Cyclisme dangereux

Jack N Back photo2 copyWell after watching some of the Tour de France this month,  I wanted to relate one of my own cycling near-death experiences. A couple of  months ago I was eager to go out in the early evening for a quick bike ride. It was typical southern summer weather: hot, humid, with frequent afternoon thunderstorm cells popping up. I’ve come to rely on one of the popular weather apps for the iPhone which typically does an excellent job of predicting when it’s going to rain. When I checked the app, it didn’t describe any nearby storm cells by radar, so I clicked in and started off.

My route from home always involves some early stinger hills up which I trudged. When I got to the top of that ridge, I noticed the sky to the southwest was getting darker-not a good sign. I went on for a few more minutes, but then the color ahead changed to a deep purple blue and began to boil, with thunder booming to my right. Time to turn around . . .I started to book it home, but in a couple of minutes those telltale fat plops of rain began to splat and sizzle on the pavement.  Oh, so I’m going to get a little wet, I thought, no big deal. Only a little wet turned into a lot of wet very quickly. This was one of those quintessential gully-washing, cats and dogs, mad Englishman downpours that obliterated all vision.  I struggled on and came to the top of the ridge. There wasn’t really any place to take cover, so I decided to go on, heading down and back home.

As I frequently tell my overweight patients, you can’t violate the laws of physics (calories in > calories out = fat). Well, water + wheel rims = poor braking on a bike. And did I mention the 30 mph cross-wind?  So now I’m screaming down the hill at about 25 mph with the road awash in rain, my brake calipers crushed with all my grip strength, the wind howling, unable to control my speed as I approach the last turn at the bottom. “There’s no way I’m going to make this turn” I think to myself. Slowly I start to drift right, toward the edge of the road surface. A large ditch beckons with hazards unknown. The whole bike starts to chatter, and then I have a small flash of inspiration. I clamp the top tube between my legs, decreasing the vibration, which allows me to just barely maneuver around the turn and into a safer, straighter stretch of roadway.  Drivers approach me in the opposite lane and must think I’m loony–but they don’t stop, either. I limp home, grateful to have avoided road rash, fractured bones or worse.  I don’t tell anyone how close I came to a major accident. Until now.

Entering the silence

For many years I have periodically traveled to a Cistercian Trappist monastery for weekend retreats. When I lived in KY and TN I went to Gethsemani, best known as the former residence of Fr. Louis, i.e. Thomas Merton. Since moving to GA, I have now twice attended a similar retreat weekend at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, which is actually a daughter house of Gethsemani.

Gethsemani trail
One of the roads through the pastures at Gethsemani. by missouri_gal via CC BY-NC 2.0








These are silent retreats. Conversation is not exactly prohibited, but discouraged. Meals are eaten in silence (typically recorded music of Gregorian chant is played over speakers in the dining room).  Those wishing to converse are directed to specific areas outside designated for that purpose. Retreatants are invited to join the monks at the Liturgy of the Hours beginning with Vigils at about 0400 and ending with Compline around 1930.  At Gethsemani there are about 2500 acres of woods and fields, most of which are available to retreatants, laced with old logging roads and meandering trails. (Once I took a wrong turn in the woods and got very lost, very thirsty and very wet in a rainstorm before finally getting a ride back to the monastery).

A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings
A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings

In between those activities retreatants are free to pray, walk the grounds, and read, with  daily and Sunday mass attendance suggested. The food is basic as are the accommodations.

Why do I go?  Well, silence is a powerful tonic for the overloaded brain. Heck, even Jesus needed it (Mt 14:23). Silence is God’s first language. Silence is the space into which God can speak. Silence enables our faculties of contemplation and encourages a peaceful attitude toward life. I have spent weekends on retreat with only ordinary perceptions, and during other weekends have experienced profound and startling insights. gethsemani _chair2One gains a brief glimpse into the monastic rhythm of waking, praying, working, and sleeping, over and over, in the context of a small community of men pledged to spend the rest of their lives in this one place. I am powerfully drawn to this experience, as are many others-weekend retreats are typically full of people like myself.

There is a lack in modern life, some essence that is drowned out by our constant busyness, electronic distractions, and fear of isolation. I am convinced there is real goodness in that essence.  Going on retreat re-kindles the spark of the inner light that illuminates it. We ignore it at our peril.