When I visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art I always stroll through the Impressionism Gallery. I love the spontaneity and movement of impressionist art. It piques my curiosity as to how it is put together. What is the magical technique? I pick a composition and view it from various angles. First I look from the center of the gallery, scanning from left to right, top to bottom, taking in the whole impression. Then I step in to focus on a particular detail or interaction or slice of the scene. Finally I retire to the back wall and view it from a distance to see what breaks through the busyness of the picture. Then I notice what is going on within me. How does the picture leave me feeling? What memories does it provoke? Where have I noticed similar energy, light, color? I look at the work from a variety of perspectives.
This is also what I do on retreat. I look at my life from various perspectives– the panoramic view, the close-up encounter, the big picture so often lost in the details. With a little space I can focus on aspects of my life I ignore in the busyness of the day. It could be a challenging relationship. Maybe my blessings need counting. Possibly a troublesome decision I have been avoiding. Perhaps now is the time to engage with my inner voice or my higher power.
My life is very active in its details. I have routines that structure most days. A very powerful computer fits in my pocket and buzzes me when there is big news, when it’s time to move to the next scheduled thing, when someone wants my attention. My home and garden remind me regularly of their maintenance requirements. Days slip into sequential tasks rather unremarkably. I get lost in the details of the trees and miss the beauty of the forest.
On retreat I can pull myself out of the minutiae and review where it is I am going–or not going, as the case might be. Author Stephen Covey said, First Things First. On retreat I reflect and remember those first things and consider how central they really are to the life I am living.
How does that happen? In many small ways. I step out of the cacophony of media into stillness. I put aside the 24-hour news cycle, the competing pundits, the fear-filled breaking headlines. I silence the outside to listen to the inside, which has its own live-streaming worries, fears and headlines. I leave home–figuratively and physically. I ask others to be in charge of the cat, the mail, the laundry, the plants, the interruptions. I simplify. I pack a basic bag and leave life’s untidiness behind. I take a book or two, some poetry, clothes that need no attention, blank paper, an open agenda.
While I usually make an annual multi-day retreat, the noisy nagging cannot always wait months for attention. I need an oasis right now! At such times I take an hour or an afternoon or a whole day and find a space to just be present. In good weather I spend a few hours in the park, journal in hand. I might share a cup of coffee with a dear friend who will listen without judgment or advice. Libraries still have quiet spaces in little cubbyholes or window seats. There are chapels and meditation centers. I like to rise early and have my first cup of coffee while watching the day awaken through my picture window. I can find many oases in my life that act like mini-retreats.
When it is time for a retreat I must decide what kind it will be. Do I want to focus on one thing or enjoy spacious unstructured emptiness? Do I want to talk with a spiritual director or sponsor? Do I want to be alone or with friends? Do I want to travel or stay close by? DoI want to bring my own food or be fed? The types and styles of retreats are many and growing.
I recently participated in a local church women’s retreat. Every year the women of this congregation gather for a weekend at a retreat house to focus on a theme, listen to stories and build community. They leave their busy lives to gain perspective on how their own stories intertwine with those of their fellow congregants. I know women who gather annually to renew their friendships and remember who they are as sisters or classmates or colleagues. They retell old stories and create new ones. They share their current joys and sorrows. They go away to be together.
We are blessed in Minnesota to have many retreat houses. Some provide simple rooms with communal dining. Others have an unadorned cabin or hermitage with a basic kitchen where the retreatant can cook her own food. Often a spiritual director or retreat guide is available to meet daily.
We might choose to take a retreat with like-minded people. I have a friend who goes to Madeline Island each summer for an art class. It provides the same leaving home, simplifying, empty space that a traditional retreat provides, with the opportunity to expand her skills. There are writing retreats, yoga retreats, quilting retreats. A retreat can be an opportunity to learn something new or immerse myself in a familiar pastime.
Retreats don’t have to move from, sometimes they move toward. My adult children and I take a 3-4 day mini-vacation almost every year. We no longer live close to each other and it gives us the opportunity to retreat out of ordinary life into new places of discovery. We hike together where silence and talk interplay like sun and shade on a summer’s day. We reconnect in ways that short visits don’t allow. We laugh, pontificate, cry, invite, relax, dream, recall, play. New perspectives on family.
To really be in the world we occasionally have to leave it, to get the perspective that allows us to see more clearly. Siri occasionally badgers me to “return to the route”. I say, get off the route, the treadmill, out of the noise and clatter, to really see what is going on. When I do return to the route, I will know where I am going….and why. Give it a try, tell me what you saw.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org