Why I needed a retreat (and you might too!)

pause-303651_640Chalk it up to nature or nurture, but I tend to rejoice in what I have rather than lament what I don’t.  In the Catholic world, I celebrate that I’ve been given access to the Sacrament of the Sick before being at death’s door and that I’ve been on plenty of retreats, rather than believing that “retreats are for really holy people.”  Before college, retreats were just built in to my education.  There was 8th Grade Retreat, Freshman Retreat, Sophomore Retreat, Kairos, and yes even Les Miserables Cast and Crew Retreat.  While retreats didn’t force their way into my life in college, they were readily available, and I took advantage of two that I can remember.  Then I spent a year in the Norbertine Volunteer Community and was on no less than 6 retreats.  My time in the NVC wrapped up in July 2010 and then … Nothing.  For five years I went without the beloved retreat.  How did this happen?  I’ve got no good excuse.  But I finally broke my streak on September 18th when I went on my parish’s men’s retreat.

Where’s the power in a retreat?  It’s simple … or rather simplicity.  Life is stripped down to its essence.  There was a whole list of don’ts for me that weekend in September, each one empowering:

  • Don’t worry about a thing (your parents or your boyfriend will call the emergency phone if something happens in the world that you really need to know about)
  • Don’t check your email (good luck getting Internet anyway)
  • Don’t worry about a daily routine
  • Don’t worry about getting anything done
  • Don’t worry about food (one weekend without your diet won’t kill you)
  • Don’t hesitate to take some alone time
  • Don’t cut yourself off from the group
  • Don’t worry about what time it is

Even without the talks, this “stripping down” should help you to disassemble and reconstruct your life.  Even if all the pieces go back in, at least you know that they really needed to be there.  Ideally the talks supplement this.  One thing that Fr. Tim said that really stuck in my mind is the acronym T.U.B.E.D. – tired, used, bored, envious, depressed.  The point, of course, is to recognize the signs of this in your life (one telltale sign: going through the motions of life events, like Sunday Mass, and not really getting anything out of them) and take steps to combat it.  I was definitely feeling pretty tired and maybe a little used up, and so I found a scrap of paper and wrote “Anti-TUBED plan” across the top and reflected:

  • What’s taking up all my time?
  • What has to happen first?
  • Can I have one day a week where I’m not trying to just get as much done as possible?

I had already been splitting up my homework among the days between classes on my calendar; now I decided that I should probably get my homework done for the day and then clear out email rather than clear out email and then get to my homework.  I resolved to stop trying to use the computer and eat meals at the same time. I chose Saturday as a day to just do one thing at a time rather than always trying to get two things done at once.  I can’t say that I’m doing a great job sticking to this plan or that I became an expert time manager — I’m squeezing in this post about a September retreat (described at spiritplantjourneys.org) more than a little after the fact, for example!  But on the good days, my busy scurrying seems more meaningful.  And I’ve become less afraid to turn down invites to good things that just don’t fit in right now.

I’m looking forward to my next retreat!

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church.  He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.

Don’t just do something – sit there! Reflections on a weekly practice of silence

 

magnificat chapel sunshine

The Magnificat Chapel at Villa Maria

During my two month working retreat this past summer with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Wednesday was my day in silence. Silence defined as not only no in-person conversations but also no cell phone, no iPod, and no laptop. Each Tuesday night, I turned off my devices (which, as a typical member of my generation, I generally treat as extensions of myself) and stuck them in a drawer.  I unplugged from my normal way of being in the world with the hope I would plug into that larger Voice which is so easily drowned out by noise and activity. Knowing my own tendency to binge-read, I made the rule of no books during my days in silence – since I know I could spend a day reading about prayer…and not actually pray.

So what exactly did I do on those Wednesdays?

Mostly, I prayed.  That is to say, I listened.  I felt my mind slowly unwind and my soul slowly expand. I prayer-walked the Sisters’ cemetery. I swam laps. I sat in the meditation attic, my hands open on my lap.  I journalled. I walked – sans earbuds – among the blue heron by the pond, the geese by the labyrinth, the yellow finches back in Billy’s field. I painted and drew in the art house – aware of but not heeding the nagging inner voice that told me this whole endeavor was ridiculous, self-indulgent and a waste of time.

You see, I’m a US North American, a life-long social activist, as well solidly extroverted according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. None of these traits make me a natural fit for a day of contemplative silence and solitude. The thought of going more than an hour or two without a to-do list makes me a little nervous. Moreover, I was conscious of what a privilege it is to take a day in silence.  Given years of ministry on the margins – in rural Latin America and among the working poor here in the US – I am acutely aware of how much of humanity lives in works sixty or seventy hours a week to just scrape by. In light of that, how could I justify the “luxury” of a day each week given over to silence?

Of course, a practical case can be made for silence, prayer and contemplative practice. There are numerous studies that show that prayer is good for our health – lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, and lots of other things that will win you praise from your doctor. But the practice of a day in silence can’t – or shouldn’t – be on par with eating leafy greens or climbing on the Stairmaster for half an hour of cardio.

Nor is the practice of a day in contemplative silence simply about charging one’s battery to go out and do more apostolic work. Of course, it is true that our service to the world is nourished by our spiritual practice. This is the model we see over and over in Scripture – Jesus going off on his own to prayer, and then preaching and healing. But contemplative silence is not the spiritual equivalent of plugging in one’s laptop or filling one’s car with gas.

After practicing a weekly day in silence for a summer, I believe that the only way the counter-intuitive and counter-cultural practice of  contemplative silence makes sense is if it is based in both Scripture’s exhortation to pray (both the Christian Scriptures as well as sacred texts from other great traditions), in addition to science with its wild and wonderful theories of quantum entanglement, strange attractors, and the like.  Both Scriptures and science use their own language to point to the same reality: that our thoughts and intentions and energy are real and make an impact.

The motivation for contemplation is trust that somehow mysteriously God can take our “wasting time” and “doing nothing” in contemplative silence as an offering for those most in need, for the transformation of the pain of the world.  It takes a leap of faith to believe that my silent, open-hearted hours logged in the chapel, on the cushion in the meditation attic, and on the land can mean something for this beleaguered, beautiful planet and the seven billion human beings residing here.  It takes trust that being – mirroring that ground of Being – can mean as much if not more than doing.

After a summer of this practice, it seems to me that contemplation is an end in itself and not a means to something else.  Contemplative silence through/with/in God is not to be undertaken as part of a health or self-improvement regime.  Nor is it an obligatory battery-charging pit-stop on the road of apostolic work. It is – or at least aspires to be – uniting one’s own heart with the heart of God. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, reflecting on the words monk-and-activist Thomas Merton, puts it beautifully:  “in contemplative prayer, according to Merton, we pass through the center of our own being into the very being of God, where we see ourselves and our world with a clarity, a simplicity, a truthfulness that are not available in any other way.”

Of course, I will not give up seeking to practice the works of mercy and resist the acts of war and encouraging others to do the same.  Action and contemplation certainly relate as both/and, not either/or.  I invite you, dear reader – especially if you identify as an activist or are a super-plugged-in Millennial like me – to take the leap of faith into a moment, an hour, or even a day of contemplative silence.  Not as an escape from this beleaguered, beautiful world but as a way of diving more fully and deeply into it – through/with/in our awesome and mysterious Creator.

About the author: Rhonda Miska is a partner in mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her ministries have included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.  She is based in Villa Maria, PA and will attend CTA’s conference next week in Nashville, TN.