Two weeks ago I returned from California. The pit of my stomach clenched in anxiety and dread nearly the entire trip home. I got back to the monastery about 6pm and went straight to my room and closed the door. I didn’t want to see anyone, because I thought I might burst into tears.
It was an unusual experience for me. Never before have I felt sad to return home.
My brief time in California I could only describe as profound. Gradually, and then suddenly, over the course of the week, I felt the bottom dropping out of my life until I was free-falling in joyful and terrifying abandon. The image that came to me was of having taken off the parking break and realizing–oh!–that was what was holding me back. My spiritual director told me the word for that feeling is “alive.”
Yes, over the course of that week, I felt alive in a way I’m not used to.
How easy it is to go back to sleep. I’ve been home two weeks now. Gradually, and then suddenly, the dailyness of my routines have taken hold, and it’s been harder to remember to be alive.
It’s easy to blame the schedule or the institution or the demands of work and home. But as any good spiritual teacher will tell you, whenever you think the trouble is out there, it’s always in here.
Some of my disappointment in the monastic life has been to realize that not even the tolling of our bells or the vows we make will draw me into the heart of God. No one can live the spiritual life for me. To live it, I have to choose, every single day, to do so. And eventually, I have to realize that even I can’t choose that life. All I can do is to surrender to God choosing that life for and within me.
That surrender is the fearsome bit. The experience of finding myself gradually and then suddenly alive was one of unself-consciousness and freedom. It was an experience–finally–of surrender. Temporary though it was, it really has changed everything.
In describing the ripples of this aliveness to my spiritual director, the tears filled my eyes. I told her that I could now see how safely I’ve been living. For all my engagement in the spiritual life, I’ve essentially been trying everything I can to keep this “me”–whoever that is–going. As Jesus says so clearly, if I really want to live, then I have to let the “me” go. That’s the risk.
The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Every day, every moment, provides me with opportunities to choose to live fully in God or to go to sleep. I honestly choose sleep a lot of the time. I find it encouraging that more often than used to be true, though, I am uncomfortable with that choice. In the end, of course, I must also let go the “me” that chooses sleep or wakefulness. But that’s a lesson for another day.