Some days I wonder if I should change the name of this ministry. How can I talk about the possibilities of abundance when I feel surrounded by scarcity? I turn on the news, check my bank account, or learn a family member is seriously ill and the world doesn’t seem like a place of abundant life. It feels like scarcity rules and the faster we accept its authority the better off we will be. Once we come to terms with the fact that there is not enough then we can better prepare ourselves for life’s inevitable individualism, competition, and exploitation. Thankfully, there are people and practices that invite me to replace those limiting beliefs with liberating truths. One of those practices is the restorative discipline of taking retreats.
“Retreat” has come to inspire many associations. Often, it means a group taking intensive time away from the workplace to plan and envision future projects. This is important but there is another, more neglected, meaning of retreat. It is the practice of taking intentional time away from life’s normal responsibilities and relationships for the sake of personal and spiritual renewal. It is very difficult to live with a sense of abundance without retreat. For that matter, it is very difficult to live with any sense of personal health and wholeness without retreats. As Dallas Willard commented:
“If you don’t come apart for awhile,
You will come apart after awhile.”
And yet, many of us feel too busy or broke to practice retreat. Of course, being too busy may be the exact indicator that you need a retreat. Consider the sacred irony of Martin Luther who wrote that he had so much to do (like leading a spiritual revolution) that he couldn’t get by without spending three hours in prayer each day. And yet, many of us are convinced that things like spiritual retreats are luxuries for those fortunate enough to have the time and money. Maybe we can’t all afford to take a month with a guru in a California coast retreat center. But we can all find ways to “come apart” for awhile lest we “come apart” after awhile.
It may even be tempting for rural folks to think we are exempt from this. After all, we live in a simpler and quieter manner out in the country. We don’t have to deal with all the traffic and hustle and bustle of the city, so we’re fine. But even in the most serene environment, human beings can get busy–extremely busy–and they can get distracted and discouraged and wounded. We need time away in those safe and sacred places as much as anybody. A wise professor of mine liked to remind us that “not even the Messiah had a messiah complex.” Jesus kept the Sabbath and the gospels tell us that he “often withdrew to the wilderness to pray” (Lk. 5:16). If Jesus needed to take time away to grieve, pray, rest, and discern, what makes us think we don’t need to do the same?
I recently took a retreat. It was scheduled long ago and as it came up, I wondered if I should still go. To misquote a literary giant: it was the best of time, it was the worst of time. It was the worst time because there were so many things going on that required lots of time and emotional energy. Things felt out of control, one of my least favorite feelings. It was the best of time because all of those things had drained my energy and spirit such that I was dangerously depleted. The kind of depleted that doesn’t go away with a relaxing dinner and movie or a good conversation with a friend. It was deeper still. You have probably been there.
After a little soul searching and an honest talk with Ashlyn, I felt clear to go. And go I did, for a week. Typically, when I take a personal retreat, I take a weekend. I may go to a cabin or hotel and enjoy a time of rest, journaling, hiking, and some good food. But this was a week-long retreat…at a monastery. Now, as an introvert, I crave solitude and silence. As a Quaker, I believe silence can be sacramental. But a week is a long time to be quiet and “unplugged” from the world. At least for me. Even for me. I got restless about Day 4 but until then, I was reveling in it. I was letting it envelop and surround me like the healing spirit of Christ. The great thing about going to a monastery or abbey is that the space is ready; the container is prepared and waiting. You can enter and rest in it without worrying about how to create or maintain it, something most adults rarely get to do. And unlike a hotel, you aren’t being interrupted by housekeeping or noisy guests. The space is held in silence and soaked in prayer. And visitors can often join the chanting and praying being done by the monastic community.
My retreat week was hosted at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Abbey, nestled among the knobs, forests, and farms of rural Kentucky became known worldwide because it was where Thomas Merton lived and wrote. That’s how I first learned about it. The writings of Thomas Merton have been particularly formative in my spiritual journey so I have long wanted to visit. I managed to visit for a day, several years ago, and had a powerful experience with the sculptures titled “Agony in the Garden” which were installed on a trail in the woods across the road. I bought a couple books in the bookstore and went home. But I came back, due to the kindness and encouragement of some friends and family after I graduated from seminary.
I’m still processing the week but I definitely returned home with a sense of being renewed. Not necessarily with clarity or passion but with renewed body, mind, and spirit. No single retreat will save us or “fix” us. But it can create the space in which we can welcome the One who “makes all things new.” As I was reflecting near the end of the retreat, connections formed in my mind with the content I was preparing for the New Years Retreat, coming up in January of 2019. At the New Years Retreat we will be exploring the wisdom of the Genesis creation stories. The creation stories invite readers to consider the design and dimensions of creation. In doing so, we begin to see the ways God works, not only to create but also to re-create. What emerged from reflection on my retreat experience and those ancient stories was a pattern of three elements in the renewal process:
- Rhythms–From the rhythms of the tides and seasons to our circadian and breathing rhythms, Genesis reminds us that rhythms are central to the design of creation and essential to the well-being of all life. We ignore the inner and environmental rhythms to our own peril. We have the unique capacity to organize our lives in harmony with wise spiritual and bodily rhythms that in turn shape us. As Ruth Haley Barton writes: “Human beings are made with rhythms and for rhythms.” In fact, when Jesus invites followers to take on his “easy yoke,” he is essentially inviting them (and us) into an alternative rhythm. Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus invitation as one to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” Retreats are an important way that we restore right rhythms and learn those unforced rhythms of grace. This was critical for my time away at the monastery. Day by day, I was returning to more life-giving rhythms of eating, sleeping, waking, praying, exercising, and medical self-care.
- Rituals–The Genesis creation stories has God creating a cosmos with an inherent rhythm or liturgy to it. And God models a ritualistic pause at the end of each day to contemplate, consecrate, and celebrate. The creation itself is crowned, not by the creation of human beings, but with the Sabbath. The ritual practice of Sabbath is not intended to be a heavy demand but a practice that promotes the flourishing of life. It makes our life and work sustainable. As it has been said among Jewish thinkers, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Implicit in the ancient creation narratives is the wisdom of daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual rituals. During my stay at the monastery, the practice of fixed-hour prayer, nightly Examen Prayer, and entering the rituals of the Sunday mass offered a healing balm. This can be especially true for Protestants who are burdened by the pressure to always be new and creative. Rituals renew us by providing a container in which we can celebrate, consecrate, and contemplate the days and seasons of our lives.
- Rest–By the time the retreat week arrived, I was so exhausted that I kept telling myself “just get there.” And when I did get there, I dropped my suitcase and crashed on the bed. Like the prophet Elijah, before there could be any deep attention to the divine and vocation, basic self-care had to come first. Elijah collapsed under a tree and fell asleep for a long time. Then he went to the mountain to talk with God (1 Kings 19). Resting with good sleep is not just a concession to human weakness, it is gift from God and an essential restorative practice. It is part of keeping the Sabbath and letting the Sabbath “keep” us. After getting caught up on sleep, I was better able to reflect on my life and listen for the holy whisper.
I offer these three not as a formula but maybe as a pattern, a common way that God accomplishes God’s renewing work. Maybe it’s a testimony, as well. Not of how I’ve turned sinner to saint or victim to victor but how the practice of retreat brought me new life. And how it restores in me the sense that creation is abundant, God is abundant, and abundant life is a real possibility for all people. I believe retreat is an essential practice of abundant life that can benefit all people, however they are able to practice.