Sunday after church, I packed up my bags and headed down to the Gilchrist Retreat Center near Three Rivers for a silent retreat. Twice a year I make time to get away for two to three days of silence, reflection, and renewal. One of those times often follows the holidays.
Gilchrist consists of eight individual hermitages -- small, one-person brick cabins, encircling a central field called the Laura. A small stone prayer chapel and communal building are also available.
Jeremiah House, where I stayed, sits in a hollow surrounded by oaks and maples. A fireplace rises through its center. Cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, mourning doves, tufted titmice, a variety of woodpeckers, and even one goldfinch frequented the bird feeder outside the south window.
After going into town for a pizza and watching sports on television, I returned and settled in. As usual, I had alongside me a number of books to read, my journal, and my journals from the past year. I had also picked up three books from the library at WindHill, the common building.
I began by listening and considering and writing about what this retreat might focus on. Retreats offer a step away from the busy-ness of life to consider bigger-picture issues. I often leave them reinvigorated for life and work, with a new sense of purpose and sometimes new goals.
I also end up sleeping a lot. We are a sleep-deprived society always on the go. I recently read that when asked what we could do to better our spirituality, the Dalai Lama answered, “Don’t go to bed so late, eat less, and sleep more.” So I go to bed early and get up late on retreat.
The first full day, Monday, I chose to fast, a discipline I’ve practiced regularly in the past but not lately. Fasting from food offers the opportunity to notice how often I think about food whether hungry or not. It invites the question, “What are you really hungering and thirsting after?” The question becomes a prayer.
Fasting also resets the body. The stomach shrinks and I need less to satisfy my hunger the next day. By drinking plenty of liquids, the system is flushed. And by making it through from dinner the previous night to breakfast (break the fast) the next morning, I again learn that I control my appetites instead of the other way around.
Another fruitful practice on retreat is to get outside. The Gilchrist property adjoins two other retreat centers, the Hermitage (Mennonite) and St. Gregory’s Abbey (Episcopal). The three of them share multiple hiking trails and a pair of labyrinths, as well as invitations to worship and prayer gatherings at each. So I went for a two-hour hike, getting lost, seeing deer, being startled by a flock of about 20 wild turkeys, and finally making it back.
That first day, most of my reflective time was spent reading my journals and considering ways I want to live my life more intentionally. This was aided by reading “Living the Good Life,” by Helen and Scott Nearing about their 20 years of homesteading in Vermont. They built their home and outbuildings and roads. They raised almost all their own food, ate simply, produced maple syrup for a small cash income, and tried to build community in their valley. They usually worked four hours of “bread labor” a day and spent four hours a day in other avocations, hobbies, and interests.
The two major areas of life I considered were food and sports. I want to eat more intentionally and in a healthier manner, which for me means eating as much fruits, nuts, and vegetables as possible and as little processed food as possible. And just less food period. I find myself reaching so often for a bag of chips or a cookie when the real issue isn’t hunger.
As for sports, I was raised watching, listening to, and reading about major college and professional sports teams. I’ve noted before how sports are for me a comforting escape full of drama, black and white results, and new hope each season. Yet I need to ask, “What am I escaping?” and “What am I missing out on?” If this is what I do as a default and unintentionally, what might I do intentionally during that time that could be even more life-giving?
As much as I wish to reduce my time spent with sports, I know it will take great intention to make different choices rather than fall into comfortable and familiar habits. I will need specific positive and rewarding habits to put in that place, like cooking or getting outdoors or writing or playing with Anna and Ezra.
Tuesday then I spent considering church and ministry. In reading the book “Love Meets the Dragons: A Field Manual for Ministers,” by Tom Owen-Towle, the phrase “freethinking mystics with hands” jumps out at me. That’s what we are and are creating: a congregation of people who think and express themselves freely, who experience the Divine Mystery in a multitude of ways, and who love, serve, and play. What can I and we do to live more fully into that vision?
I go for another hike, nap, take a bath, and watch the birds at the window.
On Wednesday morning, I leave the retreat less with concrete ideas of what I will do than with a greater sense of peace, well-being, and centeredness. All of the areas I am working on -- food, sports, church -- will come up multiple times each day. Living each day with greater awareness and intention, more fully present in the moment, I will be able to make the small and numerous choices that add up to big differences.
Some of you have been on retreats -- alone, with me, with others. I’d encourage you to give it a try. It usually takes at least a day to unplug from life and slow down enough to listen and be silent. I recommend taking at least two days if possible. I’d be happy to recommend places near and far to retreat as well as help you put together a retreat program that you will find helpful in living life fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be who God made you to be.