When I think of a spiritual retreat, I envision time and place set aside from ordinary routines to reflect on and deepen the sacred aspects of our lives. A retreat I took several years ago, however, proved to be a little different. This one-day retreat was at a Buddhist temple about 30 miles from my home. I had never been to a Buddhist temple before, and it had been awhile since my last retreat.
As I drove to the Buddhist temple early in the morning on the day of the retreat, I enjoyed a sense of anticipation of what I would experience that day. I thought about the people I would meet and the ideas we would share. I was looking forward to contemplative walks through the temple gardens and peaceful moments of silent meditation.
The address I had for the Buddhist temple brought me to a simple wood-frame house. My first thought was that I had the wrong address, but a small hand-painted sign indicated that I had arrived at the temple. There were no gardens or walking paths – just a small parking lot on the side of the building. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by a nun wearing a simple grey habit with veil. Her greeting was in silence – just a bow and the hint of a smile. She signaled for me to be silent as well and then handed me a dusting cloth. She led me into a small sitting room and indicated that I should dust the furniture and woodwork. She then left me alone to do my work.
Maybe the nun made a mistake and thought that I was a cleaning lady. Maybe I made a mistake about the date and came on the wrong day. I was confused. Not knowing what to do, I started to dust. As I did so, I noticed how simple but beautiful everything was. Some of the furniture looked handmade; a vase with a single rose had been placed on the windowsill; and there was an arrangement of small stones on one of the bookshelves. I handled things with care as I dusted the furnishings of the room.
After ten or fifteen minutes, the nun returned and signaled for me to follow her to a larger meeting room. There, I joined about twelve other people sitting on meditation mats. We were greeted by another nun who also thanked us for the work we did in cleaning the temple. She invited us to join her in a period of silent meditation. No other explanation or information was given about how to meditate or what we’d be doing the rest of the day. As I sat in silence for the next 30 minutes, my thoughts returned to dusting. I suddenly realized that the dusting I did wasn’t so different from meditation – both were giving me a deeper appreciation of the simple things that surround us and the ordinary tasks we do throughout the day.
We didn’t do any more cleaning that day, but we did help set and clear the table at lunch time. We sat in meditation several more times throughout the day and participated in guided discussions. But what I remember most about this retreat is the dusting and the insights I gained from this simple everyday task. While I still find occasional retreats away from my daily routines helpful in deepening my spiritual life, I have a new appreciation of how entering more fully in to what are commonplace activities can also be a form of meditation and can enrich our souls.