What do you do during a retreat? How do you attend to matters of the heart or the mind or the spirit? I have a couple suggestions, again pulling from my own and from much smarter and more spiritually enriched friends from faith.
- Sleep. This is basic, but it takes on new meaning when you’ve spent a year or more having the normal rhythm of your sleep being turned up and down and shaken violently by a sweet cute child who knows nothing about sleeping habits. You can’t really hear God or grow in depth and character if you’re not taking care of yourself. That’s the point. Sleep is indispensable to good health. My spiritual director, who I quote when I talk about these types of things, once said to me something like, “If you’re not dreaming, you’re not sleeping well. In order to dream, you need to rest.” I left that monthly session back then–and not that this was the only point–knowing that some of my inability to dream, to see, to be inspired is only tied to my need for rest and nothing else.
- Read poetry. G.K. Chesterton said, “The greatest of poems is an inventory” (Orthodoxy). If you’re spending time with your God and trying to deepen that friendship, poetry is a good way to tap into the real humanness represented in poetry. Poems say things we can’t. Writers help connect us to us. The Bible’s poetical books are a great gift (e.g., Job or Psalms). I’d include in this suggestion other spiritual readings. This time, over my weekend, I read a few short stories from Gumbo and Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. I also picked up a couple helpful books by Richard Rohr and the latest novel by my friend through the net, Tayari Jones.
- Ride a train. You may think I’m kidding, but a long train route is incredibly centering. It slows you down. It allows you to see parts of a town or country that you’d ordinarily pass by. It’s calming. Except, of course, when you’re sitting next to a man for 40 hours who knows the intricacies of the Kennedy assassination and has to tell you about it, along with how he is a direct descendant of Moses and other unique parts of his life story.
- Sit and do nothing. Solitude is the practice of doing nothing. Not thinking or reading or praying or meditating or waiting or studying. Solitude is contemplation. It is listening. It’s hard to do solitude because we all are used to and comfortable with doing. Henri Nouwen wrote that our lives become absurd, and he said that that word, absurd, was from the Latin and meant deaf. He said that the discipline, the repetitive act, of solitude is one of the most powerful ways to combat that deafness, which is an absurd life without hearing God. Try this for a minute and then two and then three. When you can sit and do nothing other than listen for the voice of God, you’re transforming.
- Watch something beautiful. This could be you watching and listening to a jazz performance. It might be you listening to a street performer or sitting on a bench across from a tree waving in the wind. It may be a visit to a garden. Our days are filled with many things, but I’m sure we all could use more beauty in our schedules. Use a retreat–again, folks, this could look like a walk around your office building during the lunch hour–to see beauty in the midst of your life. You’re not avoiding the ugly. You’re noticing something else. And that enlarges you inside.
- Spend time doing those other things. Other gestures that you could add into a retreat–or form an entire retreat around for that matter–include reading a single chapter of scripture, praying through a number of ancient prayers from your religious tradition, or fasting from food.
- Plan to come back to “someones”. Retreats are only effective when you plan to return to people. Even further, they’re effective when you look to return to others in order to live differently, live like you’ve heard something fresh. And this isn’t just for pastors, folks. It’s for parents or significant others or students or teachers. You insert the next one. Times away are good and useful and enriching not because we focus on ourselves but because we get to incorporate what we get, if we get something, into our relationships, communities, jobs, and lives.