For a few moments I drove alone in the car, heading south from the Benedictine monastery just outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I was leading a retreat. I was on my way to purchase bread and wine for the next day’s Communion service while the retreatants were back at the monastery observing an afternoon of quiet reflection. Some were engaged in prayer walks while others were drawn to the chapel’s embracing silence, and a few strolled along the banks of the gently flowing river bordering the monastery grounds. In the quiet of the car, I began to reflect on what had brought us to this place four times over the past two years.
Life in the Middle Places
In part, we were here because of something I read by Sue Monk Kidd many years ago. “We seem to have focused so much on exuberant beginnings and victorious endings that we’ve forgotten about the slow, sometimes tortuous unraveling of God’s grace that takes place in the ‘middle places.’”1 Those words were embedded in my memory from the first time I read them, yet it would be years before they would ring in my ears once again.
Several years ago, I began to feel a subtle dissatisfaction with the retreats I was leading. Dissatisfaction identified itself in questions: Had participants been able to integrate their spiritual practices with their daily lives? How had their experience affected their way of being with others? Were they aware of the Spirit’s part in life changing moments? Then Kidd’s words returned and gave new focus to my concern. I realized that a retreat leader must be careful not to play to a participant’s desire for exuberant beginnings and victorious endings. Such desire is insufficient at best and escapist at worst. I concluded that spiritual retreat must evoke a maturing spirituality that enables God’s people to live confidently in those “sometimes tortuous middle places,” but to do so means retreat leaders must be prepared to journey along with persons who have sought out the retreat experience.
People are generally drawn to times of spiritual retreat out of concern for their inner well-being; a well-being often traumatized by the pace and pressure of life. Centering prayer, the contemplative way, scripture meditation, and more are sometimes seen as a way to regain control of their lives. But if those practices are not integrated into the whole of life, they will wane, and efforts will be redoubled in search of something new.
In the sixteenth century, poet, mystic, and theologian John of the Cross observed, “Persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire, therefore, of reading books; they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God.”2 Focusing only on beginnings and endings is a denial of those sometimes tortuous middle places of life. Although this may be a natural tendency, given the pressures and confusions of our world, it is a tendency to be avoided. Spirituality is about transformation, a transformation which, though rooted in beginning experiences and visions of victorious endings, can be realized only in living through the middle places. Retreat is an invitation to the way of transformation, intentionally traveling through those middle places. Transformation is disciplined, sometimes plodding, occasionally fearful, but always renewing and regenerating.
An Intentional Journey
How would the experience be shaped if a group of people would commit to journeying together over a period of time? That question thrust me back into images of Jesus interacting with his disciples as depicted in the Gospels. The answer is revealed in the dust of Jesus’ own journey. Though often accommodating of the crowds, Jesus offered himself intentionally to a few. They would listen to his words, walk with him, and dine with him, eventually immersing themselves in the lives of persons harassed and helpless. Through this short but intimate time, Jesus introduced them to the way of transformation. That way was connected to (1) deeply believing they were loved by God, (2) the love of God changing their way of understanding and accepting themselves, (3) the love of God changing their way of being with others, and (4) love forming their response to the world opening before them. That became my focus for the journey of transformation. The way of Jesus is the way of four different retreats, all immersed in the love of God: the first two focusing on the journey inward, and the latter two focusing on the journey outward.
Retreat # 1: Loved By God
David G. Benner wrote, “When the thing about me that I most deeply know is that I am deeply loved by God, I have taken the first step toward a heart knowing of God.”3 For many, this statement is discomforting because it refuses to allow a person to use the mind without the companionship of the heart when experiencing God. It does not take long during a first retreat to discover the agony that many feel as they struggle to rectify the two ways of knowing. We often use our heads or minds to shield us from past hurts, distressing feelings, and fear of God’s judgment for actions and words that have inflicted pain and suffering on others.
When the heart finds intimacy with the mind, we enter the way of knowing God’s love as an abundant, embracing together in my mother’s womb… my frame was not hidden from you… your eyes saw my unformed body” (Psalm 139:13–16, TNIV). One can add numerous such verses as emphasis in this first stop along the journey of transformation, but the point is that we must allow the Word to break down the barriers that separate us from a fearsome God to the one who bears the name “God is Love” (1 John 4:16, TNIV).
I remember the first retreat with this small group of men and women back at the monastery. They had been together for only a few short hours before they began to reveal their own struggles, at times, with their sense of God’s relationship to them. We all knew what it is like to seek shadowed hiding places and tremble with fear at the sound of the Creator’s question: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9, TNIV) Taking as much time as needed, I often ask retreatants to close their eyes and see themselves deep in hiding, hearing that question call through the air. We then speak the question as we hear it, and the responses are fascinating in their varied tone and inflection.
The tone is often harsh and demanding, calling us to account. Sin has shattered the pristine garden. This simple exercise, however, begins a movement to another way of seeing or hearing the story, the way of longing love seeking reunion and companionship. It is the way of mercy. It is “The Way” from before the beginning.
We begin from a foundation of having been pursued—pursued by love right in the midst of our own stories.
Retreat # 2: A Love That Changes the Self
Only love enables us to “see” or become attentive to who we are (and who we are becoming) at any given moment in time. Love allows us to move toward a discernment of our false self and our true self, which are often locked in a struggle to make sense of the swirl of our motivations, values, relationships, and desires. Love allows us cautiously to approach expressions of honesty previously feared. Stories are a powerful tool, used in freeing us from the primal urge to hide. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4) displays a sensitive, probing, and prodding love for her in spite of all that she attempts to hide by her nimble diversions and appeals to logic. In the end, she discovers what anyone who lingers long enough in the presence of Jesus discovers: love will have the last word, and the last word is transformational in its essence.
This is the first of a number of stories that offer insights not only into God’s love for us but also into what happens to a person so loved. Consider David, Elijah, Peter, Paul, Martha, or the wealthy young man, to name only a few. We could choose to sit with the parables of the wayward son, the older son, the rich fool, or the passersby who preceded the good Samaritan. Reflecting on these stories begins to open the heart to a level of identification with their failings and misplaced good intentions. That is never, however, the point of the stories. These are stories of grace and forgiveness, of love long and deep. These are personal stories (even the parables); they are our personal stories. Realizing this, we discover that we most often hide not from others, but from ourselves! The irony is in discovering that God already knew where we were, and grace is grasped in self-revelation and acceptance. To grasp this grace is to acknowledge and receive it, to be forthright in answering the question posed in the garden: “Where are you?”
Stories, more than anything else, lead us into real, felt encounters with Love Incarnate. And when this occurs, the world becomes a new adventure. The journey of transformation begins with the inward experience, but that inward experience must find its rhythm with the outward.
In the third and fourth retreats in the sequence, retreatants have an opportunity to learn about how a deep knowing of God’s love, companioned by an acceptance of self through grace, has an impact on our ability to relate to others and the environment around us. This is fundamental. Knowing that healing love salves the blemishes, wounds, and fears of life, we are better able to turn our attention toward others, attentive and present to their pains and sorrows, struggles and needs. We become loving encouragers and companions who offer relationships of trust, safety, acceptance, and belonging. But of course, it does not stop there. There are local and global realities that also require a deeply compassionate response to the social, cultural, and environmental abuses rampant in our world today.
Retreats # 3 and # 4: Transformation and Attentive Presence
As I walk the pathways of Jesus, I am drawn to one attitude or characteristic that Jesus seemed to use constantly along the Way. That same attitude or characteristic was the key stimulant of his teaching among the disciples. It was attentiveness. It sounds basic, and it is: basic to a deep knowing of God’s love, basic to a deep knowing of the self, basic to a deep openness to others, and basic to a deep knowing of all creation.
Attentiveness brings all the senses to the fore. Attentiveness is about the way we see that which is happening in or around us, a response to Love’s plea to seek understanding through spiritual reflection, and response beyond the self. Reflected in Kidd’s words, Christian spirituality is an incarnational response to those “sometimes tortuous middle places” where we meet ourselves and others.
No retreat can follow the Spirit without a willing attentiveness that is revealed in our ability to slow the pace, stop frequently, listen long, watch, and wait. It speaks the language of few words, and it seeks an understanding of the heart. The following story speaks to this on many levels:
Nobody saw it coming. We had been sharing stories of those who had influenced our lives spiritually. One man began to speak of his gratitude for a particular teacher, a woman who had “opened his eyes and heart to Jesus.” Sitting across from him, as I listened, my attention was suddenly drawn to another person in our circle. Ruth’s4 body seemed increasingly agitated as though all her strength was engaged in a struggle to suppress some deep, agonizing pain. My first thought was that she might be ill, but then I noticed tears begin their silent streaming. Her body slowly folded down and in upon itself. Then it happened. From deep inside, her pain burst the confines of her frame: “I hate her! I hate her!” A stunned silence surrounded the circle, and as though in one motion, almost imperceptibly, the others leaned toward Ruth. The silence, though awkward for some, allowed space and time for release. Eventually, perhaps honoring the circle’s attentiveness, Ruth spoke her story.
She knew the woman to whom this man referred.
At one time Ruth had considered her to be a mentor, a person of great spiritual stature, a model of mature faith. Then Ruth experienced the trauma of losing a child and tumbled into depression, what eventually became a lengthy, dark, foreboding depression. But a mere two weeks into this dark journey, the woman drew her aside and scolded Ruth, saying, “Snap out of it! You are a Christian, and you need to think of your witness to other young mothers!”
Ruth had carried that rebuke into the present, and those stabbing, accusing words were pain’s exclamation mark to her perceived spiritual failure. The woman’s rebuke pierced and twisted deeply into her sense of self worth as well as her belief in God’s deep disappointment with her. Her experience in this circle startled Ruth as much as the rest of us, but it was a startling of grace. A God-sized portion of grace, for Ruth. For years, she had lived in this “tortuous middle place.”
Notice the attentiveness that is bedrock to this experience. Notice how attentiveness to God was expressed in this story—how it was expressed toward Ruth and by Ruth. And think about how God had been attentive to Ruth and to the others in the circle. Reflecting on these things helped participants travel a little further along the way of transformation during the days of this retreat. This story literally touches every focus of the four retreats and underscores the imperative of retreat leaders and participants to be engaged in postures of attentiveness as a way of prayerful presence.
Ruth took me aside before leaving the monastery and told me how, despite feeling “silly,” she came to realize that the very way in which the circle of friends had been attentive had become the open door to a deep sense of release. Through our attention, she could pay attention. She had entered a room in which a deep knowing of God’s attentive love awaited her.
Back to the Monastery
As I drove to get the Communion supplies, my eyes filled with tears as I thought of the many Ruths I have been privileged to walk with for a time. Vivid memories of so many retreatants regathering after prayer walks, hands gently holding creation’s symbols of awe and wonder. I heard their voices express melodic words of gratitude for moments when Love graces the daily. I saw people holding each other gently, wordlessly, as sacred companions, reflections of a growing presence toward others. I chuckled, remembering others who sat in a retreat circle for the first time, anxious and tense, telling themselves they were here only to support their spouse or a friend. I even saw myself with eyes wide and heart pounding when nothing could hide those astounding “God moments” that startle us and turn us and save us, mostly from ourselves, as we set our hearts to the journey of transformation wending its way through those “sometimes arduous middle places” of life. I couldn’t wait to get back to my friends at the monastery and begin to prepare for Sunday’s Communion.
Taking the Retreat Home:
The four movements described in these retreats are essential to our spiritual journey. what is your personal experience with each of these movements?
- Receiving love from God
- Becoming honest about your story
- Becoming attentive to your interior world
- Becoming attentive to the world around you
What do you recall as a fantastic beginning in your spiritual Journey?
What milestones or finish lines represent some end points that you have celebrated?
What do the tortuous middle places mean for you today?
- What makes them so hard?
- What expressions of God’s presence have you sensed, if any?
- What or who is helping you be honest in them? What do you notice these days about yourself? About those around you?
What is the place of retreat in your life in the near future? What would you want it to be?