Friday, February 11, 2011

Vegetables in the Calendar

I'd had it planned for four months. I was going to retreat to Gethsemani Abbey in rural central Kentucky for three days and two nights in January. In the dead of winter, I would be alone with God and my thoughts in a place where silence was the rule rather than the exception. I didn't have any sort of understanding of why I wanted to go. Andrew Peterson, an artist I know, had gone and seemed to get something out of the experience. Friends of mine had read Thomas Merton, the founder of the abbey, and they seemed to be on top of things and rather devil-may-care. Surely there was some connection.

In recent years, this kind of thinking has begun to be lifted like a veil from my eyes. Certainly, retreats and reading the meditations of saints is valuable, a worthy activity. But it is not the pure seed of the Gospel, and furthermore, it is not always what I presently need. This is a lesson I don't want to learn, of course, but I continue to be led to it - like eating my asparagus.

Then, my mother tore a bit of her knee and had to schedule surgery to fix it. Also, various microbes were circulating, pressing down a season of sickness on Knoxville and environs (and everywhere else, I assume). So, four days before I was supposed to leave for Kentucky, I found out my mother's surgery was scheduled for the morning of my departure. Then Kat and I discovered that some unnamed malady was being shared at the babysitter's house. All of this was pointing toward a kink in my calendar.

"Honey, whatever you decide, that will be okay with me," said my gracious wife. I knew, of course, that it would be impossible to send our daughter to the sitter's while Kat went to work. My dad couldn't take off work to keep her, and my mother was out of commission for some time. I began to fill my mind with a selfish inward monologue like a vat of burbling witch's brew. How ridiculously unfair! How could they schedule surgery at a time like this? Reading between the lines of my thoughts, this meant, I'm supposed to be going away to be HOLY. Where do they get off interrupting that? It's quite shameful to say this, really, but it's true.

So, two days before I was scheduled to leave, I called and left a message saying that I was very sorry, but I couldn't come. Some "family stuff" came up. I told their answering machine (monks apparently don't talk on the phone all that much) that I would love to come back at a later time, and I apologized for the eleventh hour cancellation. The phone call left a fist-sized pocket of abjection and disappointment in my stomach. I stewed a while over the guilt of being that selfish. Then I commenced with ploughing a first-class rut in which I could sit. Enter: the wife of Zebedee.

Sometimes Scriptures will follow me around for a while until I get the point, like "a little white dog," as Anne Lamott says. I reread and reheard the story of the mother of James and John a few times that weekend and later. Jesus begins a long walk to Jerusalem. The apostles sense the calm before the storm. Salome walks up to Jesus, taking him by the elbow, pulling him aside. She kneels before him.

"I have a request of you."
"What do you want?" he says, rather brusquely.
"Let my sons sit at your right and left in your kingdom."
"You don't know what you're asking."

He then turns to the young men and offers them the bitter wine of martyrdom. They drink the cup Jesus himself drank. Salome gets her wish, but like the story of the Monkey's Paw, it's nothing like what she imagined. It was my desire to know why I would be going to Gethsemani. As the time approached, I grew apprehensive, trying to remember the many things I had read about solitude, silence, meditation. Then, it was all taken away, and instead, I was given a weekend of spending time with my only daughter. The lesson? It certainly begins with, "You don't know what you're asking." What you say you want is lightyears away from what you need. The lesson is still being learned, but it's good.

Even asparagus can be alright sometimes - sauteed and wrapped in prosciutto.


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