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. (www.Lockman.org)).
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.