A Vacation for the Soul
I'm amazed that it took me so long to go on a personal spiritual retreat. For years I had heard of the practice, one with a pedigree stretching back centuries in spiritual tradition. People I respected raved about the benefits. And I knew I sometimes wanted more than sightseeing and visits with distant relatives. I dreamt about a vacation for my cramped soul. I needed a holiday that actually had something holy about it.
But in all, it took ten years for me finally to turn my itch for a spiritual getaway into a reality--ten years from my first halfhearted attempts to my actually going. Had I known then what I know now, I never would have taken so long.
When I began my first efforts, I was juggling two jobs, struggling to meet a book deadline, and anxious about a career change I was laying plans for. I felt called to the hundred and one worthy things I pursued but restless. My schedule seemed both to intensify my need to get away and put it out of reach.
Still, friends told me about a Mennonite couple who ran a retreat center amid acres of Michigan woodland, not far from my Indiana town. Their reports tantalized me. I need this, I told myself. I would walk the hiking paths of the woods in silence, eat from a well-stocked refrigerator, dip into a library of books on prayer, and simply find rest for my soul. No agendas. No deadlines. And plenty of spiritual elbowroom. The couple who ran the center would get me started on my time there, and then get out of the way. In the tradition of Elijah, Moses, Jesus, Anthony and the desert fathers, Thomas Merton, and countless other spiritual models, I would find a quiet place for a combination of soul work and spiritual rest. I would be like Henry David Thoreau trekking "to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach." Going away in itself would refresh me, I thought, to say nothing of the spiritual atmosphere of a woodsy hermitage. I would, like the sixth-century saint, Benedict, and the many others who followed his path through the centuries, recover for a time a more sane rhythm of work and rest, activity and retreat. And though I had small children at the time, my wife urged me to go: "We'll do fine by ourselves for a couple of days," she said.
The way was clear. I called and reserved my spot.
Then I noticed something odd. As the date to leave approached, my feelings grew more mixed, more uneasy. I could name reasons: The pace at work seemed to increase. The deadline for a chapter of the book I was working on loomed larger. Even without getting away for a couple of days I knew I could not get my work done. But what finally held me back was even more mundane: On the day I was to leave I woke up to a dusting of snow on the ground. I knew I could brave the cold. I could have driven the few hours without any great risk, but the weather report tipped the scale of my ambivalence--to the side that said, Don't go. I balked. I called and canceled. It seemed more responsible to stay put and simply slug away. Going on a retreat had the feel of a luxury, a whim or option. I never made it to the hermitage in the Michigan woods.
Over the years, I thought about trying again. I moved to Tennessee and learned that the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Kentucky monastery of the renowned monk and writer Thomas Merton (a kind of hero for me), was only three hours away. I would love to go, I thought. But still I hesitated. I was up to my ears in publishing projects, a new job, the same pressures. But finally, one summer, for reasons I can only guess, I decided the time had come. I booked a retreat at the abbey several weeks in advance and eagerly awaited the August day when I could finally go.
Yet once again something conspired against my going. Days before I was to leave, my wife's father, hospitalized from a heart attack, took a turn for the worse. He had scant days, if not hours, to live. Of course my wife and I dropped everything--including any plans for a retreat--jumped in our Plymouth Caravan to head for Illinois, and within a few days, we laid my father-in-law to rest. My retreat was not to be.
This time, however, I felt new determination. Once home, I wasted no time in rescheduling.
And so one Friday in early October, I finally made it. I arrived at the Kentucky haunt of Merton and mystics and monks too numerous to know or name. I found myself tasting the delights of solitude and silence and reverence that I had longed for and only dreamt about, only imagined. I had waited and tried for years, but here I was. With no regrets.
Hosts of people are discovering, as I did, the joy of retreat. Part of it has to do with our society's recovery of interest in all things spiritual. While the soul's life was once the quiet murmur of anonymous believers, spirituality shows up in corporate boardrooms and party conversations. Kathleen Norris's 1996 book, The Cloister Walk, chronicling her nine months living among the monks at Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota (a retreat center listed in the directory that follows), remained on the bestseller lists for twenty-seven weeks, giving glimpses of a way to revive a sagging life. Suddenly religious communities, even the cloistered variety, seem to offer something valuable, something worth traveling to. Seekers once satisfied with a week in Provence have begun asking directions to places with an aura of spirituality. It's not that people want to become hermits, just that they long for that quietness amid too-busy lives. "Get Thee to a Monastery," was the title of a recent Time article on the phenomenon, and the writer asked, "Why the interest in these sanctuaries, amid a pop culture in which nuns and monks are usually depicted as demanding and dry or who, in their softest incarnations, wonder, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?'?" If our culture's spiritual fascination lapses into "angel" channeling and sightseeing at pagan tourist sites, it also includes trips akin to the medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land. We look for what counts, wanting to keep our lives from being a hamster cage wheel where we go through the motions but rarely pause to reflect. We want not to miss God's whispers amid the noisy clutter. We hanker after sabbaticals that offer a sense of Sabbath, for restful pauses that help us make the routine meaningful.
And so hundreds of thousands of Americans go to hard-to-find, isolated centers serving cafeteria-style food with functional, no-frills furniture and sometimes severe strictures on talking. If there hangs about spirituality a trendy superficiality, we also can sense an ancient gravity and a disciplined desire, even if it takes making a kind of pilgrimage. Even if it takes giving up scarce leisure time.
The phenomenon will not surprise those with a historical sense. The idea of retreat has roots in time-tested and soundly biblical traditions. Retreat has for centuries been a way to recover vital aspects of life lived with God and others. An ancient discipline suddenly seems wonderfully worth reclaiming. Hidden, quieter benefits, such as I will explore in chapters to come, suddenly seem essential.
That is what I found when I finally made it to the Abbey of Gethsemani: a wonderful sense of having arrived--in the marrow of my soul.
Excerpted from A Place for God by Timothy Jones. Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Jones. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.