Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 18

From Mountain Top to Mundane Life: The Purpose of Spiritual Retreats

Gerald L. Sittser

01.  Introduction

The last leg of the journey seems to last forever. We drive six miles down a narrow, winding road, sometimes barely wide enough for one car to pass. The banks of snow on either side are so high that we can’t see over them, as if we were driving through a white tunnel. We finally arrive at our destination, unpack our gear, and load it onto the back of a snowcat before beginning our trek to the lodge. After walking perhaps a hundred yards, we round a bend and come upon a large meadow. Suddenly the world opens up before us. At the far end sits a cozy lodge with smoke curling from its three chimneys. Tall peaks rise some five thousand feet above us, and a pristine river, the Napeequa, rushes past, a nacreous ribbon meandering through a field of pure white. The snow, which covers everything in sight, washes the world in white and muffles all sound, creating the silence of an empty cathedral. The air is so clear and crisp it makes the world seem luminous.

The students stop, looking breathlessly at what surrounds them. I let them gaze for a while. “Welcome to Tall Timber,”Tall Timber is a retreat center located in the mountains east of Seattle in Leavenworth, Washington. I finally say. “It will be our home for the next three weeks.” I feel a sudden surge of sentiment rush over me, remembering the many times I have taught this January term course before. I realize once again why Tall Timber provides the ideal setting for such an experience and why teaching at Whitworth University is such a privilege. One precious month, I think to myself, to give ourselves to the one thing that matters most, a vital relationship with the living God. It is just too good to be true.

We cross the meadow and arrive at the lodge. The students unload the gear and then, after drinking a mug of hot chocolate, make their way to the cabins. They return to the lodge in the late afternoon. Someone notes how dark it already is, how bright the stars are, how fresh the air is, how strangely warm they feel in spite of the cold temperature. We sit around one of the wood stoves and stare at the fire for a while. Then I tell them what lies ahead.

“You are about to embark on a wonderful journey through two thousand years of history. Be prepared for big surprises along the way. You will be challenged and changed by what you learn. No one will be allowed to keep a safe distance.”
Students smile at me and exchange knowing glances with each other, remembering I had warned them of the unusual experience for which they had signed up.

“We will start our daily routine tomorrow morning: prayer, study, and work, repeated over and over again. We will be fasting from all media for the month too. There will be no television, radios, iPods, cell phones, email, or video games. The Benedictine way of life is going to have its way with us.”

Students ask a few questions and talk about their sense of excitement. Then everyone falls silent again. Tired from the long drive, they go to bed early but sleep very little.

The daily routine starts the next morning. We gather at the lodge for worship at 7:30 a.m. (matins). I read Psalm 139 three times in a row, allowing for plenty of silence between each reading, which introduces them to the Benedictine discipline of lectio divina. We sing a hymn and pray. A few students set up for breakfast, which begins at 8:00. After food is put away and dishes are done, everyone finds a private place in the lodge for personal devotions. We study biblical passages that address suffering, persecution, and sacrifice; we write in our journals and pray for the persecuted church. We convene again as a group at 10:30 for an hour of discussion and then an hour of lecture. I introduce them to the topic of the day, the spirituality of the early Christian martyrs. I review the biblical texts they studied in their personal devotions and tell the stories of the martyrdoms of Perpetua, Blandina, and Polycarp, explain why these saints were martyred, and make a case for the central role Christ’s Lordship plays in a proper understanding of Christian spirituality. We conclude the morning with the second worship service (terce/sext).

After lunch and recreation (cross-country skiing), we return to the lodge for two and a half hours of personal study. On this particular day, we read a collection of writings from early Christianity. We worship a third time at 6:15 p.m. (vespers), eat at 6:30, and meet in small groups from 7:15 to 8:30. Even on this, the first day, students show no sign of slowing down after the hour is up. We gather one last time at 10:00 for the fourth and final worship of the day (compline). After a snack I read a piece of literature to them (e.g., Jack London, C. S. Lewis, etc.); then the students retire to their cabins, stoke the wood stoves, and crawl into bed. Everyone sleeps well.

We follow this monastic routine for three weeks with very little variation except for the two days we devote to backcountry skiing, the day we spend in total silence, and Sundays, a day set aside for sleeping in and enjoying a late morning brunch. Students respond at first with a sense of eager excitement, largely because the routine is so novel to them. It does not take long, however, before they begin to grow restless, bored, even resistant, feeling as if they are serving time in prison. But after this period of struggle, which can last for a week, they settle into the rhythm and begin to enjoy it. The routine gives them time and freedom to invest in one thing at a time, whether that is reading a book, writing in their journals, talking with a friend, skiing in the backcountry, or doing dishes, for they know they will have plenty of time to get everything done.

They discover at Tall Timber the new and wonderful world of their own Christian heritage—that rich landscape of faith that has developed and diversified over two thousand years. They learn about the conviction of the early Christian martyrs and the heroic feats of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, about icons and sacraments, relics and pilgrimages, about the rhythm of monasteries (which they, in fact, experience during their time away), the poverty of mendicants (Franciscans and Dominicans) and the preaching of the Reformers, about visionary evangelicals, risk-taking missionaries, and courageous activists. They fall in love with these powerful and peculiar members of their spiritual family and learn to value the unique role they played in the history of the church, and they practice the disciplines that emerged out of the peculiar and particular circumstances that shaped the lives of these saints. The entire experience enlarges, enriches, and ultimately transforms their understanding—and experience—of the Christian faith.

The three-week retreat comes to an end sooner than the students expect and want. Then they must descend the mountain and return to the familiar world of school and work, cars and computers and cell phones, family and friends, movies and malls—in short, to the noise, hurry, and pressure of life in modern society. They discover soon enough that the biggest challenge they face is to appropriate and apply what they learned at Tall Timber to life back home, that their monastic experience on the mountain will have little value if it does not transform their ordinary life in the world. My goal as the professor of the course is to use the retreat experience to inspire and equip students to follow Jesus in a culture that is not friendly to the Christian life.

02.  Lectio Divina

Many years ago, I read a book that shaped my entire way of teaching, especially at Tall Timber. In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean LeclercqJean Leclercq The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993) explores the medieval monastic approach to learning. Like the great universities that emerged in the late twelfth century, monasteries educated monks in the liberal arts, the trivium (the three “roads” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (the four “roads” of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). The purpose was not to equip them for disputatio or scholastic debate, but to enhance devotio, love for God and others, largely by using the technique of lectio divina or sacred reading, which requires slow, meditative attention to great spiritual texts. Thus they pursued their studies in a spirit of prayer, as The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes. However important, knowledge was to be the servant of devotion, not its master.

Leclercq’s book challenged me to organize the monastic retreat at Tall Timber with spiritual formation in mind, which requires more—but not less—than the impartation of mere information. The daily schedule includes a seamless alteration of worship, service, prayer, study, and fellowship. Students study the rich tradition of spirituality and follow a series of exercises that apply what they are learning to mundane matters. They also learn along the way that Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to certain techniques, however important those are, for what makes Christian spirituality truly Christian is the operation and influence of God’s grace as we know and experience it through Jesus Christ. For this reason, we focus on biblical texts that lead us back to the basics of Christianity. One of my favorites comes from the hand of Paul. Speaking of maturity in Christ, Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 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.). Paul had the freedom and motivation to strive for maturity because he knew that in Christ he had already become a new creature.

03.  Logismoi

During the first week I tell stories about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This collection of very peculiar people tried to maintain high standards of discipleship, established by the early Christian martyrs, after Rome gave legal status to Christianity and later made it the official religion of the empire. These saints fled into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to protest the church’s worldliness and to start a countermovement of radical discipleship, to fight the devil, find God, and pursue a life of holiness. Obeying Jesus’ command literally, they sold their possessions, gave their money to the poor, and followed Jesus. They mastered the spiritual disciplines of deprivation (fasting, solitude, poverty, vigils, and chastity), prayed constantly, and developed skills, like weaving mats, which allowed them to gain economic independence.

Viewed from the perspective of consumer culture, their behavior seems extreme and fanatical, perhaps with good reason. Still, their harsh treatment of the body, so strange to us now, was not an end in itself but a means. Their ultimate goal was to overcome egoism and to live in submission to God, which in their minds involved a lifelong struggle. Thus, when one desert father claimed that he no longer faced temptation, Abba John the Short, one of the great teachers of the movement, said, “Go, ask the Lord to stir a new war in you. Fighting is good for the soul.”Owen Chadwick, ed., Western Asceticism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958) 84–85. They practiced spiritual discipline with such ferocity because they believed that, weaned from excessive attachment to the world, they would be free to attend to the more important matters of the heart. Abba Antony, perhaps the greatest of the desert fathers, taught, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech, and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.”Chadwick, 40.

One teacher in particular explored this struggle with unusual insight. Evagrius Ponticus, a young theologian and church leader in fourth-century Constantinople, discovered through painful experience how selfish and self-indulgent he was. After several mishaps, he made his way to the Egyptian desert, where he became one of the greatest teachers of the desert tradition. He argued that all sin begins in the mind, or what he called logismoi (“thoughts”). We create a world in our minds that puts us at the center, a world in which we always get our way, a world of pure fantasy and thus unreality. We indulge our appetite for food, sex, and possessions; we punish and humiliate our opponents; we achieve worldly fame and assert our superiority over others. Then, when conditions are right and opportunity presents itself, we actually do what we have been thinking for so long; we yield to temptation and sin against God.

This notion of sinful logismoi (and their need for healing and freedom from these assaultive thoughts) rattles students. They discover how selfish their thoughts are, even though on the outside they may appear to be the nicest people in the world—and they often are. For their first spiritual exercise, therefore, I assign them the task of self-examination. Students explore the meaning of Evagrius’ “eight deadly logismoi,” identify the ones toward which they are most inclined, and confess their sin to God, their desperate need for God, and their faith in God’s provision of forgiveness. They also begin to memorize and meditate on Scripture as a means of filling their minds with divine truth rather than egoistic falsehood. Not surprisingly, the first passage they memorize is Psalm 139.

04.  Ora et Labora

At the end of the first week, I introduce students to the rhythm of monastic life. Monasteries still dot the Christian landscape, though they no longer function as the dominant institutions they once were during the Middle Ages, when monasteries brought stability to a world that teetered on the edge of chaos. We are profoundly indebted to these institutions for preserving the legacy of Western civilization. Using The Rule of St. Benedict, which was written in the sixth century, I show how monasteries followed a daily, weekly, and yearly rhythm based on a Christian view of time. At the heart of that rhythm was—and still is—a balance between two activities, prayer and work, which monasteries weave together into a seamless whole. Peter Levi, a former professor of poetry at Oxford, argues that monastic rhythm sets the monastery apart as a unique institution. “The specially undisturbed yet specially rhythmic sense of time is the greatest difference between monastic life and any other.” As he observes, “It soaks into one’s bones and penetrates one’s mind.” Peter Levi, The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987) 19–20.

Medieval monks worked the land and practiced trades, like copying manuscripts and tanning leather, which made monasteries one of the most economically productive institutions in the Western world, and they served the needs of the communities that lived near them. They also prayed, largely by following the Divine Office, a series of eight daily worship services. Monks chanted Psalms, listened as Scripture was read, prayed the prayers of the liturgy, and sat in silence. This rhythm of prayer and work—ora et labora—enabled monks to be attuned to God and committed to service. Each day was ordered and productive, but never hurried and frantic. The monks prayed for their work and worked out their prayers. Prayer protected them from turning their work into an idol; work kept their prayers from becoming an empty exercise. Prayer drew them to God, centered and quieted them, and called on God to bless their work. Work sent them into the world, gave them purpose, and empowered them to serve as co-laborers with God.

Such rhythm is foreign to the experience of students. Some gravitate toward fanatical work, which tempts them to view monastic rhythm as a technique that will make them all the more efficient and productive. Others tend to waste time, preferring to play rather than work, which leads them to label monastic rhythm as far too narrow and rigid. It takes a few days of experiencing monastic rhythm, however, before students discover how much freedom and joy it gives them. In a second exercise, I require them to evaluate how they use time and what it would mean for them to follow some kind of daily rhythm of prayer and work when they return to the campus. Predictably, most students set high goals, which leads to frustration and failure after they reenter normal life. But over time and with patience, many do succeed. For example, a few students meet three mornings a week for matins; others try to observe the Lord’s Day, treating it as a day of worship, rest, and hospitality. They learn along the way that it is almost impossible to achieve these goals if they pursue them alone. We need the community of faith to enable us to believe and obey the Gospel.

05.  Regula Vitae

Those two exercises bring the first week to a close. During the next two weeks, I introduce students to other spiritual traditions, such as sacramental spirituality (which I label Hoc Est Corpus Meum), Reformation spirituality (Logos), Puritan spirituality (Redemptio), evangelical spirituality (Pia Desideria), and the like. Each unit closes with a spiritual exercise they put into practice. The entire retreat culminates, however, in the writing of a Rule of Life, which should not be confused with a list of rules by which they want to live. This Regula Vitae to which I refer consists of a set of central truths in which they believe, guiding values by which they want to live, and a plan they hope to follow after they leave Tall Timber. It strikes a balance between the specificity and fastidiousness of The Rule of St. Benedict on the one hand and the loftiness and ambiguity of Francis’ Rule on the other. They state in a few words what they believe and how they want to live; then they share their Regula Vitae with the members of their small group, who evaluate it, make suggestions, and pray over it.

Everything students learn, however, is put to the test when they leave the mountain top and return to mundane life. Students discover over time that it is harder than they expected; the difficulty, of course, reminds them of their need for grace. For this reason, I once thought the environment of Tall Timber was hopelessly contrived and controlled; I do not think that anymore. However unusual and unrealistic, retreats, whether they run three days or three weeks, separate us from the world just enough to give us fresh eyes to see how much the world is pressing us into its mold and to enable us to rediscover truths and purpose to believe and live differently. We need the mountain top to teach us about true discipleship; we need mundane life to put it into practice. As the experience at Tall Timber has taught me time and time again, retreats do not make us disciples, but they can equip us to live that way.

06.  Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality 
from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries

In his book, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern MissionariesGerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2007)., Sittser explores in depth various historical traditions from different periods of Church history. These traditions are listed in column one. Column two lists a book he recommends to help you explore that tradition.

Tradition:Recommended Reading:
WITNESS: The Spirituality of Early Christian Martyrs (A.D. 40–313)Eusebius, The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine (New York: Penguin, 1965)
BELONGING: The Spirituality of Early Christian Community (A.D. 40–400)Cyril C. Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Touchstone, 1996)
STRUGGLE: The Spirituality of the Desert Saints (300–632)Thomas Merton, ed., The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Direction, 1960)
RHYTHM: The Spirituality of Monasticism (300–1200)Antony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro, eds., The Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Doubleday, 1975)
HOLY HEROES: The Spirituality of Icons and Saints (451–1200)Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986)
WINDOWS: The Spirituality of the Sacraments (300–1437)Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004)
UNION: The Spirituality of the Mystics (350–1400)Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, eds., Julian of Norwich: Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978)
ORDINARINESS: The Spirituality of the Late Medieval Laity (1200–1500)Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1989)
WORD: The Spirituality of the Reformers (1500–1650)John Dillenberg, ed., Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961)
CONVERSION: The Spirituality of Evangelicals (1734–)John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds., A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)
RISK: The Spirituality of Pioneer Missionaries (1800–)W. P. Livingston, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary (New York: George H. Doran, n.d.)


Gerald L. Sittser serves as professor of theology at Whitworth University. Among other books, he has written A Grace Disguised, The Will of God as a Way of Life, and Water From a Deep Well. He has three adult children and lives in Spokane, Washington.