Today Is A Good Day For A Retreat

I’ve been going on solo retreats for the past 19 years. My experience is limited to Assumption Abbey, a Trappist Monastery in Southwest Missouri, in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest. I write a lot about retreats in my book. For the past 5 years I’ve been staying there not as a guest on a retreat but as a Family Brother. That means I follow the monk’s prayer and work schedule starting the day with our first prayer service at 3:30 am. It also means that I live with the monks on the cloistered side of the abbey not the guesthouse. I stay in a tiny sparse room called a “cell”. It’s a completely different experience.

Father Cyprian at the entrance to Assumption Abbey.

This time of year is perfect for thinking about taking a retreat. I am talking about the noun kind.  Maybe you’re wanting to take stock of the past year and spend time pondering 2019. Or maybe you’d like to rest. Remember that? A time of prayer and meditation? What about taking a few days to breathe and think? Here’s a revolutionary idea: what about doing simply nothing?

Whatever your intention my suggestion is that you go alone. There’s an endless list of reasons for a community retreat with your people. But there’s something uplifting, purifying, challenging, and peaceful about going it alone. Make no mistake, one of our great fears, me included, is being alone with our thoughts. Sometimes it is downright scary. The Buddhists call it “monkey mind.” As we fill our hearts, minds, and souls with more podcasts, books, streaming TV, social media and blogs, noise and distraction abounds in our lives. Silence and simply being are such rare commodities they seem out of reach. We’re thirsty for this distant notion of solitude whether we know it or not. We need it.

Father Cyprian, my Spiritual Director, toasting me with hot cocoa I made for us

For your consideration if you’re thinking of a retreat:

  1. Where do you want to experience this solitude? The possibilities are endless and not expensive.  There are over forty Benedictine and thirteen Trappist monasteries with guest ministries in America alone. A quick search will reveal many Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers in the United States. Assumption Abbey is just one of many options. And you don’t have to be Catholic (I’m not) or a Christian.
  2. What is your true intention for your retreat? These days when I go I’ve learned to leave my agenda at home. That does not mean, however, that I do not have an intention.
  3. Monastic guesthouses are not the Four Seasons. But you don’t need a luxury hotel to experience silence and being. I’d say such a place would inhibit your time away.
  4. Finally, there is a benefit to retreat centers at religious sites even if you’re not interested in something religious or spiritual, and it is that you are in a place where other people have gone before (in some cases for decades or centuries) with similar intentions. You’ll be in a place where fellow retreatants are doing the same things you are. This shared seeking and resting is holy and contributes to the overall experience of a retreat.

My challenge to you: There are only so many days or opportunities to take time for ourselves in the year either personally or professionally. The next time you’re tempted to sign up for that 4 day super cool conference in fill-in-the-blank city for $3,000 please email me and let’s discuss what a retreat might look like for you instead. Depending on your goal for the conference and what you really expect to bring home it’s quite possible that your rest, healing, prayer, discovery of True Self might yield soulful results in a way that the conference cannot.

Digging Deeper:  Spend 20 minutes in the next few days alone with a pen and notepad. First, write a list of the times you’ve spent time alone, from only an hour to days, and loved it. Maybe you didn’t love it at the time but upon reflection you now treasure it. Next, write a paragraph pretending you’ve just returned from your solo retreat. How do you feel physically, emotionally and spiritually? Give details. I am not saying that this is how it will actually be but this exercise will help you discern if this is what you need. Read Chapter 6 in our book, Meaningful Work: The Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, And Feed Your Soul. You will find more details and further things to consider before going on your own retreat and what it’s like to be a Family Brother in a Trappist Monastery.

Restoration Hardware: You Might Need A Retreat in 2018

Assumption Abbey Photo .jpg

It’s a cool store and all but that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about what you might consider as you look at the unfolding year in front of you. Taking a retreat (or two) this coming year could be the opportunity for your very own restoration hardware and software of body and soul. I’ve written extensively about my retreats to Assumption Abbey in my new book, Meaningful Work. My retreating to the guesthouse of this Trappist monastery, located in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri, started 17 years ago. The gravitational pull of this holy ground is fully described in the book. My retreats deepened over the years to the point that four years ago I decided to become Family Brother. I’m no longer a guest but when I visit the abbey, as I did this past week, I live behind the cloister with the monks, and fully participate in their rhythm of prayer and work. But I am getting way ahead of myself so let’s back up and dive in to the “how” you can take a retreat in 2018. I am not going to take time to talk about “why” we all need our hardware and software restored and make the presumption you know who you are. And further presume that you feel this need down deep in your bones. Let’s jump in.

  1. Schedule your retreat and put it on the calendar. Tim Ferriss is right about this; schedule it now, block off the time, buy a plane ticket, make a reservation, do something that will lock you in and diminish the likelihood of cancelling it.
  2. “Time apart from the world” is what the monks call it. How much time should that be? My retreats at Assumption have always been three to five days. I would take longer time if I could and encourage you to try it if your schedule permits. Less than three and it’s not really worth it since it takes me a minimum of 24 hours (more in my earlier days) to settle down without a cell signal or any access to Wi-Fi. I can begin to feel the rhythm of the place at about 48 hours.
  3. Where to go? There are many retreat and meditation centers around the world. There are monasteries all over the world with guest housing. There are forty Benedictine and thirteen Trappist monasteries here in the U.S. that have guest facilities. Most of these places are very inexpensive asking only for a small nightly donation. It’s important to remember that these spots are not The Four Seasons. I will say, however, that guests are very important in all monasteries because in most contemplative traditions hospitality is a critical facet of spirituality. The Benedictine Rule, for example, devotes an entire chapter to the topic, stating, “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.” You might be wondering if a retreat necessitates staying at a religious guesthouse. Of course not. You could stay home and have a retreat, rent a cabin in the woods near you, or pitch a tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. Likewise you may ask if it’s okay to go to a religious place for a retreat, even if you’re not religious and the answer is yes. At my abbey, for example, nobody is expected or required to attend any the five prayer services per day open to the public. There are no monks trying to convert anyone. If you are having trouble finding the right place let me humbly suggest Assumption Abbey, home of the best fruitcakes this side of heaven. Give our guesthouse manager,Jill, a call at the and she will set you up. That way you’ll have an excuse to stop by a chocolate factory that I know located in the town you’ll be flying into before traveling to the monastery.
  4. Who should you go with? My short answer is: yourself. Go alone. There are many types of structured group retreats you can attend which include learning and group discussion and those are indeed beneficial but that is not what I am talking about here. My retreat is one of solitude. This takes a lot of courage because most of us are not used to being alone with the thoughts in our heads that dart from one place to the next. We’re not accustomed to it because we’re able to tamp them down and keep them just below the surface with scrolling, likes, views, shares and retweets. I’ve been retreating for 17 years and sometimes it’s still hard for me. In fact, sometimes it’s downright painful. Sounds like so much fun! Then “why the hell would you want to do this?” you ask. Thomas Merton says “Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled even from yourself.” Wait, that might be the comfy quote I was looking for. There’s a point here I promise. The point is that once we can settle in and dip just below the surface of our monkey minds we can find rest and deepen the search for our true selves. And even experience glimpses of pure joy in the process.
  5. What’s the retreat agenda? This is a trick question because an agenda of questions we’re hoping to answer is generally not a good idea and often results in disappointment. I know this from hard earned experience. A general intention for our retreat is a great idea, however. For example, during my visit this past week, while not really a “retreat” my intention was to restart my practice of “centering prayer” as a method of resting in God’s presence. Obviously, we might think in advance, “on this day I want to hike in the mornings and pray at these times and journal at this time.” For the most part, I recommend that you leave big blocks of time for being alone with no agenda but thought, rest, reflection, prayer, walking and writing. It’s tempting to have long conversations with other guests but I’d suggest resisting it as a possible distraction from your solitude. At my abbey you can ask to speak with a monk, the Guestmaster, if you’d like and that can be productive. I tell people to generally schedule that conversation for the next to the last day of the retreat in order to have time to settle down and quiet your mind. However, if the anxiety level is super high at the outset it might be a good to chat with one of the monks right at the beginning or even before you arrive.

A retreat in solitude can be restful and recharge your batteries. Mostly, though, it gives us a chance to momentarily experience our true selves once we reduce the noise. The greatest benefit of a retreat is the awareness that you can “bring it with you” into the world after your time apart. I have yet to master this but I am working on it, details in the book.