Shelter is my guiding word for this year. It is a non-striving word. A shelter offers refuge, provides safety, and embraces calm and quiet.
I went on my first retreat in the spring of 1987. It was a women’s retreat held at Mount Saint Francis in Indiana. At that time, I didn’t really know what to expect, but a new acquaintance suggested this weekend experience and I took advantage of the opportunity to try something new and different.
I don’t remember exactly what went on that weekend. The room accommodation was comfortable but basic with a bed, desk, and chair. Three cafeteria-style meals were included. No frills, but I wasn’t expecting The Ritz.
What I do specifically remember though is taking an afternoon walk in the woods on the property. I came to a bench among the trees and sat down. Suddenly I realized how peaceful and quiet it was — not only externally but internally as well.
Wow, I thought. This is new. I like it!
Since that time I have been on many retreats. I’ve been on a few guided retreats and one weeklong art retreat (I dubbed it Art Camp) at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. These guided retreats usually include a specific program, including workshops or sessions that all the retreatants attend, and there is also time for quiet reflection.
Mostly, though, I have been drawn to silent retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown. There is no talking at meals. There’s no talking in the retreat house rooms. There are no scheduled sessions. The time is open to fill as one wants. I’ve been going there for 30-plus years and can say quite confidently that these times away have changed the way I live my life.
What to do on a retreat? Well, that depends. Both Gethsemani and St. Meinrad – which is a seminary as well – have wonderful libraries for browsing. And if you’re so inclined, gift shops which I usually avoid as shopping doesn’t seem to quite fit in with my intent. Monastery grounds usually come with wooded areas, hiking trails, and perhaps a lake for quiet reflection.
The point, as I see it, is to not be busy. Not to be doing all the time. Gentle activities or no activities are in order.
Sometimes I take art supplies – paints, pen and ink, a sketchbook – and do simple creative projects. Always I take a blank notebook for journaling as I think best with pen and paper. Sometimes I take a book and am content to have the quiet and space to absorb the ideas therein. Other times I take nothing and rely on serendipity. I might just spend time meditating, pondering, sauntering, and soaking up the silence. Although I have no formal religious practice, I do usually attend the monastery’s daily prayer services in order to experience the rhythm of the monks’ days.
I haven’t always retreated to a monastery for peace and quiet. I have spent time in historic New Harmony, Indiana which was established as a spiritual community in the early 1800s. I have stayed in its comfortable inn and once reserved a cottage for a week by myself. It is full of walking spots, a public library, gardens, historic buildings and is just a tranquil place to be.
I realize that not everyone would feel comfortable going off on their own to a place to spend three or four nights or longer. I find it refreshing not to have to think about planning for dinner or worrying about any undone chores. No phones ringing or any of the harsh noises of today’s world.
It’s amazing to me how noisy our world is. At home, even the early morning is full of the sounds of cars and airplanes and sirens, garbage trucks and lawn mowers, and dogs barking…and dogs barking…and dogs barking. Perhaps I’m just more sensitive to noises than others, but I feel silence and solitude is something we could use a lot more of.
So, once again this year I will spend Thanksgiving week at the Abbey of Gethsemani for a few days of simplicity, silence, and solitude. I find this annual retreat to be a soothing experience and definitely a shelter for my spirit and from the storms of everyday life.
By Lucy M. Pritchett | Photo Annie Spratt