Retreat. Withdraw. Pull back. When armies retreat they fall back, de-escalate, leave the frontline for a place of safety and rest. Me, too. I go on retreat to regroup, refresh, rejuvenate. Our frenetic lives leave us fewer and fewer quiet places to retreat into. Electronic devices have marched into every room of the house. They ride with us, walk with us, sleep with us. News is broadcast all day. Phones ring, beep, vibrate incessantly. Even out-of-doors, too often machines swallow the stillness. It takes much more effort to retreat. And we need it more than ever.
I contacted several retreat centers in our area to ask what they are noticing about the current retreat scene. Here is what I heard — people arrive exhausted. They don’t realize how tightly wound they are until they stop. Their biggest need is rest. Our lives are full and the demands on our time are many. Retreatants come to sleep, to relax, to unwind.
I know how that feels. The first thing I do when I get to my retreat is move into the simple room I’m assigned and unpack whatever it is I brought. There is usually a place to hang a few things, a drawer or two, a desk, a bed. I settle in. I lay down. I fall asleep. I rarely nap at home, but on retreat the cares of home seem far away and a nap is so inviting.
Secondly, retreat house directors reported that fewer of their guests are part of a mainstream church. Even when the retreat house is connected to a specific faith or denomination, the retreatants are often un-churched. This does not mean that they are un-spiritual or un-informed nor unwelcome. They are often well-read in spirituality yet untethered to a church community. They come for the peace, the calm, the serenity, the spirit… the silence.
Silence is nourishing. Early on, during a silent retreat, I catch myself starting to speak, but soon the silence expands and my voice recedes. When I share that silence with other retreatants, we check in with a nod or a smile or a gesture of kindness like holding a door or adjusting a chair. We become a community without words.
A third change is the connection between spirit and nature. In the past, many sought the sacred in churches or temples or synagogues. Now people come to nature to refresh and reconnect with spirit. Most retreat houses in our area have open space to wander, gardens to enjoy, a lake or pond to watch the reflection of the sky.
On my retreats I love to wander the grounds. There are usually paths and trails, but not so well marked that you don’t occasionally have a surprise twist or turn. Chairs, gliders, or swings are stationed to watch the sunrise or sunset, the frenzy of squirrels and chipmunks, the flitting of birds. One November retreat I saw wild turkeys each morning, perched in the trees. At a late summer retreat I saw deer craning their necks to reach ripening apples. Feeders often entice colorful song birds. Nature speaks calm, presence, joy.
There are many kinds of retreats. Some are structured, others free form. Some have celebrated speakers, while others offer surround-silence. Some are in community, others are solo. I have tried almost all kinds and I appreciate every one.
We are blessed with many retreat settings in the Midwest. When the retreat calls for time alone to just be, a hermitage can be the perfect spot. Typically it is a small cabin with a bed, a basic kitchen, a sitting area. Most have indoor plumbing, but be sure to ask. Typically they are planted in wooded acreage, with trails to draw you into the wild.
Sometimes a retreat is a great way to celebrate community. Churches or other groups will sponsor an annual retreat for their members at a retreat center. These may be gender specific – men’s retreats and women’s retreats – or they may be a couples’ retreat. Often there is a speaker or retreat leader but the group may call upon its own members to provide reflection.
I recently spoke at such a retreat. The setting was nestled in the just greening St Croix River valley. The planning committee organized the weekend, decided the theme, determined the cost, registered attendees and addressed all the details. The committee reserved the retreat house, worked with the kitchen staff, assigned rooms, scheduled the massage therapists. One member led the Qigong meditations, another chose the music, others planned the closing ritual. Each of the nearly 60 guests was greeted with a beaded bracelet lovingly made by someone on the committee. The weekend flowed beautifully and fit the community to a T. The retreat was designed for the community rather than squeezing the community into a predefined retreat mold.
Some retreat houses have an annual schedule and people reserve the same week every year. Over time close friendships are formed and the retreat becomes a reunion as people look forward to reconnecting. There are directed retreats where the retreatant meets with a spiritual director each day for a 30 to 60 minute session. Some retreats are organized around activities – knitting or quilting or yoga or writing or cooking. Common interests connect the retreatants as they walk through the door.
You don’t have to be churched or belong to a faith tradition to appreciate the serenity of a retreat house. The Episcopal House of Prayer in Collegeville has 13 rooms with 17 beds. They rent the center in their off-season to groups such as book groups, women’s groups or intergenerational families. The attendees appreciate the sacredness of the space, the immediate sense of calm and the welcoming common areas. There is a spirit-filled energy that pervades the setting, even as the focus is directed outside the religious realm.
If it is hard to get away overnight, you have as an option a single day retreat. The Benedictine Monastery in Maplewood offers the opportunity to rent a room for a day of reflection and still sleep in your own bed at night. You can settle into eight hours of quiet, join the monastic community for lunch and prayer, take a nap, step out of ordinary time.
I used to think of retreat as a time-out, time away from routine. I now think of retreat as a time-in, a time to look inward, reflect on my life, be present to my own inner work. A retreat gives me the opportunity to gather my disparate parts, the pieces of me that are scattered, ignored and displaced. This quiet time allows a place for my feelings to peek out and get a little attention. Ordinarily, I can keep myself so busy that feelings rarely have to be explored. No time for that now! On retreat feelings show up and are not so easily dismissed. Now what? As Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet writes in his poem The Guest House:
Welcome and entertain them all!
When I ignore my feelings, I ignore a part of me that might have something important to say. Take anger, a very natural, human feeling. When I stuff it away, it expands and threatens to leak out like a poisonous gas at some ill-timed encounter – say when my lovely neighbor comes to borrow a cup of sugar. Or consider joy. I can stuff that away, too. Excess joy might lead a person to uncontrollable happiness and bursts of silliness. How would all the work get done? If I start releasing the backlog of feelings, sorrow is sure to make an entry. And then what? Days, weeks, months of tears? A person could get lost for years in the tall grasses of sorrow, never to be seen again. There the beleaguered mind goes – walking the plank of terror.
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
Clearing me out for some delight? My stockpile of feelings can grow to a size where there is no room for new feelings – like delight or surprise or inspiration.
The dark thought, the shame,
the malice, meet them at the door
laughing and invite them in.
Invite them in. Welcome them. Free them. Free me. That is what retreat is for – to free us of the baggage we’ve been collecting. The baggage we’ve inherited. The baggage that belongs to someone else.
To lighten my load. To quiet my demons. To celebrate the now.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each moment
has been sent as a guide
Let your guide lead you to a place of respite, whether it’s a campsite in the wild, a cabin in the woods or a retreat center on the outskirts of town. Retreat. Recenter. Recover.
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Retreat Leader and Spiritual Director in the Twin Cities. firstname.lastname@example.org