrote across those pages this morning, pulling from what I’ve been thinking and saying, pulling from what my probable partner in theological enchantment described to me —
practical theology’s religious education is the place where folk think deeply and widely about the ways Christians are formed ever-more into the likeness of the Triune God.
And one thing I unfolded this spring is just how broad and deep my thinking about forming Christians already has become. (A friend and I did a directed study we called “Pedagogies of Christian Formation”: glorious!)
Not to mention that every week since I’ve graduated has brought me another affirmation that I, personally, flourish most when I have regular, routine conversation partners. Either in the sense of the same folk again and again, or merely in the sense of ‘interested talk happens often.’ Which is theoretically possible anywhere, yet statistically more probable within a school.
I could fix my foot in religious education (faith formation). I could, first off, float my foot into poetry — bringing all those curiosities and concerns to bear, the ones that got me tangled into seminary in the first place.
This seems like something that could actually be pursued.
And the frivolousness of it feels like butterflies across the purple star-flowers outside my window: a surfeit of beauty.