Last August, as part of my sabbatical, I drove to Collegeville to stay in the St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse on silent retreat. I had originally planned to stay for a week, though my plans were changed due to different family events including tonsil removal recovery for my son and a nephew’s baptism that I didn’t want to miss. My retreat shortened to just four days, though I still slogged my way through preparations to leave.
When I left for Collegeville, I was crabby and tired, having recently returned home from seven weeks of travel and a weekend trip for the baptism, and was reticent to leave my still-healing son for several days. The thought of packing my suitcase one more time was almost more than I could bear. In the midst of everything else, I was preparing to return to work in a mere seven days. My sabbatical was about to end and I was both excited and anxious to return to church. My energy was officially sapped and I arrived at Collegeville fully overwhelmed.
In addition, the prospect of days of intense introspection dragged me down. I like being alone; I like quiet. Yet I also enjoy being distracted. I have a tendency to run a bit anxious and that along with a great imagination makes it hard for me to sit still with my thoughts. Knowing my personality and quiet nature, one would assume I’m great at mediation and silent prayer. The opposite is true.
Each morning in Collegeville I met with a brother and spiritual director for an hour to talk through my experiences on retreat and to process my relationship with God. At first I pushed against any expectations for my time. He suggested Scripture for me to mediate on; I refused. He gently offered prayers for me to pray; I shook my head. Finally, he told me that a spiritual retreat is about health, and he asked me to go for a long walk each day; I felt like I could breathe again. We agreed I would try a walk and no more. It was enough for that day.
It turns out that if my body is moving and occupied my mind is much easier to settle. Praying doesn’t have to involve sitting for me. It flows when I walk, when my body is moving and stretching and busy. After a couple days of releasing myself from expectations of how I would pray, of accepting what I needed during those moments, I was able to relax, read a book, enjoy a cup of tea, watch a far-off thunderstorm crack the sky with lightening on the edge of the horizon where I had walked along the lake only hours before.
On the last sticky evening of my retreat, I strolled down to the campus beach with my towel, swam out to the floating dock and dove off, just as I had a million times on a million docks as a kid. I broke the still surface of the lake again and again, the cool water washing over me, wrapping me like a blanket. A full baptismal immersion. God’s love come to me, no questions asked, the silence interrupted only by the rush of water past my ears.