Letter from an Interfaith Retreat — Jaime Wendt

When I learned that I would have an opportunity to attend an overnight, contemplative retreat as part of this fellowship, I knew immediately that I would jump at that chance. Even though it seemed a little inadvisable to take a break from studying and miss one day of classes right before midterms, I felt okay with that trade-off. The experience of staying overnight at a monastery, working with experienced teachers, and learning new practices was well worth putting in the effort to make up studying.

Upon arriving at the site, I felt like I was entering an in-between space. It felt familiar yet apart, wholly located in my world while being grounded in values atrophied by my culture. We drove through western Madison to get to the retreat site and passed quickly from a suburban retail district to a quiet, lonely building set on a nature preserve. I could easily buy a latte on a whim down the street from the monastery but regretted such a luxurious, glamorous habit pretty quickly once arriving there. I felt a little ashamed and then defensive before remembering it was natural for me to feel this way. We were about to spend time experiencing contemplative practices across traditions. Many of these practices are meant to unveil desires as distractions—which can be challenging, especially at first. Uncomfortable or negative emotions can rise up as a result of separating ourselves from these distractions, but it helped that we made these changes in the liminal space of the monastery.

The retreat was held at Holy Wisdom Monastery where an ecumenical community of Benedictine sisters work and worship. We started our program by exploring the monastery grounds. I found myself drawn to the library with its hundreds of books on spiritual formation, history of Christianity, philosophy, Buddhism, indigenous traditions, poetry, and everything in between. I could easily have spent hours and hours learning from the authors of those books, but my intention for this retreat was to listen more to myself and less to others. Truth be told, I was nervous about listening to my inner voice; I had no idea what it needed to say. Reading and knowledge-seeking has been a reliable pastime for me, but I have a tendency to let authors’ voices crowd out my own. When I was ready to step out of my comfort zone, I snapped a handful of pictures from the library to record the titles I wanted to add to my TBR list, and I dolefully left the library behind.

Over the next day, we practiced yoga, engaged in Tibetan Buddhist guided meditation, prayed the Centering Prayer and the Vesper prayers, and experienced a Zen Buddhist walking meditation. Each period of near-silence removed a layer of anxiety until the last where I felt peace and trust within me. I had clearly been afraid of confronting the fact that I use lots of habits and hobbies to distract me from inner tension and sadness. But by the end of the retreat, I felt content with that. Sure, I turn to comfort when I want to avoid disappointment, guilt or fear, but the solution isn’t always to remove those comfort items entirely, like I thought it was. I learned to trust myself to know when to step away from those hobbies and when to use them in a healthy way. I came into this retreat thinking the price of admission was probably going to be worth it, and I left it with a renewed sense of confidence. Worth the price, indeed.

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