No doubt some of my readers have gone on a spiritual or business retreat. These day or weekend-long events are usually programmed with a schedule one is to follow, mixed in with time spent alone for reflection. They can be quite useful, though they can just as easily be little more than a sleep-over for grownups, where everything returns to normal fairly soon after the retreat ends, and nothing appears to have been learned or internalized.
Yet sometimes life puts us into retreat mode with no program whatsoever for us to follow, through circumstances such as illness, travel, or pure happenstance. At these times, we find ourselves withdrawn from the world without a retreat director to turn to, to provide us with some kind of structure. This is an opportunity for us, if we but take it, to get a real assessment of ourselves and where we are going. It should make us aware of the fact that life as we know it is not as normal as we like to think.
Like many of my readers in the U.S., I was off from work for several days due to Independence Day falling on a Monday. In my case, besides serving as lector at Sunday mass, and morning coffee each day at a local cafe, with a few, brief errands immediately thereafter, I spent much of the past four days on my own. True, I did have a long, chatty phone call on Sunday evening with an old friend, and of course e-mail and social media from time to time to respond to, but equally true was the fact that there was little in the way of real, social interaction with others – something that is definitely not normal for me.
When we are on our own for long periods of time, and have little other than our own thoughts rattling about in our brains, we become aware rather quickly of our own mortality, as well as our vulnerability. This is not normal for most of us. And it is why those who live in what seems like the peaceful reserve of the cloister do not have it as easy as we might like to imagine. Thinking about sin and death all the time is their “normal”; for us in the so-called real world, that seems “abnormal”.
Sometimes we have a false, romantic notion of how nice it must be, to read and pray all day long, without worrying about the outside world and all of its woe and strife. We do not appreciate that the men and women who choose to pass their lives in such an environment are battling evil in ways which most of us are ill-prepared to handle. If you ever spend several days with little outside contact, as the religious do every day, you will quickly come to discover that the world, the flesh, and the Devil have been lying in wait for just such a moment to all jump on you at once.
The laity have it different, of course. We think that even if we are on a retreat – intentional or otherwise – we know fairly soon we will return to what we perceive as normal, everyday life. If we are ill we will get better, or if we are bored we will get back to the office, or we will eventually arrive at our destination after being stuck in some transit point for hours or days.
The truth is that normal is not a combination of meetings, paying bills, arguing, after-work drinks, telling jokes, road rage, cleaning the pet poop, what’s for dinner, and so on. We are deceiving ourselves, or are being deceived, if we believe that these things are anything but transient. Opportunities for self-sacrifice, charity, and using God’s gifts they are, yes; but they are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.
The noise and distractions of daily life do little other than mask the fact that we are grappling with sin, and headed closer to death with each day that passes. The real, rather than perceived, “normal”, at least for those of us convinced of the immortality of the soul and the teachings of Christ and His Church, is going to be either Heaven and the Beatific Vision, or the torments of Hell. There is ultimately no other destination for us: it is our ultimate “normal”. The business of daily life is very good at distracting us from that fact, and to our peril.
And let’s be very honest with ourselves and admit that, much as we appreciate the opportunity which a temporary retreat from the world provides, we do not particularly like the things that start coming out when we are alone with ourselves through some type of enforced confinement. In those circumstances, to paraphrase the Psalmist, our sin is ever before us, and we perceive such a state as being abnormal. Nor do we particularly like reflecting on death, much as we do not want to pretend that it is not on its way, at any moment.
Yet the reflection that comes from being on one’s own is not only ultimately beneficial, it is the real normal. It pushes trivial things into the background, and reminds us both of our imperfections and our derelictions of duty to God and our fellow man. What is normal for our immortal soul at this stage in its existence is to try not to become fixated upon the passing and material aspects of the present life. And the more we realize that fact, the more we will be able to live what the rest of humanity may perceive as an abnormal life – but one which is ultimately far more normal, based on a belief in the eternal, rather than trying to live a life based on the temporary, and the acquisition and management of things which crumble, rot, and pass away.
I would challenge those among my readers who find themselves too taken up with the noise and business of life to try to find some time – a few hours, a weekend – and to spend most of it in relative isolation and silence, to see what happens. You may be surprised by how much it puts things into perspective. And you may come away from it realizing that you have some changes that need making to your normal, everyday life. The challenge of what the world will tell you is an abnormal life, but ultimately is the only true normal life for our immortal souls, awaits us.