By Matthew Croasmun and Katie Grosh
This retreat proposes construing the River Building as a physical object to structure your own reflection.
Whether as japa mala, misbaha, or rosary, people of faith around the world—Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian—have used strings of beads to frame their reflection.
The beads place physical structure around a spiritual quest, reminding the practitioner “where” she is on her journey. They supply material banks for an immaterial river to flow. Jewish tallit may serve a similar purpose, encoding within a physical structure the task of remembering the commandments.
This retreat proposes construing the River building at Grace Farms in an analogous way: a physical object to structure your own reflection. To be clear, the River building wasn’t designed or built for this purpose. This retreat doesn’t presume to “reveal the true meaning” of the River building. But it does invite you to encounter the building this way, to allow its various volumes and their relationship to one another as they flow up and down the hillside to frame a set of reflections on life — your life, at least at first; hopefully all life in the end.
The set of questions you’ll ask yourself are adapted from a model I (Matt) developed in teaching a course called “Life Worth Living” at Yale University and here at Grace Farms. I describe the model in a talk called “What’s Worth Wanting.” It would provide a good orientation to this retreat. If you have the time and inclination, you could listen to that talk below:
Here are the basics:
Most of the time, we live our lives on auto-pilot. That’s not necessarily good or bad; it’s just true. We have habits; we repeat them. But while when we’re in the auto-pilot mode we don’t really think about our habits, the fact is that they’re the most honest answers our lives give to a whole set of more fundamental questions. These questions can be grouped into one of three different “layers.”
The first layer, just below above the auto-pilot, is the effectiveness layer. Here, the questions are about strategy. Whether diagnostically (Is what we’re doing getting us what we’re after?) or proactively (How can we get where we’re going?), this layer is about effective means. Which is all well and good, so far as it goes.
But good means are only as valuable as the ends we put them toward. Which brings us to the second layer, self-awareness. Here, we ask about our goals: What are we really after? What sort of life are we aiming at? Whatever our strategies, what are our values? These are intensely personal questions; the name of the game in this layer is introspection. Only you know what you’re really after in life.
But there is a yet more profound question that the self-awareness layer can only gesture us towards. Just because we want something doesn’t mean it’s worth wanting. After all, plenty of people have reached the pinnacle of their lives only to find that, having all they ever wanted, they are still left wanting.
And so, lest we, too, dash our lives on the rocks of effectively-actualized self-awareness, we come to the self-transcendence layer. Here we ask: What sort of life is truly worth living? What’s worth wanting in life? In short, what is the shape of flourishing life? Here we’re talking about issues of truth. We are no longer the point. Finally, we encounter and find ourselves accountable to something or someone outside ourselves that can guarantee the worth of what we set our sights upon.
Life is not lived up on the mountaintop. It is lived in the real world.
We’ve just described the first half of the retreat: step-by-step, climbing the ladder, ascending to our most important question. But life is not lived up on the mountaintop. It is lived in the real world. And so, just as surely as we have to ask questions that move us from habits to strategies to values and to truth, there is a return journey we must travel as well. Insights into the truth of flourishing life have to become the desires of our hearts or they’ll remain isolated in our intellect, unable to shape our lives.
And we’ll need good strategies to take our refined and reformed values and put them into action. The hope is that we’ll eventually start to see new habits form that implicitly endorse and pursue all that we’ve endorsed explicitly up on the mountain top. So, this retreat invites you to retrace your steps, to return to each volume you visited on your way up the hillside, to take this return journey as well.
You may find that the questions of a given volume don’t end simply because you’ve left it. And you may find that you’ve already spent time in a volume wrestling with a question that the retreat proposes for another space. This is inevitable. The boundaries between these questions are like the glass walls of the volumes in which you’re invited to reflect: open, porous, in conversation with one another. As you reflect, allow your eyes to wander from where you are to where you’ve been: how is each moment of reflection in conversation with those that have come before?
River Retreat Booklets are available to purchase ($5 for non-members, $4 for members) at any time in the West Barn Welcome Center and the Library. You can also download a copy of the River Retreat PDF.