Last week I went on my first ever three day silent spiritual retreat – a personal retreat.
Believe me, I was scared. I know myself about as well as anybody, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a few days with me. I also know Christ and love him, but I wasn’t sure if he wanted to spend a few days with me either. And I was worried that I would come back without a dramatic story or a special word from God. How would that go?
When I got to the retreat center, I saw that they had left a book on the table for me. In the cover of the book someone had left a page that listed all of the times in Christ’s ministry that he went away alone by himself to pray. I was surprised to see that on over a dozen different recorded occasions, Jesus went away on a personal retreat. Sometimes he went up a mountain, sometimes to a garden, and sometimes to a remote wilderness or desert. I was envisioning him going away and receiving a clear direction or word from the Father, a dramatic moment of revelation or an experience of refreshment.
So right away I decided that if Jesus went up to the top of the mountain to pray and so should I. Follow the Master! I was in the mountains of Tennessee, so I did the same thing Jesus did in the Mountains of Palestine. I hiked up to the top of Roan Mountain and sat on a large rock for several hours. I read, I prayed, I sat, I listened. I even talked a bit (out loud). A voice did not boom from heaven. But it was so peaceful and beautiful there. The next day I hiked a path that wove around the Roaring Creek with its six waterfalls and beautiful gorges. I prayed, I thought, I read.
Each morning and night. I sat in silence. I sang hymns to Christ. I prayed the Daily Office, read a book, wrote notes, and thought. I rested and stared out the window. I ate some ice cream and read a novel. Time seemed to slow down. It was quiet, I was alone, but for some reason I was relaxed and resting in that.
But I was listening for God’s voice and looking for something from the week to jump out and grab me. I wanted to be able tell you the great insight, or life changing word, or powerful experience. But no single moment or insight or experience jumped out at me. I simply rested and was at peace in God’s presence.
As I reflect on my experience on retreat, I have come to believe that for many years I’ve had the wrong notion about what these spiritual retreats are for. I always imagined Jesus crying out to God and God telling him something, or giving him some new direction. And he does often speak of receiving direction from the Holy Spirit. And yet now I wonder if Jesus was not mostly resting with the Father, praying, and simply being alone and away from others for a brief time. The simple act of faith in being willing to be alone with oneself and God – trusting him – is refreshing and life giving.
I’m sure that this time away in prayer and thought will bear some more visible or tangible fruit in years to come. I’m also sure that this is something that I want to do every year, and to encourage others to do, both clergy and lay people. We can just take time away resting in God’s presence. And I’m sure that some years I will more dramatically hear God’s voice or experience a dramatic manifestation of the Holy Spirit. But this time my soul simply found its rest in knowing that God is present in the mystery of his peace.
He had no assignment for me except for us to be together. Sometimes words just aren’t needed and the manifestation of the Spirit is felt in his quiet presence.