Most of us think of attention as God’s job. God should pay attention to my every need. But what if attending to God is my part in this relationship? Attending might also be called discerning or listening, except that it’s more focused on God than me. Prayer in our me-centered culture is generally focused on talking to God (i.e., making my list of demands). Attending to God focuses on seeing God in all things and listening for God’s voice in a deeply personal way. What might God want to say to me? Whole books are written on discernment and how to see God more often and to recognize God’s whispery voice. But learning to become more aware of God’s omnipresence and to recognize God’s voice is simply done by becoming more attentive. We learn to recognize God’s voice by hearing it over and over, and this practice requires silence.
The attending phase of a retreat is usually focused on Scripture. Scripture passages are chosen around a theme, and then retreatants are invited to listen to the Word speaking freshly to each of them, perhaps via lectio divina. Poems and quotes are also included, but it’s the Living Word that we long to hear addressing us personally.
Choose Scripture passages carefully for personal application. Isaiah holds some wonderful promise passages in chapters 40–58. Psalms are unsurpassed for personal meditations. The lover passages in Song of Solomon invite intimacy. Choose from a multitude of passages that invite real encounter with God. You don’t need large passages of Scripture, and you don’t need to sermonize or teach long interpretations. Choose evocative passages and say less rather than more. Leave space for God and imagination to do their magic.
Another tool to personalize Scripture passages is providing visual aids. Create a visual prayer focus up front with symbols that convey your Scriptural message. For Isaiah 35, which talks about watering the desert, set up a sand scene and a clear glass pitcher full of water. Pour water on the sand to drench it, and include real flowers blooming in the “desert.” Illustrate the scene presented in Scripture, but don’t explain it; leave it to the Spirit to interpret it as he wills. Assemble the visual in stages, beginning with a desert scene, slowly adding the water and flowers session by session to illustrate the process of transformation. Be sure to use color and natural elements. Keep it simple and beautiful. You might also use icons or religious art to enrich the visual. Help them listen with their eyes as well as their spirits.
Healing occurs when retreatants encounter the Living God. If they navigate the first five zones of retreating and encounter God, healing and transformation are all but guaranteed. But that’s God’s work to orchestrate and define. Silence is healing all by itself. So is beauty and contemplation and attending to God. So who knows how an ever-imaginative God will choose to “show up” for a person? Often the healing comes as a surprise. I may go looking for an answer to a specific problem, and God shows up in a completely different arena of my soul. Time in God’s presence equals healing, whether I ever discern it or not. Wonder, awe, new perspective, forgiveness, freedom from attachments and addictions . . . healing comes in all forms. God’s great work of transforming us into the likeness of Christ can be trusted to occur if we are seriously seeking it.
Teaching on freedom, peace, and transformation opens up the possibility of healing for many who are near to despair. Use passages that promise God’s faithfulness, love, and healing here when retreatants finally take time to deal with the results of painful issues of sin and self.
Offering spiritual direction may be effective in cooperating with the healing that God is intending. Additionally, prepare for celebration in a closing session as retreatants share healing experiences. Allow time for group sharing in the last session. Hearing what God has accomplished in others often proves more powerful than anything I, as leader, could plan. Our Lord is ever attentive and hovers over retreat time to heal and “mercy” us.
Facilitation for Myself
August 2008, St Mary’s on the Lake, Seattle. I sit on a floating dock, exhaling from a long spell of ministry that has drained me by its intense pleasure. I exhale the people who have blessed me and their needs, releasing them to God. I long for them to become.
I float and attend to the skyline of Seattle in the distance and pray for its quirkiness and neediness. I long for them to know Jesus, and I sigh, releasing them to Jesus as well.
I float and wait for my own healing—healing that comes only from the Presence of the Healer. Yes.
I retreat to give myself the time and graced space to hear from my Lover Lord that which nothing else in my life can supply—that which I cannot live without.
“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright 2021, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Suggested Reading on Retreats and Retreat Giving:
De Waal, Esther. A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1992.
Green, Thomas. A Vacation With the Lord. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1986.
Griffin, Emilie. Wilderness Time: A Guide for Spiritual Retreat. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.
Hart, Thomas. Coming Down the Mountain: How to Turn Your Retreat Into Everyday Living. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988.
Hieb, Marianne. Inner Journeying Through Art Journaling. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005.
Job, Reuben. A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Books, 1994.
Kingham, Ross. Surprises of the Spirit. Mawson, Australia: Barnabas Communications, 1991.
Kuchan, Karen. Visio Divina. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005.
Postema, Don. Space for God. Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1993.
The Iona Community Worship Book. Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Publications, 1988.
Vennard, Jane. Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute Books, 2000.
Kathy Bence is an ordained minister, spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher, and writer. (She likes variety in ministry and in life!) She and her husband, Phil, have just transitioned to Nampa, Idaho, to live near their daughters’ families. Kathy is awaiting divine orders for the next season of life and ministry.