The Kingdom at Hand

Two Weeks After a Silent Retreat

by Heather Lanier

How quickly I lose my love
of all things. I nearly flick an ant
off the cliff of an armchair.

But remember, Self,
that week you spent
enveloped in psalms

intoned by monks?
By Wednesday you beheld

a three-balled body
creeping around
the onionskin of your book,

its teensy toothpick
legs bent into all manner of
delicate angles.

Your chest became
a doorway
to a spacious unmarked

heaven. You loved the ant.
The kingdom,
said Christ,

is at hand, meaning
not ticking above

in a time-bomb of gold-
paved streets but
tapping its antennae

along the heart line
of your imperfect palm.

Published in The Sun.
Reprinted by Permission.

When I tell others I spent my birthday week at a silent meditation retreat, I see the question spring to their shocked faces before they even speak: Why would you choose to do that to yourself? A week of silence, they say, would drive them crazy. Some people (and myself included, at times) wonder what the goal of so much sitting in silence might be, since a retreat is not real life, and isn’t the point to find as much peace as possible in the middle of our daily noise and chaos? Yet after each retreat, in a process I can’t quite explain, I’ve found that some piece of that inner stillness I touched on during those long hours followed me back into my real life as well. Though the wide-open embrace of life as it is never lasts for long, it is enough to know that it exists within us, waiting to be accessed when we need it the most. We can also create retreats of our own right in the middle of daily life, giving ourselves permission to meditate, write, go for a long hike, or do whatever we need in order to recharge.

Heather Lanier illustrates this so well in her poem. She remembers her own time of silence and reflection while on retreat, when her “chest became a doorway to a spacious unmarked heaven,” which she suddenly realizes she can step through again. Such times may take us by surprise and often appear after periods of stillness, whether on a retreat, at church, or while spending the day outdoors away from our screens. Yet the reality we all face is that our lives do not unfold as a single, unbroken stretch of stillness and quiet. We are humans living in an imperfectly human world, after all, and so we easily lose our reverence and “love for all things” in the midst of busyness and worry. Yet the trick is not to blame or shame ourselves for such inevitable missteps. As Lanier helpfully points out, we need only to remind ourselves with kind and gentle self-talk (“But remember, Self”) that the doorway to the “kingdom at hand” remains open anytime we choose to pass through, and the reward for close attention to our lives, even if it is simply to save the life of an ant, is the heaven of a fuller presence in this here and now.

Invitation for Writing and Reflection: Think back to a time when you brought yourself back to the moment at hand, and found the world vivid and lovable again, perhaps during or just after a period of stillness or calm. Describe the specific details, no matter how seemingly small, that suddenly caught your attention again.

—James Crews