Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 18

Thin Times and Thin Places

Margaret Guenther

I love retreats, real retreats! I love their expansiveness and freedom. We need to be cautious in our use of the word, which is increasingly applied to almost any activity that takes us away from our usual surroundings. Marathon off-site business meetings, parish-sponsored family outings, and trips to the beach or ski slopes for the youth group are often billed as retreats. Necessary, productive, or re-creative as such events might be, they are not retreats.

For me a retreat is a prayerful going apart, removing myself for a brief time from the clutter and busyness of everyday life. I’ve learned about this from Jesus. Again and again, he simply walks away from activity—preaching, teaching, healing, sharing meals with friends, and sparring skillfully with those who would trip him up. He goes away to pray, sometimes with his friends and sometimes alone. We’re not sure exactly what this means: Scripture is very sparing of details about means and method. Sometimes the crowd follows him, and often it is waiting when he returns. Remember his return from the Mount of Transfiguration: he enters immediately into a scene of agitation and activity, where the disciples have tried in vain to heal the epileptic boy, the scribes are arguing, and the crowd is surging. Real life is never far away.

The lesson here is clear: the retreat comes in the midst of life with all its demands. “Real life” awaits us upon our return. If we wait until there is time, we will never follow Jesus’ example and go apart.

I forget this and have to keep learning it anew. Like most folk in our overly scheduled society, the pages in my little black engagement book are full. It’s hard to remember that God’s instruction to honor the Sabbath is a commandment and not a suggestion. I’ve actually caught myself engaged in competitive boasting about my busyness and sighing self-righteously about the multiplicity of demands placed upon me. (Something tells me I am not unique!)
Yet Jesus gives us the model of the retreat as a time of bodily rest and spiritual refreshment, a time for deep reflection, a time for listening. He doesn’t give us a recipe; he just sets the example.

Typically, a retreat is a time of respite and new energy. But it may leave us stirred up and uneasy, aware that a next step needs to be taken and that God is nudging powerfully. We can’t program what will happen; after all, God is a master of surprises. The time apart might turn out to be simply that—a time of rest, prayer, and openness. No mountaintops, no angels singing, but spiritually fruitful nonetheless! Or the retreat might be a pivotal, even life-changing experience. Openness and humble attentiveness are essential. Then the retreat time may be surprising, but never disappointing.

Why go away? I try to persuade myself that I can be attentive and open to God just as well in my office or my kitchen—especially now that I am an empty nester, sharing ample space with a husband who respects my need for silence, and now that, at least theoretically retired, I control my schedule. Isn’t the idea of a retreat a little bit medieval?

A good retreat offers us two special gifts: a radically simplified environment and silence. We twenty-first-century folk are overwhelmed by stimuli of all kinds—visual, auditory, intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional. The typical retreat space, on the other hand, is stripped of nonessentials. Privacy, a bed, a chair, usually a desk or table, a few hooks to hang up our clothes, and maybe a crucifix or an icon are all that we need for basic comfort. It is easier to be open to God when there is not so much stuff to distract us.

The silence of a traditional retreat may cause more apprehension than the stark simplicity of space. Our world is very noisy: radios and televisions play while no one is listening; canned music assaults us in the elevator or supermarket; we honor our heroes with twenty-one gun salutes. We probably wrap ourselves in sound because silence leaves us open and vulnerable. In the prayerful receptivity of a retreat, we—like the Psalmist—can wait on God in a silence that is more than the absence of noise, more than refraining from the spoken word. It is a kind of inner stillness, active and creative, fully open to the encounter with God.

So I am going away. But where?

Over the years I have enjoyed the hospitality of religious houses, both Anglican and Roman Catholic. It is a powerful experience to spend time in a place where prayers have soaked into the walls. The special quality of monastic hospitality is liberating. Simultaneously, I feel warmly welcomed and left quite alone to use the time as I will. No one fusses over me or tries to entertain me. So I don’t have to do anything—just let all those prayers speak to me in silence. Maybe sleep a little extra. Maybe go on long walks. Maybe let myself sink into a good book—most religious houses have excellent libraries.

My other favorite place of retreat is our ramshackle old house in the Virginia Blue Ridge. The furnishings are almost as ramshackle as the house, so there is no temptation to get lost in domestic trivia—just sweep the floor every now and then and wash the dishes as needed (by hand, of course). There are no other houses in sight; the dirt road leads nowhere, and the little mountain river separates the house from the road. Some of the best times of my life have been spent living there in solitude, reading, writing, and just being.

My little patch of Jenkins Hollow is what one of my Celtic friends would call a “thin place.” Heaven and earth are close, the membrane between the sacred and the ordinary is very porous, and God seems very near. Then, too, the church in a Benedictine monastery, high about the Hudson River, is another thin place. I’ve found many such thin places where prayer has soaked into the walls—in Yorkshire, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Kansas. Every visit feels like a homecoming.

Jesus said to his friends, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 1995 the 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.). It’s a command but also an irresistible invitation. I hope that you’ll be able to enjoy this issue of Conversations as a retreat.