Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 18

Finding Myself on Retreat

Jeff Jennings

01.  Introduction

Growing up in a conservative Protestant church, I never heard the word retreat. It wasn’t until graduate training in Christian counseling that I learned of spiritual retreats, most of which seemed to be conducted in Catholic settings. By that time I had come to realize that Bible reading and prayer alone were not transforming me into Christlikeness. My conventional model of “quiet times” had become insipid. I was hungering for something more. This idea of spiritual retreat immediately resonated with my spirit, so I seized the opportunity to visit a local Cistercian monastery. Both excited and apprehensive, I made my initial venture only a day trip. Once I confirmed that the monks weren’t performing bizarre rituals, I later felt comfortable going for extended periods of time. The solitude and silence of the monastery opened me to experience God in new and fresh ways. I found my spirit irresistibly drawn to the tranquil surroundings, and I returned as often as my schedule permitted.

02.  The Everydayness of Life

Soon after completing my degree, I embarked on a new career, got married, and bought a home. Soon I began to feel the pressure of these new roles and responsibilities. I was working long hours to establish a practice while seeking quality time with my new bride. Then there were friendships to maintain, church gatherings, home improvement projects, and a seemingly endless list of other duties to accomplish. Something in my spirit began to shift. I felt a new kind of pressure to succeed and perform. An old familiar voice that whispered, “You’re not doing enough,” echoed in my head.

The feeling of falling short also crept its way back into my spiritual life. Striving took the place of resting, stress the place of peace, and fear the place of security. Visits to the monastery became less frequent. Something was amiss, but I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. I longed for deeper intimacy with God, but the closer I tried to draw to God, the more distant he felt. I questioned whether I was chasing an elusive goal. Perhaps that constant awareness of the divine presence was only meant for monks. Nevertheless, I felt increasingly frustrated by the inner chasm I was experiencing.

I started the following year determined to fix whatever had gone awry, vowing to make several changes. I would dedicate a full month to focusing on each one of the twelve spiritual disciplines outlined by Richard Foster.Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishing, 1988. I would abstain from drinking wine for the year. I would practice twenty minutes of centering prayer every morning. And I would continue reading every new spiritual formation book I could acquire. That lasted about eight weeks. I was increasing my activity for God, but my strivings weren’t generating the desired outcome. In fact, instead of getting closer to God, it seemed I was drifting farther away. Despite a new career, a great marriage, good friends, and a good church, there continued to be that nagging sense that I wasn’t where I should be. The books I read weren’t providing answers and often left me feeling more confused, leading to an even greater sense of failure and despondency.

I had been languishing in this state for several months when the opportunity arose to attend a five-day intensive retreat with a group named Healing for the Nations. Unlike the silent retreats of the monastery, this one was an integrated experience of Christian spirituality and psychology, specifically designed to help people who were either struggling with a particular issue or perhaps just felt stuck in their relationship with God. Although I was attending in part as a candidate to help lead groups with the organization, I was more excited about the potential benefits the experience might have on my debilitated spiritual condition.

03.  Journeying Out/Journeying In

My default paradigm was fully operating the week the retreat began. I call it my default paradigm because, regardless of what amazing works God performs for me or how much I grow, I perpetually slip back into the same way of thinking. It generally assumes one of two forms: one, something is missing, and I have to figure out what it is; or two, everything has been going fairly well, but it should be better. It is a pervasive sense that a piece of my heart was lost at some point along the road of life, and I’ll never be satisfied until it’s found.

I packed up my things and headed out once more in search of the missing link— the elusive key that was always somewhere outside of me and promised to make me whole again. As I drove up the winding road to the retreat site, I was determined to solve this enigma while simultaneously telling myself not to have any specific expectations and simply “let go.” Although I had studied the language of surrender ad nauseam, I had little practice actually speaking it.

I arrived at the lodge eager to start the first evening’s activities. After a couple of hours of some core teaching, we walked into the chapel for evening worship. At the front of the room stood a large wooden cross, encumbered with vines and large sticks leaning against its wooden beams. Around the foot of the cross lay an eclectic mix of objects such as stones, leaves, smaller sticks, and a variety of plastic flowers. I thought it made for interesting décor, but I soon discovered there was a purpose behind the unique presentation.

Our first assignment was to choose an object from on or around the cross that best symbolized a barrier between God and us. I quickly picked my item and sat back down, not entirely sure why I had chosen what was in my hand. We were instructed to reflect on the object’s significance and report our findings to the group the following day. The next afternoon I hiked the short distance from my cabin down to the lake. Sitting on the lake shore, listening to the waves lap against the rocks, I contemplated why I picked a fake rose from the foot of the chapel cross.

Later at group, I shared with the other retreatants my thoughts on how the plastic rose symbolized me and what prevented deeper intimacy with God. Artificial flowers look great from a distance, but if you get too close, you discover they aren’t the genuine articles. This was consistent with the sense of inauthenticity I had been experiencing for several months; specifically, how I appeared to others was often incongruent with how I felt about myself. Despite my presentation, there was something wrong beneath the surface. My fear was that others would eventually discover me to be counterfeit.

Thomas Merton writes, “‘Finding our heart’ and recovering awareness of our inmost identity implies recognition that our external, everyday self is to a great extent a mask and a fabrication.”Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1996), 70. I was working diligently on that external self even through my effort for inner change, and instead of finding my heart I was losing more of it in the process. How appropriate that our next assignment was literally to construct the mask of our fabrication. We were given an oblong piece of poster board with two cutout openings representing a pair of eyes. On the front side we were to put pictures or symbols of the image we project to others and how we want them to see us. On the opposite side we were to put images of how we truly view ourselves.

I scoured magazines looking for the right pictures to present my dichotomous nature, increasingly cognizant that my external appearance vastly differed from my internal experience. After much perusing, I came upon a picture in Golf Digest that epitomized my dissonance. Side by side were two contrasting views of a golfer’s thoughts pictured in his head. Although I’d never played the game, I related at once to the struggle portrayed by the images.

The one image was a serene picture of the man on the green—sun shining, rainbow overhead—in which he has effortlessly swung his club and hit the ball off the tee, launching it into the air with the perfect trajectory. That’s the image I want to project—calm, confident, and capable. I pasted this false pretense of self-assurance on the front of my mask. If I do everything right, it’s the place where others who don’t know me too well might think I live.

The disparate image showed the man squatting, club in hand, anxiously looking at his golf ball perched upon a craggy rock precipice with an ominous background of barren and lifeless trees behind him. The caption under this portrayal read, “How to Play the Game Without Fear.” That’s the picture I placed on the back of my mask as the way I typically feel and the place I usually reside—confused, apprehensive, and unsure of my abilities.

There was one other significant item I put on the mask. I couldn’t find an appropriate image, but it was important enough to include it that I risked the humiliation of drawing it by hand. After all, how hard can it be to draw a heart? On the face, the heart was fully colored in with red marker; on the back, a small portion of it was purposely omitted to represent a missing puzzle piece.

At the next group I proceeded to share my mask, whose symbols collectively screamed, “I feel like a phony!” The group challenged this notion to make me feel better, but no number of compliments could remove the tension I felt. On the one hand, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought, and yet paradoxically, it mattered the world. If I could keep convincing others, maybe eventually I could convince myself. The facade had become altogether exhausting.

One of the group leaders began drawing attention to the heart with the voided section. I gave a brief history of a father’s abandonment, parental divorce, a broken heart, my subsequent rebellion against God, and the years I’d been trying to regain something that was lost. It was my personal quest for the Holy Grail. The leader suggested perhaps the missing piece was God-given and was missing for good reason. Internally, I immediately resisted this idea. I thought to myself, No, you’ve got it all wrong. This is the whole problem. You see, something is missing, and I need to get it back. Haven’t you read John Eldredge?

Coming to my rescue, the other group leader challenged the first one’s comments by suggesting if the hole was a place of fear and self-protection, it probably wasn’t a good thing. Yes, yes, I thought, let’s go with what he said. But the first leader insisted that I might need to reframe my thinking about this apparent hole; perhaps I should view it as a “God space” from which, as I learned to receive and trust in his love, I could give my heart more freely and fully to others.

I resigned myself to go with that idea even though it didn’t solve my dilemma or seem to fix the problem. Afterward, I sauntered outside to reflect on the group’s feedback. Sitting in silence, I heard a still, small voice say, “My son, you didn’t lose a piece of your heart years ago; it was never whole to start. The problem was, you were so busy trying to fill the void with an earthly, imperfect love that you hadn’t left sufficient room for me. I had to remove those false loves so you would know that my love is the only thing that can complete you.” The words penetrated my bones.

Suddenly, Blaise Pascal’s observation (repeated until it has become a Christian cliché) that we all have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts that only he can fill became more reality than theory. I had tried to satiate this space with objects, people, and accomplishments to no avail. Worse still, after tasting the Father’s love, I was trying to plug the hole with spiritual performance even though I thought I’d avoided the trappings of religiosity. The messages of both are the same when the results depend on me: “I’m not doing enough,” “I’m not measuring up,” “I need to be doing more,” and my personal favorite, “Something is missing.”

As we pressed on into material about our identity in Christ, the Father repeatedly communicated to stop searching for that which has been found. It wasn’t that I found him, but he found me, and I couldn’t acquire something he’d already given. There was nothing more to attain, nothing to achieve, and nothing else I needed to find. The incongruence I felt was merely a lack of understanding and acceptance that God had already bestowed what I longed for—my true self. All I could do was receive my authentic self in Christ. All I could do was remember who I am.

A new possibility began to emerge. Maybe the Christian journey wasn’t about striving to be something I am not yet, as I’d always imagined; rather, it’s about believing, truly believing who God redeemed me to be—the son of a loving Father. When I settle into this identity as my true, authentic self, I am empowered to live the life God calls me to, with the peace and assurance that I don’t have to live it perfectly to remain in his favor, thus freeing me from the performance trap that eventually leads to my despondency with God and distance from others. The goal is not to redeem my heart or to make it whole again, but to realize my brokenness and my constant need of God’s unconditional love and grace. It is the growing awareness of purity of heart, which Merton describes as “a new spiritual identity—the ‘self’ as recognized in the context of realities willed by God.”Merton, 68. The Father continued reminding me of this true identity in countless ways the remainder of my stay.

04.  Coming Home

On the drive home I felt completely at rest; my insecurities and fears dissipated. The peace and love I desperately strove to attain now flooded my awareness effortlessly.

The experience and the message were further clarified the following week as I watched a movie entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance. The movie’s lead character, Rannulph Junuh, is receiving help from a mysterious vagrant named Bagger to get his golf swing back. Bagger talks cryptically of finding one’s authentic swing, telling Junuh that each person has an authentic shot and that shot is going to choose him. “There’s a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us,” he says. “All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way, let it choose us.” I’ve found escaping on retreat is perhaps the best vehicle for getting myself out of the way so I can hear the Father speak to me my true, authentic self—the self he chose to be in Christ before the foundation of the world.

Henri Nouwen tells us, “Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.”Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1992,) 39. I’ve realized I don’t have to keep leaving my true home, my authentic self, where the ground and source of my being is in God, to find something that I already possess. I need only to be more comfortable with the idea that God has found his home in me. When our hearts are awakened to the mystery that in spite of all we’ve done or left undone, the Father chooses us, suddenly everything in our lives is transformed into his love song. I no longer ask; I have received. I no longer seek; I have been found. I no longer knock; I have entered. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “You are seeking what you already have. You have been knocking on the door from the inside.”Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1995), 141. I am in Christ, and my life is hidden with Christ in God.See Colossians 3:1–3. Every few years I receive the grace to catch a glimpse of what this actually means. Too often the memory quickly fades. But God eventually reminds me that my true, authentic self cannot be attained, only received. I just have to quiet myself and get out of the way so I can hear him. I should probably relax more. Maybe I’ll take up golf.


Jeff Jennings holds an MA from the Psychological Studies Institute with an emphasis in Spirituality and Counseling. He currently practices in Kennesaw, Georgia, and helps lead intensive retreats with Healing for the Nations. He can be reached at