This is the second of several installments in the Jubilee Retreat Series, the first one is My True Heart Opens and should be read first.:
Seven cycles of seven equals forty-nine. In the Jewish tradition, this is very significant. Since, every seventh day is the sabbath and every seventh year is a Sabbatical called the shmita. The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita, So, my forty-ninth birthday was last September. My birthday is always around the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah. I will turn fifty this coming September, so it is my Jubilee. I have been planning to go away for a long retreat for many years. I have told all my family members and most of my friends about this for at least ten years now. Since my youngest is only seventeen (another number with a seven in it), I cannot actually take my Jubilee retreat when I turn fifty. I am determined though to start on my Jubilee year-off before I turn fifty-one.
Both of my parents are Jewish by birth. Neither of them are Jewishly observant or religious. I wanted some connection to the force moving within and around me, to Holy Presence, and since neither my father nor my mother had any relationship to religious practice, nor any connections to Jewish community, my father chose the Quakers also known as The Friends. My father took me to Quaker meetings as a child. He liked them because they were mostly silent, they were educated, there were lots of intellectuals, and they were pacifists. I was in heaven from the first time I sat in Friends Meeting. Here, finally, were a bunch of folks/Friends all communing with and in relationship with Holiness. They were not discussing it or trying to argue against it, they were simply sitting in stillness and waiting for the voice, the still small voice, within them to make itself known.
I am anything but still, small and quiet. I was a slender young girl, but I was never quiet. The Boulder Friends Meeting was my first spiritual home. I would sit in meeting and, of course, The Divine would start talking to me. I would sit on my hands, try and be calm and as patient as a young girl can be, but eventually I would have to stand up and shaking and with tears streaming down my face, share how much The Holy One loved everybody and how beautiful they were. This was the most common theme that seemed to be coming through me. It is still my most common theme and my forever “good news.”
I was a young girl when this was going on and I felt as if I was the only child doing this kind of thing. Usually, the elders would speak or occasionally someone older would share something. I became a favorite of the elders and also made tremendous friendships with the other children at meeting. These friends were different from any other friends because I was encountering them in a spiritual context. They were truly Friends with a capital letter “F.” I spent years with the Boulder Friends Meeting and going to the Inter Mountain Yearly Meetings in New Mexico during the summers was one of the highlights of my early teen years.
The Boulder Friends Meeting was also home to Elise and Kenneth Boulding. These were two maverick human beings. Married for forty-plus years by the time I encountered them. They were white haired, tall, strong and beautiful. Kenneth was originally from England and a world-renowned and respected economist and Elise was originally from Norway and was a professor at Dartmouth prior to being in Boulder and also a world-renowned Sociologist. Both of them were intellectual giants. They had five children, all grown, by the time I met them as a young girl. Kenneth had written many books and several long love poems/sonnets of love for his wife. These were just the best and most wondrous people. Kenneth would sometimes speak after I did at meeting. When he spoke, you knew the voice of Wisdom, and Holiness was coming through. He was gentle and kind and had a slight stutter sometimes, his hair was like pictures of most mad scientists, white and wiry and going in ten directions at once. He was well over six feet tall. He had a strong accent and an extremely distinct voice, which was forceful and strong, even with the stutter.
He would often speak about my sharing as being a gift and he likened my young tears to tears of baptism. He would affirm that all of us need to experience this love and joy of Holiness, that the tears were a place of cleansing and newness and youth. He made me feel at home. I am crying just thinking of these people and this time in my life, when I was honored, even at the young age of eleven or so, as a person of merit and depth with something to share. In school, I was perpetually taunted and teased. At home there was still pain from my parents divorce and so much confusion. At Meeting, I was heard and seen and honored and not for anything I did, but for the voice of love and hope inside of me that couldn’t help but bubble up as soon as I got still and quiet in communion with other folks sitting still and waiting for inspiration and connection.
The first time I learned of the idea of a year retreat was when I was a young girl. Elise Boulding was a mother and an inspired feminist, professor, peace activist, and she wrote many books. My mother is also a feminist and artist and she collaborated with Elise when she was writing a book called The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time, first published in1976. My mother, Helen Redman, did the illustrations for this book. My mother and Elise worked together and I remember sitting at Elise’s table one summer afternoon with them both. Elise was speaking about her retreat, her year long silent retreat. What was this busy mother, grand-mother, author, professor and extraordinarily busy activist talking about? How could she have taken a year long retreat? But she had. Elise and Kenneth were very deep thinking and deeply feeling folks, their relationship to Holiness was not casual. Elise Boulding planted the seed in my young mind that a mother, wife, maverick thinker and activist, could retreat from all of that to seek stillness and connection with Holiness.
This seed, planted so long ago has been growing since then. It is now a veritable oak tree inside of me. I will always love my first spiritual base, my Friends from Boulder and New Mexico. I still love Quakers and the Friends Meeting and feel at home there. I am no Quaker though, I’m just too damn loud and very definitely practicing and in love with my Judaism now.
Imagine my delight when I uncovered that the Jewish tradition, which any well-versed Christian Quaker (like Elise), knew, has retreat practices related to the Jubilee Year and to daily meditation and stillness. There are instructions in the Talmud that suggest one should take time to get still and calm for an hour or so before beginning prayers and then do the prayers. After the prayers one is also instructed to sit in stillness and communion for another hour or so. If you do this the three proscribed times a day, that’s about seven hours of prayer and meditation. Not really something the average person is doing, but it is still there as the model of what should be done; an ancient instruction to engage in daily meditation and retreat.
There are also teachings about how a man should take a retreat when he is fifty to re-assess his life and prayer practices. I’m not sure a whole year is specified, but again the seed is there. There are lots of fascinating and deep practices related to the Jubilee Year. All debts are supposed to be forgiven, all land is supposed to revert to its original owners, and many other amazing and not easy to do things. To my knowledge, these practices were rarely observed, and alterations and amendments were made. Who wants to forgive all their debts? Who wants to give their land back to the original natives? Who are the original, original natives? How far back does one go, etc..?
I know that I need a retreat year to be by myself with the Divine only and I’d love to have all my debts forgiven, or at least take a break from thinking about them! It is also very hard for me to find my own sense of what is MINE to do and be around others. I am looking forward to the time and space, a luxurious amount of both, to go deep into the great mystery and see what I find and how best to serve Holiness, my family and community on the other side of fifty. Please stay tuned here, before I go away, and follow me to know more abut this adventure as it unfolds. To be continued………….
Nicole writes and remembers, with tears and laughter, from her home in Bayside she dedicates this teaching in honor and memory of her greatest teacher Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, May his Memory be for a Blessing. He came into this world on August 28, 1924 and left it on July 3, 2014. This piece was originally published in The Mad River Union on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014