We often think of retreats as times of refreshment, as times when we choose to get away from our normal activities of daily living in order that we might behold God and also examine ourselves and our ways. And that is what retreats usually are.
But sometimes our circumstances force a retreat to the inward desert. Maybe we’ve lost a job or a loved one, experienced the death of a dream, or are too exhausted from everyday life to carry on in any life-giving way. Even if we don’t physically head for the hills but instead remain right where we are, suffering-induced desert retreats have a way of slowing us down, of forcing us to reprioritize and contemplate that which is most important in life. We are forced to stop, look, and listen when we’d rather keep living at break-neck speed.
During these forced desert retreats, we feel as if we’ve entered the bowels of hell (a few years ago, I felt like I had entered hell; my parents became homeless and my father spent a year in jail all because of a manic episode). We are disoriented and the pain is intense. But if we pay attention in the midst of our suffering, we realize that we are in a place that is dripping with the divine. If we pay attention, we find ourselves gawking at fantastic firework displays of God’s glory and also find ourselves recipients of his tender care and comfort.
It was during his desert retreat that Moses stumbled upon the burning bush. During his eighty-year “retreat” experience he witnessed the glory of God and its emanations. It became the place where he knew and was known by God—a place of human and divine intimacy.
Remember Hagar? After Sarah mistreated her, she retreated to the desert (Genesis 16). She felt utterly alone and abandoned. But right there, God ministered to her and comforted her, thus prompting her to name him, “The God Who Sees.” And in I Kings 19 when Elijah demoralized and depressed (because of Jezebel) retreated into the desert wilderness, God ministered to him under the broom tree. There the Angel of the Lord refreshed him with a jar of water and warm, delicious bread. A little bit later in the midst of this same retreat experience, Elijah heard the still-small voice of God. Scripture is replete with examples of forced desert retreats.
I, for one, do not welcome suffering-induced retreats. Who welcomes soul-searing pain and turmoil like I went through a few years ago? But borrowing the language of Father Greg Boyle, I realize that it is during these forced retreats that I most often “marinate in the intimacy of God.” Even though there are times on these retreats where God seems absent, hiding, and silent—hellish experiences in themselves—I also find myself standing with mouth agape gawking at the glory of God. It is during such retreats that I am most often aware of God’s comfort and care and presence.
Have you been in a place that you were forced to take a retreat? What was that like?
Were you able to see God in a new way, or “marinate in the intimacy of God”?
Marlena Graves (M.Div. Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY) is a by-lined writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics Blog and Gifted For Leadership Blog. She is grateful to have been a member of the Renovare Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. Her book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press), will be out in June of 2014.