In the many years that I had been experiencing retreats at Holy Cross Monastery, on the Hudson River just north of Poughkeepsie, I had never had the opportunity to see an icebreaker at work keeping the river open for shipping. At first, it was intriguing. Then I saw analogies to our spiritual journeys.
I always thought that icebreakers just plowed straight along the path that they wanted to follow. As I witnessed an icebreaker at work for the first time, though, I saw something I didn’t expect. The icebreaker would occasionally pass through the straight, open channel. But then it would plow out into the wide expanse of ice next to the channel.
At one point, I saw the icebreaker stop, lower a ladder, and deposit two crewmen on the ice to check the thickness of the ice. Once they and the ladder were retrieved, the icebreaker cut a large loop through the ice. That explained the strange pattern I had seen on the ice to the south that looked like someone had driven a car on the frozen river in wild circles.
I asked one of the Holy Cross monks about what I had seen. Of course, monks know all about the world around them. The digression from the main channel to cut the loop is intended to keep the ice from thickening and expanding into the channel, eventually closing the channel again. These loops keep the ice field to the side of the channel from becoming one large expanse of ice. With the ice field cut into smaller sections, the working of the tide helps to provide diminish pressure on the main channel.
Our spiritual journey is much like that. We can’t just plow straight ahead. Often life closes in on our otherwise direct path. The wearying demands of life on our spirits allow everything to close in on us, much as the path through the ice on the river can close again. Then we feel squeezed by all that the world throws at us. We need to go aside, to create a break in the pressure, so that we can journey on. “He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31.
Jesus made a practice of removing himself from the activity around him and going off to pray. (”But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Luke 5.16) I was at Holy Cross Monastery doing essentially that while a ship on the river reinforced the Gospel message that my long association with Holy Cross should have etched into my being. But the demands of life are so insidious; that which we may know is best for us is often buried under what we think is our priority. In so doing, we set ourselves up to have life continue to close in around us, just like the ice.