Wednesday, April 29, 2009

And sometimes you have to be quiet...

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went on a contemplative retreat to Conception Abbey northeast of St. Joseph, Missouri. We traveled up there with a group of folks from our church to spend the weekend away from all the noise that we're normally immersed in.

This was our fourth retreat to Conception Abbey. I've grown very fond of this island of solitude and peace in the middle of rural Missouri. I've seen it in the early Spring, in early Fall, and in the middle of Winter. I'll probably go again this Summer, just to complete the seasonal round, if for no other reason.

Going on retreat almost requires that you get away from your normal surroundings. In the case of this retreat, we traded a normal suburban existence--subdivision, lots of cars, shopping centers--for a cloistered world--a monastery, a seminary, a college campus layout, all surrounded by 260-foot-tall wind turbines spotted around the abbey on local farmland. The juxtaposition of the very modern with the almost timeless still inspires something almost magical in my heart.

I'm pretty sure that a contemplative retreat isn't right for everyone, or at least right for everyone immediately. In the case of the group we were with, we had been growing together as a group over the previous three retreats. We saw each other at various times during the week when we were back in our normal existence, where such encounters might consist of nothing more than chit-chat and "how's the weather?" kinds of remarks. On retreat, on the other hand, you see much deeper into the other person's soul. Having no distractions allows for deeper conversation and sharing of what's going on in your heart and mind, what is weighing on you, what is giving you joy.

I'd say, based on my own experience, that it's almost impossible to generalize about a retreat experience. Different people will focus on different aspects of being away from their usual surroundings. For each of us in our group, though, I think we'd all agree that the retreat has become something that we look forward to. We have grown closer as fellow travelers on the journey of faith, and have found that it's always best to travel with friends, even when you're focusing on solitude.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What's been happening lately...

It's been longer than I had planned between the first post and this one. I hope to remedy that sort of procrastination in the future. Think I can manage that?

Anyway, I've been doing a few things that I'd like to remark on here. First, about a week and a half ago, my wife and I traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, for a performance by the Bellydance Superstars. They're on a national tour now, and this was the closest they were going to be to Kansas City. Go figure that one out--KC has a metro area four times the size of that of Des Moines, at least in population. I can't tell you the last time the BDSS were in KC--maybe never. Does that sound right?

Several of our friends and my wife's dance classmates traveled up there for the show as well, although they drove back to KC at the end of the evening. We're getting too old for that sort of stuff, though, so we stayed the night in Des Moines before heading back the next afternoon. The point of even bringing all this up, though, is to comment on the show that we saw, and some implications that it has.

The show itself would be familiar to anyone who has seen the BDSS before--very fast paced, very well performed, and well worth the price of admission. The headliners all danced with the talent and grace they've become known for, and the backup dancers supported them with great talent as well. The show was titled "The Art of Bellydance," and I think it admirably showed the breadth of dance styles that influence, and have been influenced by, what we know as bellydance. One clinker, though, stuck out from what was otherwise a wonderfully produced show. I don't know the name of the number, but it was some sort of ensemble dance with eight dancers, all costumed in a sort of black satin jumpsuit, waving wooden swords in the air. Not even well-made wooden swords, but cheesy grade-school-type wood scimitars. One of these things broke while the dance was in progress, but the dancer who was left holding a bladeless handle recovered well and exited the stage, leaving the other seven to adjust for her absence. They did all this very professionally and gracefully, but this was the one number that I just couldn't see the point of; it certainly didn't look like any kind of bellydance I've ever seen before. I hope that going forward, the show's producers evaluate whether this number needs to be left in the show, or at least whether they need some new swords!

The implication I wanted to address was in the size of the audience that showed up for the performance. We had seen a performance of the BDSS in Des Moines about a year and a half earlier, in a larger venue, and the attendance had been quite large. This time, in a smaller auditorium, it seemed like only about a quarter of the seats were filled. Even in harder economic times, I would have expected a larger turnout for the show. The BDSS shows are wonderful to watch, even for someone with only a passing interest in bellydance. The variety of styles of dance is truly amazing; the cultural cross-fertilization that takes place in the world of dance means that everything from hip-hop to flamenco to Bollywood has influence in making modern bellydance what it is. I can only hope that what we saw as low attendance is not a harbinger of things to come for either BDSS or that type of show in the future. I would hate to lose opportunities to see shows like this due to lack of interest.

I continue to ponder other things besides beautiful women dancing and twirling to fast, energetic music, although that's a wonderful distraction. For instance--the relation between spirituality and physicality. In Western thought, it seems that we are predisposed to a separation between these two realms. I've been blessed with a spiritual home, though, where we are continually finding ways to have a more integrated understanding and experience of spirit and flesh. For instance, values of the spirit like charity, kindness, trust, faith, and perseverance, not to mention love, become embodied in acts of sacrificial surrender. I'm speaking of things like giving up a good part of a weekend to go into the inner city in Kansas City and working with homeless folks. Things like giving up a Saturday to mow the yards in an area that's been consigned by most of the rest of the world to the junk heap. I'm speaking of people who've turned their back on many of the perks of a suburban lifestyle so that they could contribute to helping those much less fortunate than them. I'm talking about a church that sees itself as chartered, indeed commanded, to being the people who give a damn about those outside the doors.

And there's something wonderful in knowing that we're not the only group of seekers who feel this way. There are hundreds, thousands, of other faith communities that feel this commitment to getting outside their comfort zones. There's an old phrase--when you've got 'em by their (fill in the appropriate body part here), you've got their hearts and minds as well. Well, that applies to the spirit as well. We place the body somewhere, and the spirit just naturally follows along. In the process of following a discipline outwardly, we find ourselves being changed inwardly. Spirit and body aren't separate things, each in its own sphere and isolated. They're instead two sides of a single coin--where one is, the other is there as well.