Did I ever tell you about the first time I went on a retreat?
Well, this was also the only time I went on a retreat and, with the exception of a few things, the weekend was mostly unmemorable.
Notice that I said mostly?
Aside from the scenery, which was peaceful and calm and beside the place itself, which was out east at the end of Long Island and near a place that was relevant to my youth, I found myself tricked into an idea which I reluctantly agreed to.
Behind the house was the bay and the sands and some marsh, which was picturesque to say the least. The house that we stayed in was huge and beautiful as if to be from an old world charm.
There was a man who ran the retreat to which, of course, I was doubtful that this would be meaningful or at least anything more than what I expected.
I assumed this would be a series of groups where men talked about themselves or shared their stories, lamenting about the past, or digging deep within their internal dilemmas to define some kind of spiritual upheaval. I assumed this would be a group of men who’d seen the inside of bad places, like the belly of the beast, and sharing about the scars they had or the wounds that never healed.
Mind you, I was one of these people too. Or, maybe I should say that I am one of these people – or maybe it would be closer to the point if I said that I assumed this because this was me: Young and doubtful. Critical of everything. Hidden behind the masks and shields which I had built for mass destruction in the guise of my own protection.
In fairness and certainly in all honesty, I was only me.
I was young and still fresh from the battles of personal self. My past was not too far behind me and my value of self was based on the anatomy of my past.
I was alone. My father had passed. My mother had moved away and, once more, my surroundings had moved from comfortable to different.
I was a constant chain reaction to both the information around me as well as the information I fed myself which was trained and inaccurate; yet; we fail to realize that the information we feed ourselves is something which the brain believes – true or false – and it is said and known that we speak to ourselves far more than we speak to anyone else – but the difference between who we speak to; the one thing we can assure is when we speak to ourselves, just know that we are always listening.
I was the compilation of my faithless consumption and misconceptions to say the least. When I say faithless, I do not mean this in a religious regard.
My center for religious beliefs and ideas was closed for the season. As a person whose agnosticism was challenged by some cult-like individuals who swore that either I had to believe (otherwise, I’d die) I was neither open to nor willing to discuss the bible-like features or the relevance of God. Nor was it understandable to consider the idea of God as it was suggested to me. I was neither interested in speaking about faith-based healing nor the acronym of the G.O.D. which stood for Good, Orderly Direction.
No, I had been a follower of many things for way to long and at this time, especially at this time, it was my time to understand me and learn to have faith in myself rather than follow anything or anyone –
That being said, the retreat was not billed as a religious retreat and, therefore, of course I rolled my eyes when I saw the nun upon my arrival. I shook my head when I learned about the priest who would had programmed the entire weekend.
I often wonder if people understand the meaning behind personal viciousness. I wonder if people understand what violence really means which, of course, is relevant.
I am no gangster or a neighborhood tough guy, nor am I claiming to be anything better or worse than who I was. However, who I’d been was not a version of my best possible self.
I know what my version of violence and hated is. I also know about the convictions of self and the understanding that a person is who they think they are. Therefore, call me a murderer. Call me a thief. Call me a convict or a violator of all the commandments. If the saying “man is as he thinketh,” then I think this was me.
What I had done and some of my secrets are personal and sad; yet, there is a part of me – or should I say, there is a recovering part of me that understands about the motivation. I understand the constant reaction to a list of fears, pains and insecurities which, of course, is what people respond to – our thoughts, because rest assured, we are as we thinketh.
I responded to my hate which ran deep.
I responded to my chain of resentments and to the fact that I had missed out on so many things. I responded that to me; everything seemed foreign.
Everything seemed out of my reach – but not only that, I could try and I could come close, but no matter how hard I tried or how far I reached – to me, everything I wanted or (thought) I needed was just beyond my touch.
I could almost feel it – I could almost touch it, but not really. To me, it seemed as if my reach was always too short and, therefore, I would never understand what it felt like to hold true victory in my hands.
(So why bother?)
I remember thinking:
What’s this place going to do for me?
I was like an angry kid who sat in the back of a classroom who’d swear, “Okay, fine! I’ll go to school. But I won’t learn nuthin!”
Besides, what was all this about?
What could this man – or should I say this priest – what was he going to teach me?
Once more, my young adulthood angst and rage was proven wrong. Once more, I had come in contact with a personal leader who showed me something that I had never seen before.
He was a man, not too much different from any other man that I know yet he was altogether different from anyone who I’d ever met.
He was short and round or somewhat plump and there was a presence about him, disarming to say the least. He was kind as could be and he was a person who I never met or knew. However, he appeared as someone who knew me. He was someone who bled with an aura of understanding and I admired that. At the same time, I wished I could be this way and yet- to be this way, as selfless as him, to me, this was impossible.
I had never seen anyone like this before – or at least I had never met anyone as disarming this quickly or who could pull off this trick as instantly as he did.
I assume this is why I decided to come to this retreat, which is where I intended to bury some of my old demons. Maybe within the depths of my darkness – my light was still there.
Although I was uncomfortable to be me per se, or although it was uncomfortable to be uncovered or exposed and vulnerable in front of a group of strangers; there was the intellectual part of me who understood that I couldn’t live like this anymore.
However, there was the emotional side of me who was unsure of how to live any differently; hence, the clash from within; hence, the dichotomy of self and, hence, the division within me or better yet, this was my disproportional split between good and evil.
What was this man about to tell me?
He was a priest; yet, he was a person too. He was a human, a man who understood what it means to have a past as well as a person who understood the need to be and feel forgiven.
My truth is this:
I have secrets like anybody else. I have a past, and I have this part of me who remembers and sees, as well as a part that thinks and feels. I have a part of me that knows where the scars are and I especially know about the ones you can’t see. And, in conjunction, I am a person who has seen and both committed acts of cruelty and unkindness. I have done this to the likes which even until this day, I have never revealed them to another person.
You want to talk about guilt?
Sure, I know about guilt.
I can say that guilt and I go back a long time.
I can say this is a subject that I can speak about with authority.
You want to talk about regret or resentment and rage or retaliation?
You want to talk about shame?
Sure. I know them all personally.
In fact, I used to call this me. I called this my life, my way of being, my package of self and, moreover, I used to call this the culmination of my thinking.
Would you like to know why people act or do or say mean things? Or, what about why people commit selfish acts – or should I say cowardly and desperate acts, do you want to know about them?
I can tell you. Then again, if you really think about it, I’m sure you already know.
This was me alright.
I was listening to this man speak to us like regular people and his solutions were so basic and simple. But to me, there was no way the riddles of my thinking could be solved by the obvious or satisfied by anything simple. Then again, most riddles are solved by the obvious and the simple.
Once more, I was wrong.
The priest had said something to me which I’ll always remember.
Maybe I remember this because of his kindness. Maybe this is because it was his understanding which I noticed by the sad and supportive expression on his face.
He said, “I don’t know what you did or what you were doing when you were ‘out there’ but I do know that you’re here now and you’re not doing it anymore.”
We talked about forgiveness.
Not forgiveness of sin or absolution or anything that had to do with religion or the sacraments of confession, penance or reconciliation.
I suppose he knew that even if God were to forgive me, what difference would it make if I never learned how to forgive myself?
Maybe no one forgives me.
Maybe I’ll be never be forgiven or maybe there are things that are unforgivable.
Nothing would matter in my life if I lived according to this.
He told me it doesn’t matter who forgives you.
“If you forgive yourself” and then he emphasized, “I mean if you really forgive yourself, honest and truly, and if you mean it; and if you have true sorrow for what you’ve done, enough to make amends and to make the changes to never do those things again – and if you stick to it, then it doesn’t matter who forgives. This is your past. You’ll have to let this go if you want to define your future.”
Grinding my teeth with a sense of half-doubt and half-hopefulness, I answered, “Sometimes it’s easier said than done.”
“Yeah,” he said,
I get it.
Behold the sinner~
if this is all we know
then this is all we know.
In a paraphrased way, he explained that I’d have to forgive myself so that I’d have what I’d need to walk away and move forward.
I am a person who understands the ghosts of my past and the linkage and the interest that comes with our karmic debts. Needless to say, I owe. Maybe more or maybe less than some, I suppose. But nevertheless, I owe – like the rest of us do.
He told me:
You have to stop holding yourself back.
“What if I can’t?”
“What if you can?”
Perhaps this was one of the first times that I thought, “Maybe I’m not who I think I am.”
Maybe there was a reason.
Or better yet, maybe it was okay to feel hopeful or have faith – and as foreign as this was to me, I can say that I liked this more than believing in my doubt or my anger. And last but not least, I liked this better than living in the wrath of vengeance.
I don’t remember much else from this weekend other than my promise to never go to a retreat where I’d have to share a room with people. More accurately, I’d never room with people I didn’t know or, even more accurately, I swore that I would never share a room with people who snore.
(It was awful!)
However, I am at the here and now part of my life and building new things.
I have an idea and it’s just an idea (for now).
To build a retreat where people can come as they are and leave as who they choose to be.
Maybe it’s as simple as this-
Maybe I want to find a way to repay for the simple kindness that someone had shown to me – maybe I want to help someone rediscover their own terms, to realign someone with themselves over the disobedience of self-destructive thinking.
Maybe, rather than find one’s self as stranded, I want to build a simple program where people can be found – at least for a moment or at least for a second to find a semblance of hope – just to know that it’s out there or that its possible, and that this can happen and that yes, we can improve or recover, if we choose to.
It’s funny to say this because I usually write as openly as possible but today I am humbled and, yet, today seems as if I shared more than ever before. I say this because although I write openly, I am a person with secrets that remain both unrevealed and unresolved. Today I believe that I’ve shown this be revealing my truths as a means of contrast – so this way, people can see the contrast within themselves.
I’m just a man. Not a priest. Not anything better or worse than anyone else. However, like my friend the priest, I am a person who understands the value of internalized forgiveness. By the way, this goes beyond a person saying, “Apology accepted.”
No, this is much more.
This is us forgiving (and freeing) us from the bondage of self –
So we can be free
And move forward.