Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 18

Floating in Kairos

Ideas for Facilitating a Contemplative Retreat

Kathy Bence

01.  Introduction

Warnabul, Australia, spring 1996. My first weeklong silent retreat has arrived. I view the lush gardens and stone cloisters and exhale a gut-deep sigh of relief. No work. No family. No demands. A week of bliss. I had been intending to rest my soul for a very long year. “You are what I need, Lord. Only you . . . Only now that I’m here, I wonder what I will do with a week of unscheduled time.”

My question was soon answered by Jill, the retreat leader. Tonight I am to read through the entire book of Matthew, noting passages where I want to stop and linger. Then I spend the rest of the week lingering. “Hmm . . . can I spend a week contemplating a few verses? Well, okay then, Lord. Let’s linger.”

For the next five days I wander the gardens, stare at flowers, and watch the grass grow. I realize, “I was made of this! This nothingness. This floating with God. Such peace. So centered. So at home in God.”

And then I find for what (Whom) I really came. I’m reading through Matthew 20, captivated by the story of the blind men who beg Jesus for healing. I enter the story in my imagination: I am sitting beside the road, calling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus does come and kneel in front of me, looking deeply into my eyes. His deep, dark eyes see into the center of me, and I discover mercy for the first time. Mercy actually exists as an entity in the being of Jesus. Then he speaks: “What do you want me to do for you?” And I haven’t a clue. I am so melted by the mercy that my needs melt away too. I really wanted him only to see me and “mercy” me, and I am healed.

The purpose of my retreat was to be deeply seen by Jesus and thus “mercied.” For when I experience the presence of Jesus, I have arrived. All other longings are fulfilled in simply attending to that Presence. All my wondering, discerning, and questioning fade away in the presence of the mercifully real Jesus.

Later, as I tell my spiritual director, Jill, of this encounter, she laughs. “Yes, of course, mercy is real, Kathy; there’s mercy pouring down Collins Street.” I sit a moment imagining a huge wave of mercy gushing down the main street of Melbourne. What a marvelous picture! I contemplate mercy the rest of my retreat. Why have I never considered mercy real? I needed to escape my normal life into a contemplative zone to see the real Jesus offering me real mercy in real life. Headline: Ordained Minister Finally Gets It. Twelve years later, I can still see those mercy-full eyes, and I shiver with delight.

Through experiencing multiple retreats since that time, I believe I have uncovered six phases or “zones” in contemplative retreating. My journey into contemplation and, ultimately, into leading contemplative retreats has been sheer delight. I’d like to share my discoveries regarding the six zones and how to orchestrate them for others in contemplative retreats.

02.  Facilitating Contemplative Retreats

1. Intending

Prior to my experience at Warnabul, I had been intending for a long time to treat myself to an extended retreat to pay uninterrupted attention to hearing God. Serious Christians must intend for themselves. Dallas Willard tells us that spiritual formation must be intentional; it doesn’t just happen.Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 2006), 74–77. Intending means listening to those tremors that warn of emotional overload. Or intending might result from a meltdown due to failure. Hopefully, it just calls your name, and you joyfully respond to the thought of Sabbath time with Jesus.


A contemplative retreat needs to be redefined as an invitation to spacious time with Jesus. For centuries, the spiritual practice of retreat meant solitude and silence. Only in our frenetic culture has retreat been equated with an activity a minute. We cannot intend for others; we cannot make them want time with the Lord. But we can paint retreat time as rest, space, and bliss for their weary souls.

2. Exhaling

Exhaling is an automatic response once people unplug from their routines. Many retreatants never successfully disconnect from their lives at home. They bring work with them, check their cell phones all day, watch television in free time. Sadly, they never experience the gift of exhaling all that clutters their hearts and minds. But if we reframe “unplugging” and see freedom from normal expectations as gift rather than disconnection, we can exhale gratefully.

Exhaling allows me to breathe out normal stress and attachments so that I can focus on self (with God) for a while. “Exhaling” for a few blessed hours or days allows me to refuel so I can return to the fray with renewed energy and joy. Many great saints struggled with this desire for solitude and, simultaneously, guilt at allowing themselves solitary time. Ultimately, they found a rhythm of life that alternates between that solitary time with God and commitment to a needy world. This rhythm can be utilized by Christians today. Drawing away to unplug and exhale frees us to partake of the Presence. Then we are resynchronized with the Creator to produce our best work for the Kingdom.


  • Choosing the right “atmosphere” for retreats is crucial. Visit several retreat centers till you find one that feels like a prayerful place. Choose a place with natural beauty, preferably out of the city, away from noise, traffic, and hurry. Nature is an automatic “exhaler.” Choose a retreat setting with water or woods if you are so blessed geographically. Both invite a contemplative stance, and beauty is healing all by itself.
  • Plan a deliberately slow schedule. A spacious schedule allows retreatants to lower expectations of performance or demands. Retreatants don’t need to please the retreat leader in any way. If they choose to sleep through the sessions, that’s what they needed most. In fact, suggest that they nap first and then focus on spiritual needs. Exhausted, sleep-deprived bodies will struggle to stay spiritually alert. Encourage them to take off their watches and turn off their cell phones.
  • Give an orientation to the place and schedule first. Point out the location of the facilities and amenities they will immediately want: bathrooms, coffee, meals, and sleeping quarters. Also mention the library, chapel, and available walks. Point out any materials, books, or art supplies you’ve brought for their use.
    However, the retreatants don’t necessarily need to see a schedule. Not providing a schedule allows them to slip further into that zone of no expectations. Offer the gift of kairos time instead of chronos. Kairos time is that “God kind” of time when a day is as a thousand years. On retreat, time doesn’t matter; being suspended in kairos time with God transforms us. Chronos time we are all too familiar with—the rush to keep up with life at light speed. Prioritize kairos time with a spacious schedule and lots of solitary time for private contemplation. Note: what you prepare to teach may not be what they choose to address in these precious few hours. They, or God, may have a totally different agenda. So don’t be egocentric in expecting them to respond to your talks in specific or time-conscious ways.
  • Use as little technology, noise, and stimulation as possible. Stimulation they have all the time. What they need on retreat is silence, solitude, Sabbath, and nature. Movie clips and sound effects aren’t necessary to look “with it.” God has an infinite array of ways to grab people—when they are silent and attentive. Leading a contemplative retreat is about setting up a prayerful atmosphere and then getting out of the way to let God work. And what fun it is to watch that happen!

3. Longing

Desiring God is a God-designed urge in each of us. But what if we never give in to that longing to experience the presence of God? Many committed Christians never uncover this need because it is buried so deeply under the tyranny of the urgent. We are conditioned to believe that doing is more spiritual than being. So when we simply long for God’s presence, we dismiss the longing as selfish.

A retreat is an opportunity to satisfy the longing just to be with God. All our desires for things, beauty, or relationships are the outer layers of a much deeper desire to be one with God. Julian of Norwich called contemplative time “oneing” with God.The Westminster Cathedral/Abbey Manuscript of Julian of Norwich’s Showing of Love, 1991. To be at home in the Lord’s presence, to feel as one with God—this is what we are made for. This longing for God is the deepest, most real part of who we are and who we become. Retreat time provides us the space to peel back the layers of petty wants to find underneath that deep desire God has placed in us to be “oned.”


Our longings lie hidden under repressive self-talk that warns us of danger in our desires. Some teaching on the validity of longing as a God-given urge might make longing more permissible. Otherwise, most people don’t allow themselves to give in to their longing for God. Perhaps a reading from Psalms might illustrate a Scriptural basis for allowing ourselves to long for God with holy longing.

We want to help retreatants access their yearnings for God and provide as many avenues as possible to explore it. Besides nature and beautiful surroundings, provide art supplies and invite creative explorations. Set up an area for art play. Provide paper, markers, pastels, paints, and clay to encourage retreatants to draw their longings. Getting away from words offers access to feelings that may be uncovered by symbols rather than logic. Provide magazine sheets for collage, and invite them to create a visual collage of their longings. Amazing insights surface when we give ourselves permission to draw and create without censoring ourselves.

Music and dance also help express longings. Supply any materials you think might unlock repressed longing for God. This is best utilized in free time with no expectations of having to show and tell about private time with the Lord.

4. Floating

Floating occurs when you arrive in the “zone” where time is forgotten. Home issues no longer worry us, and getting answers gives way to being with God. Thomas Green talks about “floating on the sea which is God.”Thomas Green, When the Well Runs Dry, rev. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria, Press, 2007), 143. This image captures the floatiness of a contemplative experience. God is all, and I’m so caught up in the moment with God that I forget all about me. What relief! What freedom—to forget myself and my stuff—even for a few moments.

The floating phase of a retreat often occurs midway through. It takes a day to relax and unplug from routine thinking. After a day of exhaling, floating is the reward of contemplation. Wondering seems more important than solution. Joy in what is replaces frantic grasping for more. Richard Foster often quotes Jean Pierre de Caussade: “The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace, like a floating balloon.”Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding The Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 58. The soul floats on the movements of contemplative stillness and receptiveness. Waiting, wondering, and contemplating God while resting in God’s presence . . . floating.


Much of the work of providing floating space has already been done in the above preparations. Now attentiveness is the key. Watch individual retreatants and pray for discernment concerning suggestions for what is needed—more space? a word of encouragement or affirmation? Perhaps giving a wide berth to their absorption is the greatest grace. Suggest that they eat a meal in silence or skip a retreat session to enter more deeply into this graced space with God.

Some retreat leaders who are also spiritual directors offer deep listening to help retreatants recognize floating as an accessible joy in a contemplative practice of life. If they are new to contemplative prayer, they may not realize that floating experiences can frequent an ongoing prayer practice.

5. Attending

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.

6. Healing

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.

03.  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.
). Yes.

04.  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.