Retreats: I’m a pro. I’ve been on silent retreats, church retreats, centering prayer retreats, women’s retreats, led retreats, self-directed retreats. I’ve led more writing retreats than I can count. I worked in retreat ministry for three years, so I even know retreats from behind the scenes—the frustration beforehand as numbers fluctuate; the frantic food preparation; the retreatants who use kitchen dish towels to clean their ears; conflicts that fester and flare among the staff until dishes get smashed; the enormous effort behind the scenes to support a silent space. Jesus went up to a lonely place. Moses heard the still, small voice. We, too, can take time apart to support our outward journey with the inward journey, to balance our noisy, active lives with silence and stillness.
Or with whatever. Gwyn wanted pop music on the drive north. She arrived wearing bunny-print PJs, shed her coat, ran at the couch and took a flying leap. She recognized the spiritual toys—finger labyrinths, zen sand trays—and knew exactly what to do with them. Prayer cushions were for jumping on. Prayer bells were for ringing. The grand log lodge with its angled ceilings and sofas hidden behind bookshelves was for playing hide-and-seek. The piano was for playing. The circle of grown-ups at the breakfast table were for listening to her stories. Gwyn swiftly fell in love with retreat, or at least with her version, and I became a beginner all over again.
The gift of retreat is a singular focus: Building, meals, leaders, groups, and silence are all there to support your relationship to whatever you name as holy. On this retreat my singular focus was Gwyn, who’s been struggling with her grandmother’s illness and with my own distraction. Gwyn gets most of my attention most of the time anyhow, but rarely all of it. So we headed off to the woods together, spotted Orion between the dark tree branches, snuggled in the single bed, negotiated how many cookies was appropriate after lunch, colored a few dozen valentines, and had a huge fight because I wouldn’t let her bring a snowman home. In other words, we continued our ordinary ways. But she had me all to herself, and I had her, and a warmth surrounded us even in the midst of our power-struggle.
Our retreat was precious and fleeting like that ridiculous snowman, and she knew it. Once again I saw divinity in this humble, stumbling way—not by escaping my life but diving deeper into it, the way a seven-year-old does when a retreat center welcomes her with a lumpy couch. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
UPCOMING OPPORTUNITIES WITH ELIZABETH
Fourth Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions
Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
February 26: Epiphany
March 25: The Blessed Body
April 22: Describing the Indescribable
May 27: Perspective and Insight
February 27, 9:00-noon
The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening
Plymouth Congregational Church
June 19-23, 2016
The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening retreat
The Christine Center
September 12-16, 2016
Alone Together writing retreat
Madeline Island School of the Arts