Retreat Time

Hiking in the Canadian Rockies / Photo by Joseph Kelly on Unsplash

“Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” Soren Kierkegaard

Here at The Phoenix Spirit, we take time each spring to reflect on and explore the practice of retreating. Retreats, like most rituals, come with a familiarity and a structure that can mask the magic of the experience. Whether you take a retreat regularly or try it for the first time, a retreat is an experience of surprise in simplicity.

I go on retreat to step out of the ordinary, the routine, the normal. I don’t retreat to escape; I retreat to enter. I enter the life I have been living with an eye to where I have been and where this journey is taking me.

I liken this journey to a mountain hike. It begins on level terrain, meandering among thriving trees and lush understory.  The growth is thick and full and my ability to see ahead limited. I trust the trail and venture forth. I hear a rushing stream before I see it, its sparkling water tumbling over rocks and fallen tree branches. Eventually I notice stepping stones that allow me to cross.

The trail begins to climb, challenging my citified body. I keep going. The path takes me up and over boulders, down and under broken trees. I am curious as to why it zigs this way, doubling back to where I have already been. I keep walking, trusting the trail.

I come to an outcropping where the vista opens, and I see where I have been. I have come quite a distance! I notice the stream I crossed and how the cascades further along would have been much more difficult to negotiate. The trail had to switch back to avoid a sheer cliff drop. I understand how this was the route I needed to take to get me where I am now.

A bit further, I find another place to look out. I catch a glimpse of where the trail leads. The trees are thinning and the path is rocky. There is a steep climb ahead. I rest a bit, pause to make sure I have the stamina to continue, fortify myself with water and a bite to eat. I move on. While I am still not sure how I will get to the end of the trail, I recognize the outline of a possible way forward.

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My life is like that hike. Going on retreat is my stop at the open spaces, a pause to see where I have been, refresh my spirit, and catch a glimpse of where I am being led. It helps me unpack my story, uncover patterns, understand meanings. I see the cascades of grace that have guided me.

Retreat time is a time to take stock and consider the options. At my most recent retreat I drew a timeline of my life. It was my first retreat since I moved. Moving unpacks old boxes and drags up dormant memories—kids’ stuff, parents’ albums and scrapbooks, decades of photos and journals, tchotchkes too precious to toss and not valuable enough to pass on.

My timeline was multi-leveled. One line recalled the homes I’d lived in, another, jobs I’d held, a third, time-outs I had taken. It was dotted with births and deaths, turning points, successes and failures, friendships that ebbed and flowed with changes in proximity and busyness. A lot happens in a decade, in a generation, in a lifetime.

I saw stretches of difficult stoney terrain interspersed with periods of tranquility and calm—like mountain meadows after a vigorous climb.

The respite of retreat lets me review where I have been. I notice repeating patterns of behaviors I learned as a child that I keep replicating as an adult. They are the switchbacks on the trail. Questions arise: Do I avoid conflict so as to never move to resolution? Are there bridges of forgiveness I pass by that would allow me to move onward instead of spinning in an ever-repeating cycle? Am I always looking over my shoulder for something to fear while missing the subtle changes that might lead me to new viewpoints or stunning vistas, places only present in the here and now?

I look at all of this with gentle self-compassion. I accept the griefs and sorrows that emerge. I sit with them, giving them the time they need, holding them with the tenderness I would give the stories of a good friend. I practice presence. I invite curiosity. I dwell in the love of my higher power, my God, my spirit of trust and goodness.

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After this time of quiet presence and patient self-care, I attempt to peek around the corner at what might come next. I check my map to see the choices I have in the upcoming terrain.

What are the boulders that could impede my way? What streams and rivers are around the bend? Where is it that I really want to go? How am I going to get there? What do I need to bring along?

Retreat time is thinking time. Do I need to make an important decision? Do I want a change in my life? I can think through how I might do that, develop a strategy, form a plan that moves me in a new direction.

I take stock of my relationships. Are there people I want to bring along on this journey—friends I haven’t seen for a while and miss, a community of people with whom to explore ideas or have fun or support changes I want to make? Maybe I want a guide to help me navigate what is ahead—a therapist, a financial analyst, a sponsor. Maybe I want a companion—a best friend, a partner, a mentor. Perhaps I decide to connect with my higher power more often.

Though the path ahead might be hazy, where we have been and how we have managed the journey so far is a good indication of how the next leg of the journey will go unless I choose another way. Here I ask myself, how do I want to live my life forward?

Retreat time is a time to take stock and consider the options.


Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director in the Twin Cities. She is on the faculty of the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. She can be reached at logsdon.marylou@gmail.com.

 

Last Updated on May 8, 2024

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