I ended September and began October with a three day retreat at The Convent, the venue for a retreat and spiritual direction ministry called “Sustainable Faith” run by David and Jody Nixon. The building is a renovated convent on the grounds of the Vineyard Central Church community in Norwood, Ohio (Cincinnati area). My visit there was a very peaceful and refreshing time for me. On most days my habits of prayer, reading and serious reflection seem on the periphery of each day’s events or fit into the gaps in between. It was good to spend a few days with those things at the center. I had no schedule, no specific agenda, no distractions (unless one counts the wonderful smell of fresh, brewing coffee coming from downstairs in the morning). Dave and Jody are very gracious and grace filled hosts. They have turned this old house into a warm and welcoming place for the weary and wandering soul in need of some solitude. I highly recommend The Convent if you’re looking for such a place.
Since my return, several people have asked me, “how did it go?” or “what did you learn?” I’ve been thinking about that myself, trying to put it in context.
Some of the time involved some pretty intense personal soul searching that I won’t go into here publicly. The substance of these things vary on an individual basis and may or may not be meaningful or relevant to others. But allowing the context for meaningful reflection upon the substance is important. That’s the reason for making a retreat because a good context isn’t always provided in the course of an average day. Unless I am intentional about providing that context, I often fall into doing things that distract me from letting that happen. I think this is because there are no guarantees about what’s going to happen when one has a hard look at oneself while conscious of being in God’s presence. A spiritual retreat, if entered into honestly, may not turn out to be an entirely pleasant experience. The truth isn’t always pleasant but I think we must be willing to face it if we want to really approach God and not just end up worshiping what really amounts to our own idea of God (John 4:23-4). A retreat requires rest from the normal activities of life and offers refreshment. But if the only intent for getting that rest and refreshment is so that I can return to those same activities as they were and with the same attitude I had before, maybe there’s little to be gained. A realignment or resetting of priorities and attitudes requires strength that rest and refreshment provide. The only honest way to approach a retreat is with the expectation that God may want to change a few things, that the changes may not be simple, quick or easy and that the primary thing to be changed is my self. Of course, on the other hand, what I may really need is rest and encouragement for what I’m already doing and who I already am. That’s just as important. But, for me, change is harder to accept so it’s best to be equally prepared for, and open to, that possibility. A retreat isn’t really like a vacation.
So I went to spend a few days with the intention of resting and to try to find enough time away from distractions to allow me to comprehend anything that God might want to show me about my life, particularly about the meaning of particular changes that seem to be going on in my life’s circumstances and in my own soul and spirit. I had a few issues weighing on me that I wanted to take down, unroll and examine prayerfully. That could take a while. I don’t have that kind of time on most days unless I deliberately make the time. So here’s the context for my doing that on this retreat. May be this will be helpful to you if you’re considering a retreat of your own.
I arrived on a Wednesday evening too late for dinner, but with some good food waiting for me in the kitchen. Tuna salad with pita bread and humous. Jody was there to make sure I found my room and I was left to myself for the evening to unpack and unwind. The 2nd floor room was very spacious, with high ceilings, two large windows, a closet, hardwood floors and furnished with a comfortable queen size bed, a night stand, a chest of drawers , a desk with a lamp and chair and another more comfortable chair with s foot stool. There was a small booklet on the desk that explained very well how things work around the place and thoughtfully answers most questions a guest might have. I slept very well each night and woke up late each morning. The building has wireless internet access and I brought my computer in case I wanted to do some writing but I spent only about an hour with it during the whole retreat. Honestly. I didn’t have the desire. This is the only indisputable miracle that I experienced during my stay.
I brought a few books with me, other than my Bible, that I had been reading recently and which were each making a significant impression on me in their own ways. I wanted to continue reading these books “under the influence” as it were. I had just finished reading through Peter Scazerro’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and had been using the Daily Office written to go with it. I was getting quite a bit of good out of both. I also brought my regular devotional guide which I wanted to put to use again after putting it aside for others for a while. It makes heavy use of scripture reading. The other books were Victor Frankl’s, The Doctor and the Soul, John Ortberg’s Love Beyond Reason, The Spiritual Journey by Nemeck and Coombs, and Glamorous Powers, a novel by Susan Howatch. I had time to read a little of each of these books and they all contributed significantly to the retreat as an impetus for self examination and prayer. Each of them touched a deep spiritual need of mine and I had the time to respond reflectively and prayerfully.
Times of prayer took different forms: Prayer for the needs of specific persons, lectio divina, Ignatian prayer, and (most of all) prayer for the grace, strength and courage to follow in the way God leads me. I usually followed or preceded these by long periods of silence, listening to the sounds in the neighborhood or in other parts of the house, letting thoughts come and trying to “observe them” rather than be preoccupied or distracted with them, turning significant ones over in my mind and making them the subject of prayer. This process is hard to describe, and it may seem weird, but it had the effect of clearing and calming my mind. I didn’t have to fight distractions to pray, and they seemed to leave eventually and allow me to concentrate. When the weather was good, I went for walks around the neighborhood or sat outside in the cold night air. The house and grounds were usually very quiet. I spent a good bit of time in the common areas on the 1st floor reading or taking meals. I met one or two of the other guests this way, but most of the time I was alone to read, enjoy the art work and atmosphere of the place, or just to sit in the living room and pray.
Breakfast and lunch food was provided, self-serve, with whatever could be found in the kitchen. This made for good, simple meals and the flexibility to take them at whatever time was convenient with whoever happened to be in the dining area at the time, or alone in your room if you prefer. I liked to have the opportunity to meet people when I ate so I usually ate in the dining room. Evening meals at 6:00 PM were a real pleasure. A home cooked meal shared with Dave and Jody and whoever else happened to be there. I enjoyed the conversation very much, meeting interesting guests and getting to know Dave and Jody a little. I enjoyed meeting Keith, a long time friend of the Nixon family who is staying with them for a while. Keith is a very likable young man. I think of him often. I appreciated very much the short conversation that Dave and I had over a glass of good wine one evening after dinner. He and Jody made me feel very welcome in a place that is also their home. I could see that they and others had done quite a bit of work to renovate the old convent building to make it a very hospitable place for guests. It’s still a work in progress, so I asked Dave and Jody to call on me if I could help with anything. I was glad that Dave took me up on the offer with the small task of helping him put a bed frame together on the 3rd floor.
Late Saturday morning before leaving, I packed up, cleaned out my room and went downstairs for some coffee and brunch. (The coffee is excellent!) It was a very pleasant surprise to see Kate and Andy Whitman walk in. They were on a day drip in the area and were going to spend the night there later. I enjoyed their company. It lifted my spirits before the drive back to Columbus. I had enjoyed my visit very much and was not looking forward to leaving so soon. I toyed with the idea of asking to stay another night, but it really seemed to me as if I should go. Sometimes trying to prolong a good thing tends to spoil it. I had a good drive back home and was glad to be back once I got there.
So, to answer the questions, “how did it go?” or ” what did you learn?” I think it went very well. As I told Dave afterwards, I don’t often see the effects of a spiritual retreat or other significant God encounter until some time is past after the event, but I did sense God’s presence with me the whole time and in the people I met. Enough realignment and reinforcement went on with me there that I have a certain amount of greater confidence and trust in God to begin to let go of some things that I no longer need to hold, embrace some new things in the process of change that I often struggle with in fear, and feel a renewed sense of patience and calmness to accept some things as they are until they are properly worked out in an acceptable time. I think one of the things that helped this retreat work so well for me was the variety. I didn’t try to work too hard at any one thing but was able to let a variety of things like rest, prayer, exercise, meals, reading, meditation, contemplation, work, solitude, conversation all contribute as seemed appropriate at the time and without trying to fit everything into a crowded regimen. Everything just seemed to flow.