Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 18

Escaping to God’s Arms

Jane Rubietta

01.  Introduction

The walls of winter closed in on me, squeezing the breath from my soul and the light from my heart. Any love that might have filtered down at Christmas had long since disappeared into the tundra. I scraped—and scrapped—my way through the icy grip of a frozen holiday season and trudged into January, but the internal bleakness turned dark as night. From the deep caverns one thought surfaced: Run away. And then, run to God for personal retreat.

With perfect timing, my daughter left a buoyant message: “Mom, I’ll be in New York for two weeks. I hope you’ll use my keys and plan a getaway at my apartment.”

My soul responded with a heaving sigh of relief.

I avoided eye contact with the piles of work in my office, asked my family for forgiveness for my contrariness, and my husband for a ride to the commuter train. I loaded my Bible and journal and a favorite contemplative book into a wheeled carry-on. I stowed a few rations for the three days away. I left behind my laptop, my briefcase, and my to-do list; grabbed my soul in hand; gripped the keys so tightly they left an imprint on my palm, and hauled aboard the train.

No doubt my family thought, Whew. Good riddance. Hope someone else returns in her place.

Just the act of boarding the train rerouted the worry rails of my brain, shifted the underground plates of my soul. As my daily world receded, my perspective changed. I could begin to hear my heart’s cry, examine my longings, and turn toward God’s arms again.

02.  A Personal Retreat: What It Is and Is Not

A personal retreat is an escape into the calm, loving embrace of God. It is a flight from the front lines of battle to the medic station, where we leave the gun slinging to someone else—some One else—and holster our weapons for a time. A personal retreat is a safe place where we can distance ourselves from all our activities, responsibilities, and relationships, and in that detachment find God’s perspective.

In personal retreat, whether a cozy afternoon in the living room, a sit-in on a park bench, or an overnight getaway, we separate from the situations, roles, and behaviors that form or reinforce our self-esteem—or lack thereof. The personal retreat is both antithesis and antidote to the constant, clamoring noise of our inner and outer worlds. In the solitude and stillness of retreat, we no longer need to earn our keep or make people happy. Nothing matters in this safe place except the state of our own body and soul.

The point of retreat is not to check off a bunch of to-dos. It is not to set new goals, although I read one esteemed scholar recommending just that. It is not to work on overdue tasks or catch up on correspondence or run errands.

The point of retreat is to meet with God, to love God, to be loved by God, to rest in that love, and to be restored to love well in our daily lives. The Psalmist says, in Psalm 119:114 (The MessageScripture quotations marked (The Message) are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, copyright (c) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. All rights reserved. ), “You’re my place of quiet retreat; I wait for your Word to renew me.” In personal retreat, our focus shifts away from the undones, poorly dones, already dones, and wish-I-hadn’t-dones. On retreat, we make eye contact with Jesus once again. Without that critical eye contact, “fixing our eyes on Jesus,” we cannot continue to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1-2, NASB1995 Scripture quotations marked (NASB1995) are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (

In her book A Generous Presence, Rochelle Melander writes, “And this rest—this letting go of being in charge and really resting can fill us up again . . . Our mind, body, and spirit need time off to strengthen itself [sic] for the next shift of working as well. Runners who do not take the time out for their body to adapt run the risk of injury. Those of us . . . who do not let our mind and spirits rest risk the injury of our souls. Truly, rest is healing.”Rochelle Melander, A Generous Presence (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 63–64.

But we may come face-to-face with our fears when we consider leaving the pell-mell race of our lives and contemplate resting in green pastures.

03.  Fears to Face

A whole host of thoughts and fears accompany retreat, even for veteran retreat-goers. Creating that much space in the schedule to experience God’s presence may seem self-indulgent, at least to others. My first-person litany of excuses and fears goes something like this:

  • I don’t or shouldn’t need a personal retreat.
  • No one else does this/needs this!
  • I don’t deserve it.
  • I need to be needed.
  • My family—or work—needs me. Or what if they get along fine without me? I can’t handle that!
  • I don’t have childcare.
  • I can’t afford to go anyplace.
  • Logistics are too complex.
  • I can’t take the time.
  • I don’t know what I’d do with myself all day long.
  • I’m afraid to be alone.
  • I might not like myself when I’m alone.
  • I might not hear God—the mountain might not shake and smoke; the bush might not burn.
  • Or the bush might just burn—I might hear God and not like what God has to say to me!

What is beneath all these fears? Is it fear of what I’ll find when I unpack the inner bag of unexamined incidents, data, and feelings? Or is it really deep-down fear that I am not truly loved?

Our personal litany can be refuted only when we fix our eyes again on Jesus, who seems to have a bit of history with personal retreats.

04.  Jesus on Retreat

During our first pastorate, I watched with longing and, honestly, a great deal of envy as my husband packed the orange college backpack for his regular personal retreat, leaving me behind with two children aged two and under. I wanted someone to deliver me magically, to show up at my door offering childcare and housekeeping while I whistled off toward the horizon.

It took several morose months to recognize the pattern Jesus established for personal retreat. In the midst of heavy ministry, inquisitions from detractors, enraged synagogue leaders, and brilliant, never-seen-before miracles, he took his need to connect deeply with God all the more seriously: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16, NIVUnless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).

Retreat seemed to help Jesus hear God’s directives, as well: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them” (Luke 6:12–13).

After John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod, the Scriptures tell us, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matthew 14:13). It would appear that Christ needed separation in order to grieve and focus on God’s purpose and calling. The hordes, of course, chased around the water to find Christ, but the solitude en route no doubt fortified him for the fray he would next encounter.

Not only did Jesus establish the pattern, but he also gave permission: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). So while I was waiting for some human being to set things in motion, Jesus had already done so and was waiting for me to take those first steps into a deeper relationship with him.

Jesus balanced work and withdrawal, solitude and service, engagement and disengagement. Part of the secret to his focus, his power, and his wisdom comes from that intense time with his Father. And if he needed that time away, alone with God, how much more do we?

05.  Where-Tos

Whether you’re hoping for an afternoon of solitude, an overnight, or a longer stretch of time, consider first where you are most able to hear God. Roughing it in a slim bunk in a cold, barren cabin in the woods may not render you the most receptive. My strategy for choosing a destination spot varies, depending on my needs. If rest for my body vies for first place with rest for my soul, the room may be more important than the grounds around it. Maybe for you, a church pew on a Thursday afternoon would do it. For one span of time, my primary question when booking a retreat was, “Do you have a bathtub?”

Through word of mouth, asking for referrals, and other “God leads,” I’ve ended up in lovely places: homes where the owner has delegated an entire floor to the person on retreat—including a fireplace, kitchen, living room, and beautiful grounds on which to walk and reflect; friends’ basement apartments—no room with a view, but warmly furnished, well lit, and almost sound-proof, assuring deep sleeps. Monasteries and Benedictine homes often extend hospitality via personal retreats. Check with local Catholic churches or seminaries to find centers near you.

Maybe a blanket, some rations, and a lawn chair are all you need for a day away. Maybe you need beauty. The important questions to ask yourself are, “What does my soul long for right now? My body? My creative self? If I can imagine myself anywhere, where might I best hear God?”

Perhaps your soul best receives God’s whispers through walking or nature. The tanner invited Peter for a siesta by the sea (Acts 10:32). Maybe you have a friend with a cabin or cottage you could borrow, or a friend who works away from home during the week. One of my friends has a standing reservation in a colleague’s sunroom, where she will not be disturbed. A pastor lives in a town with wooded recreation, and his parishioner gives him a free cabin every Friday to tend to his soul. Sometimes I wonder if the church’s growth this past decade—it has quadrupled in size—is related to this deliberate retreat on the part of the pastor.

Wherever you retreat, wherever God most intimately speaks to you, make sure to inquire about specific amenities included. Do you need to bring basics like coffee (a coffee pot, even), or are staples available? Some retreat centers provide bedding; others have bare plastic mattresses waiting for your sheets. In some retreat centers you are welcomed into the main cafeteria with the residents; in others, food is your responsibility.

Don’t be surprised. Think through your comfort needs unless you crave a Desert Fathers and Mothers’ type of experience. Such might be exactly the paring down you seek in order to escape all the strictures and structures of life and work and get down to who you really are, really ready to listen.

06.  Tools for Retreat

One of the most common questions people ask me is, “What would I do alone for all that time?” “Nothing” is not a comforting response for people who do, do, do. Many of the spiritual disciplines can apply to the personal retreat: silence, worship, contemplative reading of Scripture, meditation, and journaling. Perhaps ask God to highlight a text for you to hold fast during your time away, inviting the Holy Spirit to bring the Word home to your heart and life.

Ask yourself, “What do I need from God right now?” Perhaps the answer is rest or love or direction or simply refilling or a quickening in your soul through Scripture reading. Your answer will help determine what will best nurture your soul and engage with God.

I bring a hymnal, a journal, a meaty reading from a classic writer, and my Bible. My tendency is to over-expect, overload my book bag, and ultimately overlook the main point of retreat. Traveling lighter has become one of my intentions on personal retreat. This is no place to attempt to overachieve.

Maybe your highest goal for retreat is to sleep without setting an alarm. That seems to fit with Jesus’ words, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NASB1995).

07.  Reentry

As the time draws near to return to the rest of my life, I find myself leaving a timeless place and measuring: only twenty-four more hours . . . twelve . . . six . . . one . . . I count the minutes, dreading withdrawing from this “lonely place.” Something happens to me when I begin to return from a retreat. I feel a little like Apollo 13, with a reentry slot about as thick as an envelope and the chances of successfully slipping through that niche even smaller than the chance of my winning a triathlon (which is zero, in case you are interested). Emerging from solitude may be a culture shock, reengaging in relationships like trying to learn a new language or hug people while wearing a straitjacket or a spacesuit.

Toward the end of my time alone, I turn my prayer focus toward my loved ones and my profession. I consciously lower my expectations of my family, the state of our home, the status of laundry or the refrigerator. I ask God to give me an extra measure of love to pour out on others, and to hold my heart near to his so that I am more continually reminded of his presence, his joy, and his delight in me. I try to cement what God has conveyed to me through the silence and solitude in which he challenged, loved, and rebuked. What is the “takeaway,” condensed to one sentence?

08.  Love Notes

During that wintry personal retreat to my daughter’s shoebox apartment near Lake Michigan, I grappled with the reality of God’s love. After an intense season of ministry around the country, releasing another book, and keeping the home fires burning, my heart felt as old and empty as last year’s birthday balloon. While I rested on her mattress on the floor, slept and read and prayed and journaled and walked and slept some more, one heart’s cry began to sound over all the others: “God, I want to feel your love, not just know your love.”

The last morning there, after prayer dribbled down to silence and I waited on the little mattress, I noticed the stereo on the desk. I pulled the remote down to the bed with me, lay back, and pressed play. There seemed to be some turmoil going on inside the machine as it went into a random sort mode.

Then, through the pulsing speakers, the melody rolled into the room: “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.”

And I knew, with a love like that, I could return home, ready to love again.


Jane Rubietta speaks internationally and is the author of eleven books, including the critically acclaimed Come Closer (2007) and Come Along (2008). Three of her books deal with personal retreat, most recently Resting Place: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Retreat (2006). For more information, see