Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 18

Letting God Lead

Jeannette Bakke

I go to Pacem in TerrisPacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) is a Hermitage Retreat Center in Isanti, Minnesota, founded in the Franciscan tradition, called to serve God’s people through prayer and by providing the opportunity to retreat into the silence and solitude of a simple hermitage environment. seeking God in solitude and silence in a private cottage in the woods. There are walking trails through the forest and a meadow near a bog-like lake. Retreatants are welcomed by the lush beauties of spring and summer, the brilliant transformations of fall, and the exquisite, silent whiteness of winter.

Everything invites simplicity and a return to essentials. There are electricity and running water in the main retreat house, but only propane gas for heat and lights, an indoor commode, and bottled water in the hermitages.

Each small house is named for a Christian saint and has an attached screened porch furnished with a chair, a footrest, and a table—a place to be in the woods day and night, listening and watching. A large picture window looks out into the forest.

Entering the hermitage, I see a bed, a rocking chair with an afghan, an altar with a cross and icons, a candle and an open Bible, a washing bowl with bottles of water, and linens. Opening the closet, I discover a poncho and an umbrella, a big hat with floating net to protect against insects, a flashlight, coffee, tea, sugar, matches, and cleaning supplies. Someone has prepared everything a hermit/pilgrim needs.

When I arrive, I am given a basket containing two loaves of homemade wheat bread, one date bran muffin, two oranges, two bananas, two apples, and half a pound of Wisconsin cheddar cheese. All can be resupplied with a note left in the mailbox on the front of the hermitage by 1:00 pm. Dinner is available in the main house and includes conversation with other pilgrims/hermits, but I’ve come for solitude.

I’ve gone to Pacem in Terris for twenty years, watching it grow from three hermitages to sixteen individual dwellings and three handicap-accessible hermitages in the main retreat house.

When it’s time for retreat, I pack up my things: Bible, journal, books, drawing or painting materials, knitting, weather-suitable clothes, and a cooler with a few provisions. I begin the retreat as I climb into my car for the hour’s ride into the countryside. I’ve done a lot so far, and now it’s time to let go—to place myself and all that will be into God’s care. I ask God to order my heart and mind and prepare me for these days away—days of opportunity to listen.

Even though I always intend at some level to “let God lead,” this time I was surprised. Part of my long-term pattern is to write in a journal when I’m on retreat. Even though I write often at home, a retreat presents an opportunity to explore more deeply with God—to write prayers and questions and have lengthy written conversations with God on paper—mostly one way. No writing on the wall has appeared yet in my retreat hermitage.

When I reached for my journal, it was as if there were a gentle invitation to let it be—not to write. Could this be God? I wondered. I settled into the rocking chair to look out the picture window . . . no writing. It wasn’t long before I realized this felt like a kind of Sabbath. I was not there to work. I was there to rest. If God wanted to show me anything, I was available to listen. I was surprised by how much “hurry,” “work to do,” and “taking charge” dropped away when I complied. I had not realized how the writing could be a way of taking charge rather than a way of letting go.

In short stretches, I read a little book about Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton. My prayer took surprising turns when I sat before the cross and pondered short passages from the open Bible on the table. Morning and evening I took Communion in front of the cross, listening for God and praying. I rested.

I walked the trails after rain and slept deeply through lightning and thunder turning over in its lullaby. I noticed I was not hurried. I prepared small meals out of the contents of the basket, adding a little peanut butter and a cup of hot chocolate or tea. I watched a hummingbird at my window, two deer in the middle of the day grazing nearby, mice on a nightly parade, and a pair of foxes moving four kits one by one in their mouths. I listened to birds day and night: warblers, blue jays, turkeys, and owls.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Prepare the altar and the fire will strike somewhere else.” Time given to God is not wasted—intentional self-surrender and seeking God contributes to the likelihood that I will be able to recognize God’s voice whenever God chooses.

I noticed myself asking often throughout the retreat, “What do You invite now?”—a nap, singing, using colored pencils, eating and savoring, walking on a treadmill in the retreat house when it was pouring rain and mosquitoes were ferocious, exploring possibilities . . . all in solitude. I intentionally moved away from any area where I might bump into another person.

The second night I was awakened by a full moon shining on my bed, piercing the forest, illumining the woods like midday.

What did I accomplish? What did God do or say? All I know is that it seemed gentle “finger exercises” were limbering my soul to listen and follow: listen in a quiet place where I might hear differently or hear different things, respond to whatever seemed it could be God, and notice when I seemed to open inside or close down after moving into wherever I felt drawn, learning the shape of my own soul: how it feels when I’ve said yes—how it feels inside when I take charge.

After my experience of sensing God’s invitation to let my retreat be shaped by God, I realized I had been informed and prepared for such a retreat by the writings of Gerald May, one of the founders of Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Before his untimely death in 2005, Jerry had agreed to an interview for Conversations. Including the following article from The Shalem News is a way to honor this intention.Reprinted by permission from Shalem News, Volume xvii, No. 3, Fall 1993, © Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Inc., 5430 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814. May be reproduced only for private or non-profit purposes and must include this notice. All right reserved. Jerry desired to be open to God’s presence and leading, and invited others to experiment gently with letting God lead. He wrote:

Driving into the mountains for my first time of real solitude, I prayed simply to be available for whatever God wanted. I had no idea how to let God guide me, but as soon as I arrived I began to see how different my self-contrived agendas, impulses and habits are from real willingness to be moved by God’s Spirit. The difference is like night and day, but I cannot describe it in words. I encourage you to explore it yourself. Pray for it, and give yourself the opportunity to be taught what it’s like to really let God lead. If you can get a day alone somewhere, sometime, explore what it means to have no agenda, no destination, no object or project in mind, no intention apart from a simple desire to be available for God’s guidance.

In order to let God lead, you have to be relatively free from the things that normally determine your thoughts and actions. I find it best to be outdoors, away from the habits of household and civilization. Familiar surroundings always seem to demand certain activities from me. I sit a certain way in a chair, act a certain way in a room, and think along particular lines in a particular place. Outdoors, especially in a fairly wild place, I’m much fresher, more immediately available for whatever inspiration might come.

Solitude is virtually essential for me. When I’m near other people I find myself habitually adjusting myself to them, concerned about their needs and expectations, or at least wondering what they’re thinking. The simple possibility of other people, even strangers, seeing me makes me self-conscious enough to censor my behavior.

You may be less restrained than I, but we all have our versions of self-control. The important thing is to find a setting that is as free of social and habitual restrictions as possible, a situation where you can be any way and do anything that strikes you, where you can be outrageous and wild or dull and vegetative and it doesn’t matter. No one is going to suffer from your actions or think badly of you if you look foolish. Then you can say to God in your heart, “I really want to be yours for a while. Guide me, lead me. I’m truly willing.” Willingness-in-action is born in freedom from restraint.

But then you also encounter your own internal restraints: your expectations, your private mental habits, the controls that arise from your ego. If you are like me, your mind is used to leading and does not relinquish the role easily. Even in wanting to be radically available for God, my mind still has ideas as to how this should happen and what it should look like. Most often I feel the particular discomfort of having no identified objective or occupation, no purpose, reason, goal or destination to give me a sense of who I am and what I’m up to. The mind needs to put such concerns in God’s hands, and it may not be able to do so right away.

It’s a little like practiced spontaneity, a contradiction in terms. I’m standing in a field and I want God to lead me. Immediately my mind comes up with ideas. “If God were guiding me, I imagine I’d walk over there and look at those trees,” or “I think God would want me to sit still here and become very quiet.” Or perhaps I just find something sort of holy to think about. At such times I need to pray for mercy, for God’s grace to ease my habits of directing everything, to soften my demands upon myself, to “gentle” my needs to come up with something worthwhile to be doing, to replace my sense of responsibility with a spirit of simple responsiveness.

There is a huge difference, I have found, between acting as if God were leading—which is what I do when my ego tries to decide and implement what God wants—and really letting God lead, which happens when my ego stops filtering and controlling and begins simply to see and appreciate.

Being alone and free also relieves us from confusing self-questioning about discernment: Is this really God’s leading, or is it just an impulse? Am I responding to the Spirit or just following a whim? I have found nothing more disruptive to my availability to God than my own arrogant attempts to figure out God’s will. Perhaps we have to go through such gyrations in making important life decisions, but in this kind of setting, where we are free for a while to do anything or nothing, there is no great risk and no one but God and us to see what happens.

For the first time last spring, we gave people an option to spend a day alone in nature at Shalem’s Spiritual Life of Spiritual Leaders Retreat/Conference. My basic suggestion to them was “Let yourself be led.” People’s responses to the experience were profound. Some said they had never before been able to risk such abandon. Many described the clear dichotomy, and sometimes the struggle, between personal agendas and inspirations that were “given.” Commonly, people found it difficult even to begin walking without having a specific destination in mind, some place to be going. Others would see a certain spot and think, “I’ll go sit down there,” only to feel themselves led on to another place that they would not have chosen themselves.

One man picked out a beautiful grassy area under a spreading tree but was almost pulled another quarter of a mile into the middle of a dump, where he had one of the most powerful experiences of prayer in his life. A chic, impeccably dressed woman wound up sitting in a mud puddle with a congregation of butterflies. A man who characterized himself as always having to see what is over the next hill found himself led to sit down half way up a hill. He struggled with himself and with God, finally saying, “God, I’m sorry, but I just gotta run up and see what’s over the hill; then I’ll come right back and sit down here.”

Such experiences may sound whimsical, but if I were asked what one thing has been most valuable in my time alone in the wilderness, it would be this exploration of letting God lead. It has given me courage and a deep confidence in God’s goodness and presence. The divine Spirit now seems so intimate, so immediately available and willing to guide that I have trouble thinking of praying to or discerning the will of a God “out there” somewhere. The holy otherness of God remains, but it’s like the promise of Deuteronomy 30: “The Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” [v. 14]

Is God inviting you to a different way, a different kind of retreat—perhaps prayerfully to explore allowing yourself to be led by God? Letting God lead in the midst of natural surroundings offers different invitations from letting God lead in the midst of an urban environment. What seems as if it could be God’s invitation now?


Jeannette A. Bakke is the author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. She teaches spiritual direction in seminaries, retreats, and training programs and is part of a cross-denominational group that is exploring the role of contemplative prayer in seminary education. Jeannette was involved in developing and teaching a training course in Spiritual Formation for Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard chaplains.