The Wisdom of Retreat

This past week has been one of well-timed, welcomed rest as I find myself exactly halfway between the beginning and the end, both with Urban Hope and with the Project on Lived Theology. So far, there have been plenty of things to reflect on; I carry a journal that is literally full of my various thoughts and have an entire Word document dedicated to quotes and ideas I’ve encountered so far on this journey. There is no shortage of material, both simple and profound, to sift through and let it softly inform my life as I move forward.

Luckily for me, last week Urban Hope had an overnight retreat, a structured, intentional period of reflection for both campers and counselors. We drove about twenty minutes outside of Durham to Camp New Hope, a camp in the woods with cabins and plenty of outdoor space to get away. For many of our campers, our air-conditioned cabins were rustic to the point of fascination; we might as well have been in the Amazon. It was a fun week filled with games, swimming, “campfire” devotions (it rained the whole time, so our campfire was a flashlight and we cooked s’mores on the stove), and plenty of time to talk with and get to know the campers on a deeper level.

It was perfect to change from the normal context of my interaction with the campers, one far different from the “remote” woods, and to see how at Camp New Hope many of the walls came down and the kids opened up. I felt a strong shift with many of the kids and am excited to see where our mutual experience at New Hope takes us. After two nights, the kids went back to Walltown and the counselors stayed on for an extra day for our own retreat.

Urban Hope 2013 Counselors and Staff at Camp New Hope

As I stood in the quiet stillness of Camp New Hope immediately following our campers’ departure one word floated around in my mind: retreat–the act of retreating from the constant motion of life, at least for a little while. Dorothy Day’s published diary, Duty of Delight, is filled with moments of retreat when Dorothy would leave her hectic NYC life for a quieter stay on a Catholic Worker farm or some other calm, isolated place. Rather than mere relaxation, Dorothy saw her retreats as spiritual experiences where she was able to connect with God away from the distractions of her everyday life. No doubt it was relaxing, and no doubt it quieted her soul, but the main goal was to reflect. The main goal was to get away and connect with God so that she could look back on her actions, everything she had done, and let her reflection inform her future action.

The retreat this past week had me thinking not just of the utility of retreat, but its wisdom. If we look at retreat as merely a useful tool, we might only stumble across it when it is convenient rather than actively pursue its presence in our lives. Sitting at Camp New Hope, and reading of Dorothy’s retreats, encouraged me to view retreat as that latter possibility, as something that I should fight to incorporate into my life in order to carve out a place where I can sit back and reflect. As I am sure many can confirm, reflection is often difficult in the moment. When countless things are grabbing for your attention, how can any be expected to take a moment and analyze just exactly what is unfolding around them? Retreat is one possible answer; scheduled time away from the very things you are seeking to break down and question. It also doesn’t hurt that retreats can often be a place of pure relaxation… Whatever makes the reflection easier!

Camp New Hope offered me this place of relaxation and retreat, and reflection came easily. For the most part, however, my reflection came in the form of questions, many of which were inspired by the book that I am currently reading: The Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. To be completely honest, many of these questions are difficult to ask, especially in a society that seeks to quell any attempts to open many of Pandora’s boxes found in our nation’s history and their current implications. In the moment, living within the context that often begs these questions, there still somehow exists the temptation to remain quiet rather than open up and ask them. On this retreat, however, I was able to gather my thoughts without the fear of offending anyone or stepping on toes and point myself in the right direction, towards actually addressing these hard questions in the coming days and weeks.

This time of retreat was truly invaluable. Life slowed down to a point where time’s purpose seemed to be to help me through these questions, and perhaps just as importantly, to quiet my soul. Retreat, at least in this circumstance, provided me with the opportunity to refill my tank and ready myself for the rest of the summer. This state of reflection and relaxation, so present in retreat, strikes me now as the wise thing to do in a life consisting of constant motion. I am certainly ready and excited to get back to doing what I set out to do at the beginning of Urban Hope: be an active and engaging presence and influence in the lives of my campers.