Posts Tagged ‘Retreat’

I remember a time when clergy were not provided any time for spiritual renewal. That is ironic, considering that spiritual renewal is their primary business. If there is any vocation in which one needs to stay spiritually and emotionally present and vital this is the one. Not the only one, of course, but most surely this one. It was not that ministers didn’t have vacations; most did and that is fine. But a vacation is not the same thing as intentional rest, renewal and spiritual recharging. Along the tattered way church leaders became convinced that a program of revitalization and renewal was important. The result was the emergence of what has now become standard among ministers, the sabbatical leave with pay after a certain period of service. I’ve earned several of those through the years and relished the time away in order to return renewed.

However important sabbatical provisions are I came to believe that we were still missing the mark. Why? Because the model of sabbatical is based on that found in academia. And ministry and academia are two different things. So I started to imagine what an intentional program of spiritual renewal could resemble. What I came up with is something like this:

Rather than one large chunk of time at the end of five-seven years, we spread out the opportunities for spiritual renewal so that they are shorter and more frequent. For instance, one week a year is provided along with one day in the fall and one day in the spring. That week is not vacation or continuing education. Those are important but have different functions. Then following a certain number of years, say five, the minister takes a month of sabbatical leave. With that he or she could actually have a significant experience of renewal, say in an international program or an inspiring monastery. Perhaps they decide to walk a portion of the Camino in Spain. You get my drift.

When I presented this to my church’s personnel committee and then board, they got it immediately. And that’s what I have now, an alternative to sabbatical, a program of ongoing spiritual renewal. I believe it serves both me and the church more appropriately.

I am on one of my twenty four hour spiritual retreats right now in a place apart. For me that requires solitude, something the inexperienced often have difficulty with. This is different than just “getting away.” The time is intentionally full of simplicity, unplugged time, contemplative walks, reading, meditation, rest and expression of faith in any way that connects, like writing or journaling.

Anyone can do this, of course, and should. It’s hardly limited to clergy. All people who wish to deepen the spiritual life need these islands of stillness, these green pastures. And if you don’t know how to approach a solitary retreat you might try a directed group one first. Later, when you are more experienced, you can try a solitary retreat. It always provides its challenges as we detox from ongoing life.

Right now I am watching the autumn sun disappear behind the trees. I have prepared a simple meal with my own hands. My reading of the evening will focus on some spiritual masters and I will contemplate that until nightfall. I’ll try to keep artificial lights off and allow my sleep pattern to mirror that of nature. I will rise when the sun stirs me. And slowly, slowly, the noise inside my own head will turn to stillness and the cares that seemed so important only a short time before will take their rightful place, making room for what really matters, for real attentiveness to the God who comes, my communion with that, and a compassion that cannot arise as long as we compulsively lope after the dictates of the culture around us.

As a part of a week of retreat I fasted from television, radio and most work-related email or texts. For the better part of each day I was “unplugged.” I’ve done it before and the impact is usually the same.

First comes withdrawal which is simply the mind letting go of its familiarity with the external data stream and its own adapted inner noise to match. It took half a day for the mind to quiet. The outer silence, when received as a gift and practice, drives itself inward until it become the new normal. Relapse is easy. And habits die slow. Is it a conditioned reflex we have acquired to reach for the phone to check for messages?

Once we quiet and start listening again we can hear the sound of our own consciousness, the singular strike of each word of the prayer or reading, the motion of each creature swooping through space. We can attend again or better.

Then there is the natural rhythm of the day, guided by the rising and setting of the sun, framed by darkness and the quieting of nature’s activity. Even the nocturnals do their business under the auspicious of silence.

Time passes quickly or slowly or not at all. Day flows into night and back again. Breathing is noticed and then not. And somehow the world got along just fine during my absence. Oh, it’s not that I don’t have anything yet to do or that my presence might be desired or needed; it is. But the world doesn’t depend on us as much as we think. And the deep drink of spirit that refreshes fills us with what we need to re-enter the data stream, manic world that fools itself into thinking that the faster and louder it moves the more importance it holds.