When I wrote earlier this year about the pandemic being a Holy Interruption, I was not expecting our unsolicited COVID-19 visitor to move in and take over the household. First, it appeared that the pandemic was “over there” outside of the US and then in Washington State where I hoped it would be controlled and exterminated. Then it spread like the wildfires in the West, taking swathes of seniors in nursing care facilities and other unsuspecting adults and children. Next the shutdown arrived followed by the masks and resistance to masks debacle. Recently, during a telemedicine appointment with my cardiologist, I casually and humorously inquired about when I might be able to move freely about again. His reply—“Oh maybe in about 12-18 months!!!”
Stunned, I initially wondered how I might fare in perpetual shelter in place. I pondered about what could I do to inspire others who feel immobilized, depressed and anxious by multiple pandemics—COVID-19, a racial reckoning, and climate change manifesting as hurricanes, flooding tropical storms, and widespread fires. This summer two very different political conventions were broadcast without an Olympics to dilute the cacophony.
Now I feel as if I live in parallel universes. Am I revisiting Old Testament times with plagues, floods and fires? If so, what could be the lessons I and others need to learn from the chaos and confusion? How do we stay afloat enough to help others whose suffering may be far worse? I haven’t forgotten the airline safety adage—put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to place one on someone else. As a tinge of mild depression seeped into my consciousness, I wanted to escape if only for a couple of days so could gain my bearings again. I approached my husband, Warren with a proposal that we create a silent retreat for ourselves—at home.
I love real silent retreats. Not those places or events where they are advertised to be silent but you find yourself attending sessions and listening to talks, or there are assignments and a schedule. For me, when I desire to withdraw, I slip away to a farm converted to a retreat center in South Georgia. Very small and intimate, there’s only enough room for 10 people. This delightful sanctuary boasts of clean rooms cleared of any messiness. The meals are nutritious and nurturing because the food is grown and cooked with love by the staff of three. Each staff person has taken a lifetime vow to pray and provide this ministry of spiritual restoration.
The retreat center is located in a remote area so I cannot get phone, internet service, email, texts, news—I am totally off the grid. It felt heavenly the last time I attended because I felt the joy and peace of an uncluttered mind. I wasn’t thinking about the items on my “to do” list, other personal or professional obligations, or the latest family crisis. I wasn’t exposed to the most recent outrageous or uncivil comment. After unpacking a few items and settling in, I slept for the first 20 hours because once I stopped, my body, mind, and spirit let me know how exhausted they all were.
I also love the flexible schedule of an undirected or personal retreat. If I want to show up for a prayer service I do. If I want to walk the grounds all day, I can. My only requirement is that I am present for the luscious meals or notify someone that they needn’t set a place for me. I usually take a retreat at least twice a year—three times if I can manage it. It feels harder each year to go off the grid for more than 24 hours. Yet it is indeed amazing how easily people adapt if clear boundaries are set—I am unavailable for three days!
This year, though I missed both of my scheduled retreats. With the pandemic and without my usual refuge, by August I was barely limping along. Surprisingly, Warren eagerly agreed. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to put away our phones and tablets, turn the TV off and not speak to each other for three whole days.
What helped our efforts tremendously was some careful planning beforehand along with our commitment to follow the schedule. Simulating s silent retreat, we decided on a DIY breakfast and two healthy meals each day. For the cost of going on retreat, we found someone to prepare three lunches (salads) and dinners (to refrigerate and warm up). We kept some snacks (nuts, trail mix, no salt tortilla chips, fruit) around for in between meal munchies. Each person was assigned a day or meal for laying out the food with silverware, drinks, napkins, and clearing dishes without engaging in any serious work.
Next we created a schedule—lunch at 1:30 and dinner at 6:30 with a reading at 5:00 pm. The assigned person chose a reading that he or she felt was most appropriate for us to reflect on. The rest of the time was open—to sleep, read, walk, watch the birds, look at the beautiful flowers—anything but doing. Remarkably, we didn’t speak but smiled at each other in passing.
I didn’t think I would be able to create that heavenly serenity without leaving town. In silence, the food tasted better because of the lack of distractions—from television, texts or phone calls. It felt so peaceful that I think even the house exhaled. I also felt the delight in small but stirring moments—butterflies dancing from one gorgeous zinnia or dahlia to the next, ants carrying food to feed the community, purple flowers springing forth from monkey grass. Gratefulness flooded and overflowed my heart.
Some people may attack this post noting that only privileged people could have time and money to even contemplate a silent retreat although I suspect they are not reading my blogs. I would note that yes, and with this privilege comes the responsibility to return to my calling to teach and model contemplative spirituality. I work despite my official classification of being retired. It is difficult to give to others if I am burned out or disheartened—because even Spirit cannot use me if I am dispirited. More importantly, I write about these days of solitude in hopes that others with their families will try it too, if only for day or a half of day. Wouldn’t it be lovely to go off the grid for a weekend, a Saturday or Sunday morning, to read, reflect, share meals and commune without noise and distractions? I wonder if during the silence, you might hear about some innovative ways to create a more mindful, thoughtful way of life. Maybe your children are too young for extended silence. Perhaps you could create a bubble with another family member or neighbor so you could barter some time for solitude for yourself? Silence, stillness and solitude are like fertilizer, rain, and sun for our spirits, for spiritual growth—the one aspect of ourselves that we often neglect.
Is your heart yearning for some silence and solitude in the midst of relentless overstimulation? Would taking a morning, afternoon, day or weekend of quietness help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart?