Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself. —Hermann Hesse
I love retreat time. It renews my spirit, refreshes my mind, and relaxes my body. Haven’t the last two years felt like an emotional roller coaster? COVID, politics, war, racial wounds, school closings, openings, regroupings. We have been tossed to and fro like passengers of the Titanic, hoping for a lifeboat to bring us to safety. Maybe it’s the perfect time for a retreat!
Why should I retreat? To review what has been and gather strength for what lies ahead. How do we make sense of our lives without some time to process what has been? Where is the divine in the recent and distant past? How can I plan for where I am going if I don’t understand where I have been? If there is one thing that we have learned in the last two years it is that hard stuff happens, whether we are prepared or not. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. What I can do is look at my past for the wisdom to guide me in the present.
What happens on retreat? I move out of ordinary time marked by calendar entries, mindless routines, daily rituals. I move into sacred time, wandering time, present moment time. I leave tightly scheduled hours for open, spacious days. I cease skittering from one activity to the next and instead immerse myself in the now.
There are many ways to do this. We can enter a retreat that someone else has organized. Perhaps it’s a retreat center or a church community or an ad hoc group that gathers for just this purpose. In such a configuration we trade our regular routine for someone else’s. We are provided with a schedule, regular meals, space for group time and space for alone time. We rest with trusted caring guides.
We can also choose to retreat without someone else’s structure, free to form our days as we wish. We can settle into a hermitage to practice being an ascetic for a few days. We are entirely alone.
Or we can have a hybrid with some structure and some self-direction.
If you need a permission slip to get away, I will provide one without hesitationOur retreats can be near or far. In Minnesota we are blessed with many opportunities for local retreats. Though the distance in miles might be short, the difference from our day-to-day experience is significant. I have done both. I have favorite places I like to return to, and I take the opportunity to discover new favorites. I have been to Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Arizona for retreats. I have my eye on retreat centers in Colorado, New Mexico, and California. I have also gone to hermitages where I am all alone. One year I went to Salt Lake City and rented an Airbnb for several days and structured my own retreat.
Given the array of options, what pieces might I consider as I choose a prepackaged retreat or the variety of a build your own option?
Stillness is essential. A place to still my wandering mind, settle my agitated spirit, quiet my restless body. Within the stillness I want periods of silence. It takes a day or two to calm my inner waters. Often, I start with a nap, a time to let go of all that preceded my departure and sink into the simplicity, the smell, the tranquility of this new place.
A Listener. I like to have someone who will listen to what I am exploring. It might be to reflect on what has been happening in my life, to reinvigorate my values, to consider new ways to pray. I might want to use my time to do a 4th step and have a guide with whom to share step 5. I could be wrestling with a decision and want wisdom on discernment. I might not know what I would say, only that I would want a witness to my process. Many retreat centers offer spiritual directors or companions for just this purpose. If I choose a less structured option, I can bring along the words of a mystic I might channel during these days: Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Hildegard of Bingen, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, the Dalai Lama. I can imagine what they might say to me as I engage in conversation with them.
Nature. I want a place that leads me outdoors. It might be the gardens and trails of the retreat center. It might be a neighboring park. It could be watching birds seated at a window. Creation brings me into a bigger world. I recognize my own smallness and the grandeur of a creator.
Sacred Space. This has lots of looks. A meditation room, a chapel, a chair next to an icon. It’s a place set aside to communicate with the sacred about life’s mysteries and wonder, fears, and apprehensions. It welcomes a conversation with my Higher Power, my God, my spirit guide.
Pen and Paper. I bring a retreat journal. I recall past retreats and explore images, memories, desires for this retreat. I also like art supplies because not all wisdom is word based––some can only be expressed in colors, shapes, and sketches.
Wisdom Writings. It might be poetry, scripture, the Big Book. It could be a novel or memoir or collection of essays. Many retreat centers have rich libraries with wide-ranging choices to dip into. The spaciousness of retreat time lends itself to explore new authors or genres. I like to come without a reading list, allowing the spirit to guide me to something new or trusted favorites calling for a re-reading.
Taking time for a retreat may feel self-indulgent, extravagant, unproductive. It is none of those. It is time to pause, refresh, reacquaint ourselves with our inner self, our sacred calling, our reason for being. It is time to reconnect with our Higher Power, our God, our Creator. It is healthy to care for yourself in this way. Check out the retreat guide in this issue of The Phoenix Spirit, visit the internet for retreat centers, ask your fellow seekers for their ideas. If you need a permission slip to get away, I will provide one without hesitation. It is an opportunity you won’t want to miss.
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and Retreat Leader in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at email@example.com.