As the Quakers say…
About 25 years ago, Tim and I found ourselves in a sharing circle in a convent in San Francisco. As with most unusual experiences, we can’t exactly pinpoint how we arrived at the decision to be there.
Dubbed the first West Coast “spiritual formation gathering for spiritual leaders,” we joked that we didn’t know what the term meant, and we were certainly not spiritual leaders, which made our presence there even more puzzling.
In that first “get acquainted circle”, the attendees and retreat leaders took turns sharing their names, professions, and why they had come to the retreat. I heard the names of several authors whose devotions I had been drawn to. Pastors, spiritual directors, lay leaders…one by one the introductions continued until it was Tim’s turn.
“My name is Tim. I am a bus driver. I have no idea why I am here.”
In spite of that awkward start, though, we both had seminal experiences that week with our new tribe: contemplatives. The stories of miraculous encounters at this retreat are for another time, but during the week, one ritual occurred that we came to love: the setting of intention for the day.
The leader for the first morning began by leading us in prayer and then explained the plan for the day, which involved a lengthy introduction and a list of activities. This was standard fare for conferences.
In our heads, we were already gearing up to start completing tasks when we heard the leader pause and take a deep breath. Having finished an exhaustive list, the leader looked up, gently smiled, and then simply said,
We looked at each other and stifled a laugh. Those two words gave us instant freedom from the tyranny of our inner “rule followers” who clamor for control and approval. We were encouraged at the end of each morning’s plan to listen to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit and act on those promptings even if they did not include the “official plan.”
We have continued to practice that holy listening especially when we travel, so when we awoke at the Grand Canyon well before dawn, we set the intention to see the sun rise without knowing what the destination would hold. As we walked the darkened path, we could barely make out other forms carefully making their way in the pre-dawn light.
Arriving at Mather Point, we noticed pockets of people who had gathered before us, many wrapped in blankets to ward off the early morning chill. Excited murmurings filled the air, and the conversations swelled as tripods were set up and cameras readied to hopefully capture a miraculous moment. Waiting for this sunrise, I saw faces come into focus that reflected cultures from all around the world. I witnessed selfies and family photos being taken, and I heard the mingled voices become like a rush of water babbling over stones. As the soft grey light increased, eyes seemingly gleamed with the same expectant, hopeful glint.
The sun was coming.
Suddenly, I saw a woman’s gray-haired head turn from a rocky place below the crowd. In a thick German accent reminiscent of my mom’s, she nearly shouted at the crowd above her on the path.
“You need to be quiet.”
A moment of stunned silence spread, thickening the air with shock and shame. Joy was rushing off the path like air out of a popped balloon. I turned to the small crowd near me who seemed almost paralyzed and simply said,
I get it. We all approach sacred moments in different ways. Some of us are navel gazers, and some of us dance in the aisles with our arms in the air. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
But this was not a classical music concert with strict protocols on when to applaud and when to be silent. This was not a loft in a study library of a hallowed institution of higher learning. This was not a solo hike in the woods that came with an expectation of solitude and reflection.
This was a communal experience of the miracle of a sunrise over one of the seven wonders of the world.
Like her, I too had expectations for how this moment should be met. I wanted that crowd to burst into wild, spontaneous applause and cry out, “Do it again, God” when the sun completed its climb over the rim. I wanted to conduct a spontaneous Mather Point choir, lifting our voices in a magnificent chorus of “How Great Thou Art” as the first red shafts of light cut through the clouds. I wanted us to hug each other before we walked away, total strangers of every tribe and tongue, and wonder at this shared experience of shalom expressed in a sunrise.
But in the end, I simply remembered that after the intention is set, I could gently let go of my agenda and simply say within my heart,
And I wish she had done the same.