Last month I arrived puffy-eyed and haggard at a writers’ workshop on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, Washington. The emotional whiplash from the presidential election a week prior, combined with work and at-home stress, had left me feeling crunched and shriveled and no good. The first day of the workshop I nursed a low-grade headache that would not let up. Even my sleep was restless; the retreat center’s silence was unsettling and I missed the sound of city traffic.
The first morning I took a walk through the Legacy Forest on the island, which towered with slender Douglas firs. The sky was gray, with a classic Pacific Northwest drizzle, and my boots squelched through puddles and mossy earth along the lush, green trail. I tried to listen for the voice of God as the wind moved through the trees, but all I could hear was chattering within myself. It sounded like a trapped squirrel, a noisy and unrelenting voice that bounced from worry to worry—intrusions left and right.
As I walked, my mind jumped to items on my to-do list; my thoughts scrambling and scratching. So used to stimuli at home—children asking for breakfast, dishes to be washed, emails to answer, the dinging of my smartphone—that my spirit no longer had the capacity to enter the quiet. The silence of the forest was lost on me. I might as well have been walking in the middle of a city street.
My mind ricocheted to the night before I left for the workshop. I had whined to my husband, “How can I possibly write this column on my experiences doing spiritual disciplines when I can’t even pray three nights in a row?”
I kept walking, climbing along rocks and moss-covered trees, my black rubber boots stamping on the blanket of tea-colored pine needles. My intention to adopt a daily prayer practice had started out well, but then I missed a few days…and then a few weeks. The problem with committing to new habits, even spiritual ones, is that they often become another item to cram into an otherwise busy and exhausting schedule. And, when you are recovering from legalism, attempting (and failing at) daily prayer dredges up feelings of guilt and shame. This experiment of practicing my way into experiencing God was already a failure.
Dallas Willard writes that, without solitude and silence, classic spiritual disciplines like Bible study, prayer, and church attendance “have little effect for soul transformation” because “the body and soul are so exhausted, fragmented and conflicted that the prescribed activities cannot be appropriately engaged, and by and large degenerate into legalistic and ineffectual rituals.” The nights I had prayed were like that—disengaged, disconnected. Another item to check off a list.
That fragmentation followed me as I tried to connect with God on my first few hikes in the woods. But as the days went on, I gradually felt my body decompressing, like a slowly deflating balloon. A loving chef at the retreat center made delicious, nourishing food: salads, salmon and chicken, whole grains and nuts. As a person whose standard diet consists of crusts from her child’s leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, this gift of good food made my body feel nourished and healthy. On the sideboard outside our meeting room were two pitchers of clean, fresh water with slices of lemon. During each workshop break, I filled my glass and took long gulps of water. At night, my sleep deepened as my body adjusted to the quiet evenings, surrendering to rest. I no longer felt guilty for neglecting my intended spiritual practices; instead, I felt loved.
The spiritual practice of retreat has long been part of the Christian tradition, modeled by Jesus himself, who would withdraw from the bustling crowds to pray. Breaking out of our regular routines, allowing our bodies to rest and recover from stress, as well as sit in silence, enables us to get enough distance from our lives to reconnect with God. Try as we might, creating pockets of rest and solitude is often impossible in the midst of dizzyingly busy reality. Sometimes the only way to reset is to retreat.
The rhythm of daily walks in the Legacy Forest began to quiet my inner squirrel mind. The treetops were often silent, the wind had died down. Doubts about God darted through my mind, like an occasional silverfish, but overall my thoughts moved more slowly. I found myself praying, and listening, my mind flowing along the path with the movement of my feet.
Dag Hammarskjöld, in his book Markings, wrote, “When the conflicting currents of the unconscious create engulfing whirlpools, the waters can again be guided into a single current if the dam sluice be opened into the channel of prayer—and if that channel has been dug deep enough.”
And it felt just like that, a cool stream of thoughts—now prayer—being released into a channel. The solitude—the smell of wet soil, the occasional twitter of brown sparrows in the trees, the feel of rain splattering on my raincoat—had dug a deeper channel in my soul. My body needed the quiet, the nourishing food, and the rest before it could pray.
And when I say pray, I mean an openness to God’s presence. Just because I went walking in the woods does not mean all my doubts were assuaged, but there were moments—like sunlight filtering through the high branches onto the forest floor—when I felt God with me.
Perhaps you have had an experience like this, where your soul thaws out while spending time away. What happens when you return home? It’s impossible to hold on to that solitude in the same way; one does not have the rhythm of daily walks in gorgeous pine forests to rely upon. All the distractions and stress come rushing back, albeit at a slower clip than before. You come back with a new perspective, new energy, perhaps, but little else is different.
As I move forward with this year of revisiting spiritual disciplines, I won’t have the luxury of revisiting retreat in quite the same way as my week on Whidbey Island. My great hope of practicing my way into experiencing God after years of doubt hasn’t wavered, but I’ve realized that simply tacking disciplines onto my regular, walk-around, daily life simply won’t work. Somehow I need to incorporate pockets of regular retreat into my urban existence, whether that’s choosing to walk more slowly through my city neighborhood or by carving out time for a monthly solo hike in a nearby forest preserve. Whatever form it takes, I know I need help to find my way, so my task this next month is to find some companions for the journey. Stand by for next month’s column for results.