In Praise of Personal Retreats
I just returned home from a mini-personal retreat (36 hours) at the St. Francis Springs Retreat Center near Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m not one to typically “get away.” I’m a “do”er, not a “be”er, or so I say to myself. Add to this, the fact that we leave for a month of travel tomorrow—how can I possibly afford to get away for 2 days? How can I not?
Well, I heartily recommend to you the necessity of taking a personal retreat. My restless self was in need of rest—and rest I did! I spent time mediating on the Bible, journaling, walking in the woods, praying to God, staring at nothing, thinking to myself, taking naps (lots of them!) and reading (I did sneak in a little philosophy reading, but mostly devotional, or near devotional, stuff). Over the meals, I enjoyed talking with my new Catholic friends—as a non-Catholic, I learned a lot from them—about their life, their service to the Lord, and their good-natured hospitality.
I read a couple of books. C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer; Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved County; and Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary. God used each book to speak to my restless heart:
In Lewis I was reminded that “Christianity essentially involves the supernatural” (p. 119)—and of my need to pray to this personal yet unseen reality. In Lewis, I also read of the “momentary glimpse of beauty” which in memory is “warehoused as a shout.” (p. 122) As I walked the prayer path in the woods, I registered into my memory the beauty of the sun reflecting on the cascading stream, the flora and fauna of the forest, and the rock structures that reminded me of God, “My rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:2). See the picture below of this dead tree in the midst of color, life, and vitality—a beautiful scene to register in my memory of experiences.
In Paton, I read of a gentle village priest who climbs a mountain to wait for the dawn—and the impending execution of his son convicted of murder. With the dawn came death…and a new day, a new hope for his people, the people of South Africa (the setting of the story is South Africa). As I sat with God and reflected on life, I realize that often the death of a dream, the daily thwarting of life, the harshness and disappointment of many of our activities “under the sun” is often the necessary path to the dawning of a new day, a new hope, a new vision, a new dream. I was also reminded that each morning God is an ever-present reality, ready to satisfy us with his unfailing love (Psalm 90:14).
In Nouwen, I read of a heart longing for Jesus even as he struggles to rest in his own skin—the Genesee Diary is the personal journal of Nouwen as he spends 7 months in a Trappist monastery in Upstate New York. His insight into the human heart (his own—and to a degree my own) are penetrating. Here is Nouwen on the importance of solitude:
Without solitude there can be no real people. The more you discover what a person is, and experience what a human relationship requires in order to remain profound…the more you discover that…the measure of your solitude is the measure of your capacity for communion….If you do not realize that the persons to whom you are relating are each called to an eternal transcendent relationship that transcends everything else, how can you relate intimately to another at his center from your center? (p. 48)
I think Nouwen is right, we live fragmented lives in a fragmenting world—we are restless selves with no center—and I found it helpful to get away for a couple days to remind myself that life is not about me, God is in control, and he is my only source of rest, hope, strength, peace, and satisfaction. Indeed, it is only when Jesus is at the center of my life that I will be most satisfied in him, and most at peace with myself.
So, have you had the chance to get away for a few days—to rest your body and soul, to center your life on our Creator—Sustainer—Redeemer God? If not, I highly recommend you take the time—it will be worth it—I promise!