Permission to Retreat: finding rest in a work-centered world

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The idea emerged from one of my writers’ groups. Someone mentioned escaping for a couple of days on a personal writing retreat. “What an excellent idea!” I thought to myself and tucked the notion away for some time in the future. I’m currently juggling several writing projects, and even though it’s technically my summer vacation (from my real job), I find myself burning the midnight oil to do all of the reading, writing, and learning on my summer to-do list.

To my delight, the opportunity to have a retreat came along sooner than I expected. During the social hour after church on Sunday, I was chatting with friends who were about to leave for an extended vacation. They have the cutest little “tiny cottage” about 25 miles from my home, and they mentioned I’d be more than welcome to spend some time there while they were gone. I set my plan into motion.

I would disappear for a couple of days in the middle of the week. My husband and adult daughter (who’s home for the summer) granted me their blessing. “Go ahead. We can take care of ourselves.” (Yipee!)

When I arrived at the cottage on Wednesday morning, it took much of the day to settle in. Drifting back and forth from inside the cozy cottage to outside on the grounds; walking, sitting, and lounging in a rope-basket swing; taking photos of the wildlife; I wasn’t getting much writing done.

I snuggled under the quilt that evening, hoping a good night’s sleep would turn things around for me. I woke to the sound of gentle rain, feeling refreshed and ready to work. But then the guilt settled in.

I wondered why I went to all this trouble to pack and move out of my lovely home, with its comfy chair (where I usually write), screen porch, and beautiful backyard. I have plenty of alone time at home, so was this really necessary? Wasn’t this a bit extravagant and self-indulgent? Who was I kidding? I’m not special enough to deserve a whole cottage to myself for two days. And at the rate I was working, I wouldn’t make a dent in my to-do list. In the meantime, how much work was piling up on the home front?

***

One of my summer goals is to increase my use of spiritual practices (things like meditating, praying, reading scripture, and fasting). If reading about the spiritual practices counts as increasing them, I’m doing well. Actually practicing the spiritual practices has so far eluded me.

Sitting by the window, where I could gaze out on the landscape, I attempted to start my day with meditation. I failed miserably.

I couldn’t still my mind. “You have to get some writing done. That’s why you’re doing this,” was all I could hear when I tried to quiet my thoughts. The goal was twenty minutes of quieting my mind. I lasted about two.

To avoid the task a little longer, I opened up my laptop and searched the definition of retreat. The first definition, the verb, meant an army drawing back from its enemy forces. Yep. In my case, that would be the forces of housework, the enemy of distraction, and being captured by the sameness of the everyday experience. I could relate to those armies.

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The second definition of retreat, the noun, meant a “quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.” “If this isn’t a quiet and secluded place, nothing is,” I thought as I recalled the doe and fawn I had seen amble across the grass the evening before. But I struggled with the “rest and relax” part. I had a mountain of work to be done, and a stack of books to read. I came on this retreat to work. But maybe I missed the point.

Is it possible I was supposed to “retreat” so I could take time to reflect? To, oh let’s see, maybe meditate? Or pray?

Was this escape from daily responsibilities handed to me as a gift to bring me closer to God? Was He giving me the permission to rest and relax that I wouldn’t give myself?

In this media-filled, work-centered, goal-oriented culture in which we live, taking time to observe, listen, and open up our hearts takes effort. And practice. Giving ourselves “permission to practice” these skills seems contradictory. Practicing is often seen as a duty or discipline; not something we’d need to permit, but rather push ourselves to do.

But therein lies the problem. Our mindset has to change. Time spent reflecting and growing our spirits is a gift we can give ourselves. If we only grant ourselves permission to accept it.  

***

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As these thoughts rolled through my mind, I listened to the rain falling drip by drip, down the rain chain on the corner of the cottage.

The Japanese invented the rain chain and have used them for hundreds of years. More aesthetically pleasing than a traditional gutter and downspout, the rain chain still has a functional purpose. When rainwater hits the roof it must be controlled, so it doesn’t pour down with force, harming the foundation on which the house stands.

I stopped to watch. The rain chain slowed the gushing water down. It took a steady stream and turned it into a pleasant waterfall, moving at an even pace from link to link, creating a lovely sound on its way down.

Like the rain chain, something (or someOne) was telling me to take my time. To breathe in the fresh smell of the rain. To feast my eyes on the rich hues of green that surrounded me. To quiet my soul.

I gave myself permission to slow down. To reconnect my soul with its Creator. To leave the everyday responsibilities behind long enough to replenish my resources. To ready my mind and heart for the work I was called to do.

Work that looks and sounds like rain on a rain chain. Falling with purpose and beauty–drip-drop, drip-drop–toward the foundation.  

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