Weeks before, I’d arranged to spend five days at one of the retreat cabins at Cedars of Peace on the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse grounds in Nerinx, Kentucky. I replied to Sister Susan’s email stating how much meaning that word Namaste held for me. (I work with many Bhutanese, and we greet each other this way.) She remarked how interesting it was that the cabins’ themes always seemed a perfect fit for the retreatant.
But the day before my arrival, in what would be one of the hottest weeks of the summer, she wrote saying there had been a cancellation and that I’d be staying at “Grace”; I’d be more comfortable there because it had an air conditioning unit.
I arrived to another note from Sister Susan. She said she hoped I would find in the quiet solitude of “Grace” all that I was seeking. Funny, I thought. I hadn’t really come to the Cedars seeking anything. My main objective was to spend a few uninterrupted days writing.
After unpacking, I flipped through a binder of information about the retreat center. It mentioned that in every cabin there was a journal in which retreatants were invited to share reflections about their stay. I started to read through the journal entries, and let me tell you, a dam broke inside me. I could feel the pain and love of all the people who had come before me and who were good enough to share their inner journeys and to extend blessings to all those who would walk through the door of “Grace” in the future.
Well, it wasn’t how I’d expected the first few hours of my stay to unfold, but I figured a good emotional purge was probably an excellent way to begin my writing spree. And then I saw it. An almond-shaped head, peeking out from under the bookshelf. When the lizard finally braved the big world, I saw that its tail alone was almost the size of my head! For a while, I chased after it with a garbage can, but of course it was too fast.
I decided to go for a walk. And doggone if that lizard didn’t haunt my thoughts. I imagined it crawling across my body, over my stomach and into my mouth, as I slept at night. (I wasn’t naïve enough to think this lizard was the only creature lurking in the dark corners of my cabin, but at least the others had the decency not to show their faces.) I felt so silly, like such a girl, to let a little ol’ reptile get the better of me.
I finally told myself that the lizard didn’t want me in the cabin anymore than I wanted it there. I pictured how cute it was, really, when I’d stopped chasing it and took the time to observe its amazing body, how it had placed both front legs behind its back and just rested in the sun, like it was pondering some great mystery in life. I told myself I was just going to have to learn to cohabitate with it. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as I made peace with it, I never saw that lizard again.
I mention this little story because it seemed to set the theme for my stay at “Grace”--less resistance and more acceptance.
Shortly after my run-in with the lizard, I said a little prayer before sitting down to write. I prayed that I’d write something selfless, something of beauty that would transcend where I was at.
Almost immediately I heard a little voice in my head (why does my little voice sound like John Wayne’s?) say, “How about you start where you’re at and let me worry about the transcending?” (Pilgrim.)
I think there are books (like people) that come into our lives at just the right time and for a special purpose. This was one of those books for me. Much of it is eastern religious thought, and I had read similar things in the past, but nothing had spoken to me quite like this before or had given such concrete, innovative ways to meditate. (Chödrön is a practitioner of the tonglen method.) There is a sentence in the book that reminds me of my experience with the lizard. “When the resistance is gone, so are the demons.”
I come from a family of overachievers and perfectionists, and what I find most attractive about Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, is her gentle approach. She writes that when we start from a place of honoring where we are and not where we hope to be someday, when we start facing our demons and stop rejecting and repressing our darker sides (i.e. embracing our full selves), then we can begin to see everything that happens to us—even the suffering and sorrows--as opportunities to wake up, to figure out where we’re stuck, and to grow
Like the peacock that gets its vivid and beautiful tail by eating poison, Chödrön explains that our “poisons,” too, can be a source of great beauty. By accepting the parts of ourselves we find most disagreeable, or even heinous, we grow in self-understanding and compassion. “If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone.” Chödrön’s book reminded me that in order to be kind and gentle toward others, in order to have true compassion for them, we must first be kind and gentle and compassionate
The theologian Paul Tillich, in his wonderful essay on sin and grace, “You Are Accepted,” explains that the experience of grace is like hearing a voice saying, You are accepted. You are accepted. “We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say “yes” to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.”
On the day of my departure, after contributing my own entry in the cabin journal, I wrote Sister Susan a note explaining that I had come to “Grace” not seeking anything but a place to write. I relayed some of the insights I’d gained during my stay. Later in an email, she wrote this: “It's always gratifying to glimpse the variety of ways the Spirit works here. How often we think we are the ones looking for something only to discover that it's the Spirit seeking us.