by Ed Kimble, NUUC Friend
What would make you more nervous: being quiet for five hours or writing a prayer to “God?” How about reading your prayer aloud to a casual acquaintance, revealing your sensitive underbelly to someone you’ve only made small talk with at coffee hour in the church courtyard?
That’s what faced 25 of us at Neighborhood UU’s Spiritual Retreat, led by Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson, with help from George Scherer and Beverly Belling, on Oct. 4-6 at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in Montecito.
As a new friend of Neighborhood Church, I didn’t know what to expect when my friend Ariane suggested we sign up, nor did I care! “Retreat” and “Montecito” were all the draw I needed. What sealed the deal was hearing Rev. Jim announce his retirement and not wanting to miss what might be our only chance to take a retreat with this literary minister who has amazed and amused us so much.
Unitarian Universalism has a rich literary history that claims groundbreaking American authors from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Kurt Vonnegut. We are well known for great ideas and high ideals, but less so for the kinds of spiritual practices and devotions central to Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and aboriginal religions. A survey of Neighborhood members several years ago found a longing for methods individuals could use to nurture their inner lives, Rev. Jim explained, which gave birth to the first NUUC Spiritual Retreat three years ago.
Rev. Jim began our retreat with a guided Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, taking us to that inner place where our self resides, the visceral core of our identity, the part of our being that is violated when we are betrayed or when we act out of integrity. Once we found it, we were told to bless it, to give ourselves the warmth, caring and kindness we freely give loved ones, but often fail to give ourselves. We then extended our blessings to ever larger circles of loved ones, workplace groups, communities, and even to our nation’s bickering Congress, which had just shut down the federal government. Barely 9 p.m. when Friday’s session ended, with no televisions in our rooms, limited wireless and spotty 4G, that experience really settled in.
We began Saturday with breath-focused slow yoga under ancient oaks, led by George Scherer. Rev. Jim then introduced us to two uniquely Unitarian spiritual practices favored by forebears like Henry David Thoreau: writing reflections on “sacred texts” (we used Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Briefly It Enters, Briefly Speaks”) and writing prayers.
We got our “Big Challenge” after lunch: to refrain from conversation, electronic communication or distraction for five hours and just notice our surroundings and ourselves. Many of us wandered around the retreat center’s gardens, some walked the small stone labyrinth, some climbed the hill above to soak in views of the Santa Barbara coast. For some of us silence was blissful, for some it was deafening. I had a moment of warm sunny breeze and thought-free sensory bliss — until I started thinking about it!
After dinner Saturday, Beverly Belling led us through a fast-paced collage making exercise to intuitively find and assemble images to express our experiences with the day’s silence. The retreat participants ages ranged from 20s to 90s, but during this hour we were all about age 7 and whether we believed in magic or not, we were definitely practicing it.
There was so much more, but I’ve run out of space and time. And luckily for all of us, Rev. Jim will be doing it all again one more time next fall. Consider showering yourself with some loving kindness and go.