Maundy Thursday: learning to retreat

Meditation for my April 9, 2020, Holy Yoga class.

In the Christian calendar, today—Maundy Thursday—is the day the Last Supper took place, when Jesus gathered with his disciples and served them bread and wine, referring to them as his body and blood.  

Later that night he retreated with just a few of his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus knew the betrayal and crucifixion that were coming, and he went to this solitary place to ask his Father to take that cup of suffering from him, if it was His will.

The day illustrates a pattern we often see in the life of Jesus, one of “retreat and return.”

That’s how Pastor John Mark Comer of Portland’s Bridgetown Church recently described Jesus’ way of “toggling” between a very public life amid the crowds and private prayer time.

In our current age, the idea of toggling can seem foreign. Many of us are accustomed to focusing on the “return” side of the equation … returning to our people, to our work, to our tasks, to our inboxes. Going from one thing to the next to the next.

The retreat side is what’s rare. We say things like, “I can sleep when I die.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in the medical field are on the front lines and others are playing key supporting roles, whether stocking groceries, driving buses or providing other essential services.

But many of us now find ourselves on a mandatory retreat, a forced break from our usual realities.

How does it feel to be sent on a retreat?

Isolating? Lonely? As if we are missing out on something? At loose ends?

Maybe a little relieved to slow down? (Unless being on retreat means you’re home with other people, and the tempo of your life might actually have increased.)

Maybe there are feelings of guilt at being home while others are working to save and support others’ lives?

Although we might imagine retreats as blissful breaks from the usual, they are not necessarily characterized by smooth sailing. When Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, he was tempted by the devil at every turn. When he brought companions to Gethsemane for company, they fell asleep. When he took disciples out in a boat, they brought all of their anxieties with them.

Here’s the thing: When you’re driving with any speed at all and you slam on the brakes, you’re going to encounter friction. Your tires will squeal, and there will be skid marks.

It’s a lot like a busy life. Shutting it all down—suddenly—means squeals and skids.

Why should we expect a new or temporary life rhythm to look or feel graceful?

So we bring our coping mechanisms to the new situation, whether intentionally or not, and look for ways to maintain our usual number of interactions and accomplishments.

That’s why our social media feeds and inboxes are full of offers—“take my online class,” “increase your skills,” “prepare for the post-COVID world.” We’re inundated with tips about how not to fall behind, how to keep up, how to surpass our colleagues, how to reinvent our houses, ourselves, our kids, our exercise routines and diets, how to do this, that and the other thing.

In Week 1 of sequestering, I felt some relief at being pulled off the treadmill of my own making … but that pretty quickly turned into FOMO: What am I missing out on? Are people Zooming without me, learning without me, creating without me? Am I falling behind? I began to feel as if I’d better catch up—go, go, go!

Interestingly, I have read and heard this quote by Carl Jung several times in recent weeks: “Hurry is not of the devil. Hurry is the devil.”

Pastor John Ortberg wrote a commentary on this, part of which is included in Comer’s recent book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry:

For most of us, the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.

This is a challenging time … whether you’re fighting COVID-19 personally or on behalf of others, or if you’re in isolation at home. I cannot speak to what it must be like for the former set, but for those of us who feel as if our lives have been put on hold, this might be an opportunity to step away from hurry, to perhaps encounter our lives, our faith, our loved ones and ourselves in a new way.

Photo by Erik Nielsen on Unsplash

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