Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 18

Where Intention Meets Attention: The Psalms as Spiritual Retreat Guide

J. D. Walt & Maxie Dunnam

Two times a year, the world’s wealthiest person retreats to an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest for seven days to think. He calls these now famous retreats “Think Weeks.” It’s a fascinating practice. Bill Gates hops aboard a helicopter or seaplane and jets to a remote waterfront two-story cottage for a week of complete solitude. A caretaker stealthily slips Mr. Gates two simple meals a day. He spends up to eighteen hours a day reading papers written by Microsoft employees. In the preceding months, he invites anyone in the entire corporation to write him a paper detailing a better way of doing Microsoft’s work, a promising technological vision on the horizon, threats to future technologies, and so forth. He reads about a hundred of these papers in the week, offering pages of feedback and sending hundreds of emails. Think Weeks have proven instrumental to some of the innovations and strategic directions of Microsoft over the years.R. A. Guth, “In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates ponders Microsoft’s Future,” The Wall Street Journal (March 28, 2005). Accessed December 31, 2008,

Retreat? Yes.
Spiritual? Definitely.
Spiritual Retreat? Not really.

01.  Introduction

Every summer, in the pounding heat of mid-August, my family piles into our minivan to drive across the country for a weeklong retreat. We call it “Cousin Camp.” My parents generously lease a large oceanfront beach house where twenty-plus siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and young cousins live together for a glorious time in the sun. Last summer we watched 127 tiny sea turtles hatch outside our door and scramble to the water in the middle of the night. We danced and sang and laughed our way through the Cousin Camp Talent Show. We ate seafood, played golf, shopped outlet malls, and lay on the beach for seven full days: a fantastic week of family.

Retreat? Yes.
Spiritual? Definitely.
Spiritual Retreat? Not really.

Earlier this year, some close and generous friends of ours invited my wife and me to come to their home, drop off our four young children, and head for a long weekend at a luxury resort in the mountains of North Carolina. They handed us the keys to their luxury automobile (of a make I had only valet parked before), their American Express card, and an admonition not to call and check in. For three days we did nothing but fill ourselves with the finest food, pamper ourselves an entire day in the world-renowned spa, and enjoy being alone together for the first time in eight years.

Retreat? Yes.
Spiritual? Definitely.
Spiritual Retreat? Not really.

Though others have run the gamut on spiritual retreats in this volume, for our purposes, we define a spiritual retreat as a drawing away from the regular pattern in order to draw near to God. We find the Psalms especially geared for this work as they hammer out a biblical spirituality on the anvil of prayer through the practices of intention and attention.

A few years back, Maxie and I were asked to write a book about prayer and the Psalms.

We called the book Praying the Story.J. D. Walt and M. Dunnam, Praying the Story (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005). From lilting poetry to despairing prose, the Psalms train our heart language. Psalms have a way of fusing the horizons, to borrow Gadamer’s phrase, identifying with us in our condition while showing us the unbelievable, hope-filled horizons of the Story of God. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. edition, translated by J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall. (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 28. Spiritual retreating invites us to pray the Story in such fashion that we find ourselves more deeply playing our part. How does this happen? Seven practices follow in response to this query.

02.  Reorient

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:1–2, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, 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.)

For starters, rather than thinking of spiritual retreating and praying Psalms as a “spiritual discipline,” consider them in the frame of “story immersion practices.” While Richard J. Foster does a commendable job of rescuing the word “discipline” from strict asceticism, the notion of discipline, while a biblical one for sure, can easily play into our highly “functional” modus operandi. “Discipline,” for some, readily morphs into the prominent religious mode of pietistic performance or the dominant cultural mode of self-actualization. On the other hand, “story immersion practices” can richly connect us to our baptism, wherein we died to our own plot and rose up into the epic narrative of Jesus. With discipline, we can easily remain in control. With story immersion, we must follow the plot. The Psalms orient us inside of the story with invitation (“Let us go”) and relocation (“Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem”).
In this groove, spiritual formation subverts the deceptive detours of our self-actualizing tendencies and self-righteous performances and leads us on the lifetime pilgrimage to an actualized baptism (i.e., “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” [Galatians 2:20, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.) Reorientation is crucial. The Psalms reach out to us in our disoriented state and reorient us with hope. Spiritual retreats are essential precisely because they create the time and space required for ongoing reorientation with the big story, giving us much needed perspective on the smaller picture of our own lives.

03.  Surrender Agendas

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” 
(Psalm 42:2, NIV)

As noted earlier, we have many opportunities to retreat that are deeply spiritual, yet they fall short of the truest meaning of a spiritual retreat. As a weekend break is to Sabbath rest, so a vacation or a spa day can be to a spiritual retreat. As a working trip to an exotic destination is to an annual pilgrimage, so is a think week (study-writing-planning) to a spiritual retreat. We have much to do and many good things to accomplish. The thought of a free twenty-four hours conjures up images of a comfortable chair, a backpack full of long-awaited books and journals, my iPod playlist ready with favorite podcasts and fresh music, and unlimited drafts of Starbucks coffee at my fingertips. I would call friends, text acquaintances, blog a bit, and generally twitter the day away. In other words, I would go after my own premeditated agenda with a passion.

While there is nothing wrong with a day like this, a spiritual retreat calls us to trade in an agenda filled with good activities for a heart pregnant with singular intention. Resist the temptation to take any books at all; take only the Bible and perhaps a journal. Submit to the ironic austerity of sola scriptura. Lay aside the subtle agendas of how you imagine the time will be spent. Enter into the depths of the psalmist’s pleading prayer, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2) In preparing for retreat, remember Kierkegaard’s oft-cited dictum, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

It’s easier said than done. So often my prayer goes something like this: “Lord, I am willing to be made willing to will one thing, but I’m not at all sure how to get there.” My simple starting place for a spiritual retreat is this question: “When can I go and meet with God?” When agendas give way to agenda, we near the threshold of intention.

04.  Declare Intentions

“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1, NIV 1984)

For many, the best spiritual retreat begins by declaring the intention of our hearts before the Lord. Over and over the psalmist declares intention before God. “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4, NIV).

In declaring our intention, we prepare the way for the Lord, clearing the clutter off the desktop of our hearts. At the beginning of a recent spiritual retreat of seminary students, the retreat leader asked for an extended period of complete silence, passed out paper, and instructed us to write our hearts’ intentions for the retreat. Following, she invited those who so desired to share their intentions with the group. The sharing was remarkable. Persons were admittedly pressing into places of relationship with the Lord and others they had never known before. This first hour of a twenty-four-hour retreat proved most valuable as it gathered us into an intentionality that would profoundly shape our time together.

Why is declaring intention so important for a spiritual retreat? Because in a spiritual retreat a person must will to go to a new place, not just in physical surroundings but also in interior renovation of the soul. But a word of encouragement: many times I enter into spiritual retreat with clear intention of heart, only to see the day go in a completely different direction. The Spirit searches not for perfect intention, but purity of heart, humble honesty. More times than not, the sincere pleading, “When can I go and meet with God?” is intention enough.

05.  Embrace Wilderness

“They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” (Psalm 78:18–19, NRSVUE)

Spiritual retreats journey us into the seeming serene wilderness where we are surprisingly confronted with the world, the flesh, and the devil. These enemies come in the form of distraction, temptation, and even despair: the distraction of doing something else, the temptation to substitute our own self-constructed messages for the Spirit’s, or the despair of not hearing anything at all. Despite challenges, the wilderness gifts us with liminal space, taking us into a dimension of reality between where we were and where we are going. Annie Dillard gets at this in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 269.

Dillard’s words recall the Celtic notion of “thin places,” thresholds where the veil between heaven and earth seems to vanish. Thin places often appear in disorienting and desperate conditions. Frequently, they are discernible only in retrospect. In the midst of a wilderness lament over the wicked, the psalmist exhorts, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:3–4, NIV). When the wilderness exhausts our resources, we find ourselves standing in a wide-open space of divine presence, feasting at a table while dismayed enemies look on.

If I’m honest, I want to run from my enemies, not eat in their presence. I want retreat so I can escape. I’m looking for a mystical, nirvana-like experience of the presence of God, a spiritual high so I can return and face my enemies again. The liminality of wilderness eschews escapism and creates the conditions for deep story immersion. It looks like Narnia, not nirvana; intimacy, not ecstasy. A true retreat ushers us through the “wardrobe” and into a “gap,” a between place of beholding our Father’s world, where skies burst with speech, mountains bow before majesty, and the trees of the field clap their hands. In this world the sun breaks forth “like a bridegroom from his wedding chamber” (Psalm 19:5, NRSVUE). In this place “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:7, NIV), lions lie down with lambs, and children sit on the thrones of leadership. In the liminal place of wilderness, the Word of God takes on the currency of gold and the taste of honey. We return not to the “real” world but the waiting one, infused with a mission to declare reality into the ruins. Over time, praying Psalms on spiritual retreats renovates our hearts and minds, making them a “place of springs” (Psalm 84:6), a habitation for holy imagination. In his book Bread in the Wilderness, Thomas Merton captures these ideas:

The spiritual understanding of the Psalter will therefore not introduce us to some esoteric technique of prayer, nor will it tempt us to induce within our minds some peculiar psychological state. It will, above all, tell us not merely what we ought to be but the unbelievable thing that we already are. It will tell us over and over again that we are Christ in this world, and that He lives in us, and that what was said of Him has been and is being fulfilled in us: and that the last, most perfect fulfillment of all is now, at this moment, by the theological virtue of hope, placed in our hands. Thus the liturgy of earth is necessarily one with the liturgy of heaven. We are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land. The Psalms are our Bread of Heaven in the wilderness of our Exodus.Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, ©Abbey of Gethsemani, 1953), 38.

06.  Wait for Word and Spirit

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord, more than the watchmen wait for the morning, more than the watchmen wait for the morning.” (Psalm 130:5–6, NIV)

In one sentence the Eucharistic prayer unfolds our reality: “When the Lord Jesus ascended he promised to be with us always in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.”“A Service of Word and Table I,” United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 10. The simplicity of Word and Spirit makes for the richest, though not the easiest, spiritual retreats. The psalmist unfolds a veritable curriculum, taking us into the human reactor where Word and Spirit fuse into the nourishing bread of the body of Christ. Praying with the psalmist reveals the edgy intersections of heaven and earth, absence and presence, despair and joy, fear and faith, and the audacity to hope against hope. Rather than application points and precepts, the Psalms instruct us in a language. A master of image and metaphor, the psalmist apprentices us in the dialogical language of prayer: listening, speaking, waiting, and watching. Steeped in the Father’s manner of speaking, the Son’s masterful plot turns, and the skilled storytelling of the Spirit, we develop the discernment to hear God’s voice between the lines of the text and through long stretches of intertestamental silence.

Perhaps the most difficult story immersion practice of all is that of waiting. Spiritual retreats cultivate a disposition of patient, active waiting. The Psalter norms this practice and reassures us of its necessity. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” sang David (Psalm 40:1, NIV). “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord, more than the watchmen wait for the morning, more than the watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:5–6, NIV). Waiting further clarifies the heart’s intention and longing. Waiting produces humility, putting us in touch with words like these:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.“

As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,

and do not return to it
without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

(Isaiah 55:8–11, NIV).

In like fashion, Jesus posts a wilderness sign, reminding us that we do “not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Throughout a retreat day I commonly speak aloud this prayer from Psalm 25: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (vv. 4–5).

Heed the psalmist’s exhortation: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). As we grow in our capacity to wait, so will we find the Spirit ushering us into that place where we can quietly say that “like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content” (Psalm 131:2).

07.  Gather Up the Scraps

“But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Psalm 81:16, NIV)

“Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat.” 
(Psalm 78:25, NIV)

In my experience, spiritual retreats yield a harvest of what I call “scraps,” gift-words of Scripture, impressions, insights, and other inspired thoughts throughout the time. In addition to noting them in a journal, I write them on postcards or anything small and substantial I can find. While I may read back through my journals once or twice a year, I flip through these “scraps” like flash cards, regularly savoring these gift-words for all they are worth. As time passes and the cards collect, I find they interact with and interpret each other, showing the trail of revelation, a deepening descent into the holy drama. The gifts of spiritual retreats must be remembered and rehearsed. To improvise on the famous quote of Soren Kierkegaard, “Though life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards.”

08.  Ritualize Reentry

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who hearts are set on pilgrimage. . . . They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” 
(Psalm 84:5, 7, NIV)

All good things must come to an end, and though we don’t transition from sacred to secular space, we need to transition no less. I am privileged to live within a hundred miles of the Abbey of Gethsemane. I make most of my retreats to these hallowed grounds. Through the course of a day, I pattern my way through the above movements as I journey through the expansive grounds of the monastery. As the day closes, I walk up a sloping hill to a towering cross, mounted on a pile of stones. Climbing up the rocks, I stretch out my arms on the cross like a sail roped to the mast of a ship. With a stunning view of the pastoral countryside, I pray aloud, “Come, Lord Jesus, and let the wind of your Spirit fill the sail of my life. Steer me into the current of your will.” I take a seat at the base of the cross and pull from my journal a “scrap” picked up long ago on one of my first retreats to the Abbey. Written on the card is a prayer from Thomas Merton, who lived out his life as a monk on these very grounds:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, first electronic edition (New York: RosettaBooks, LLC., 2005, ©Abbey of Gethsemani, 1958), 48. (Downloaded 27 September 2022)

The Psalms provide keen guidance for a spiritual retreat, leading us to revelatory places of epiphany. Through the practices of intention (reorienting, surrendering agendas, and declaring intentions), way is prepared to meet with God. Through the practices of attention (embracing wilderness, waiting for Word and Spirit, and gathering up the scraps), rich, Spirit-filled discovery becomes possible. As we engage these practices under the tutelage of the psalmist, may we be ushered into the place of a genuine “spiritual retreat,” immersed in the story of God.


John David (J. D.) Walt lives in Wilmore, Kentucky, with his wife and four children, where he serves as vice president for Community Life and dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church in the Texas Annual Conference.

Maxie Dunnam, noted author of over twenty-five books, former world editor of the Upper Room Magazine and former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has served as a minister in the United Methodist Church for over fifty years. He presently serves as chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary.