I spent most of last week at an old Jesuit silent retreat center in Chiang Mai called Seven Fountains. I stayed in a delightfully simple room in the building pictured here behind the trees:
I decided not to bring my laptop or any work and just enjoy the time away. Most of the time I spent in silent prayer and meditation in my room or walking around the center. There was a little path that went around part of the center and I would take my shoes off and slowly walk in silence. It felt like my brain and spirit were unraveling layer after layer of unprocessed experiences. Forgotten memories, thoughts, and even songs came to me at the strangest times. It was also a time of synthesis as my brain seemed to be connecting things and bringing new pieces to old puzzles.
Every question was on the table. What is life? Suffering? God? What is the purpose of anything and everything? What in life will not appear to be utter vanity at death’s door? At times when I journaled it felt more like an intellectual exercise or philosophical musings than my typical journal entries. Still, it was a valuable time to question everything, push my intellect to its limits coupled with extended times of silent pacing.
I also read a lot. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was my close companion. I brought with me a gaggle of existentialists as well. I found Kierkegaard and Nietzsche interesting on the basic levels that I understood them but still mostly inscrutable. Sartre was perhaps the most compelling to me in his introductory essay Existentialism. It was engaging to read and reflect as Sartre explicitly endorsed Descartes’ cogito ergo sum as “the absolute truth of consciousness” while Merton called cogito ergo sum a “declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence.” Of course, Sartre would probably retort that Merton was deluded with “quietism” but my guess is that such a criticism wouldn’t affect Merton.
While I don’t consider myself a strict existentialist by any stretch, I was riveted by Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of four concentration camps in the Holocaust and a psychoanalyst by trade, Frankl’s personal story of making meaning in the camps coupled with his discussion on the meaning of life was a powerful read. His categorical imperative for discovering the meaning of one’s life is based on this exhortation: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
Needless to say, all of my readings and times of silence allowed for thorough–and much needed–reflection. I’m not sure what I really accomplished during my only week off for the next five months but maybe that was the point. I believe I “accomplished” more than I would have if I had gone to the beach or something else along those lines. And it’s something I would like to do again before too long, perhaps over a weekend.
If there’s one theme that came out of it all, it would have to be the power of love. In candid reflection with Esther, I told her recently that it’s been hard for me to experience or trust God’s power. In fact, I’ve doubted there’s a God with any power at all. As I walked into the prayer labyrinth, I began by thinking and praying the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” As I slowly made my way around and around I felt that there is indeed incredible power in love. And as I reached the center of the prayer labyrinth I felt distinctly that my calling was to “Go. Love.”