A chapter of a Rule of Life on Retreat


There must be times of retreat or else humans will become lost in work, production, materialism and suffering, losing their way simply by wandering off the gentle path which keeps appearing under foot by angels.  One must retreat in order to listen to oneself and to our God’s whispers of love, affection, approval and curious suggestion.

There were decades when I wanted my life to be a retreat, even entering a monastery.  I know many, especially clergy, who spend a lot of time in monasteries – or at least it would appear so, given how much they trumpet these retreats.  I recognize this deep spiritual insecurity in myself for that was how I once lived.  But that was just spiritual posturing and it fooled nobody, least of all myself.  The monastery was, for many, little more than intensive care for those who would rather not heal – making life dangerous for the rest.  So better to get out and walk, swim, laugh, twirl, eat sun-warmed tomatoes and warm taleggio cheese with crusty bread and some wine, caress a loved one’s smooth arm. Then sit for a few hours and listen for God. Then get up and twirl.

So nowadays I retreat in a different way.  Some retreats last only an hour or so but I try to keep the promises of my vocation by one annual retreat as well – a beach or a mountain with a stream.  Lots of silence.  Lots of sleep too, but journaling my dreams as they make suggestions to me with playful, repeated symbols. Kai loves retreats. He sleeps, pushed up against me like a mother curled around a newborn.  Kai is a great help in times of retreat with those big, black eyes telling me not to believe the lies – of society, of the church, of my nostalgia and fantasy – “just live Charles.  Just live. Don’t be afraid.  All will be well.  Weird, but well.” Retreat times are for cleaning and purging as well as wondering and re-membering.

But solitude and retreat are also hard work at times.  Looking deeply at ourselves is hard work and requires great courage.  It can be heavy lifting but the work siphons out the poisons like a good massage followed by ten glasses of water and a good long pee.

“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

“We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.”
― Hermann Hesse

“Jesus was a hiker. The wilderness was His retreat.”
― Toni Sorenson

“I want my heart to be the thin place. I don’t want to board a plane to feel the kiss of heaven. I want to carry it with me wherever I go. I want my fragile, hurting heart, to recognize fleeting kairos, eternal moments as they pass. I want to be my own mountain and my own retreat.”
― Anna White, Mended: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leaps of Faith

“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”
― Albert Einstein

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more”
― George Gordon Byron

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre

“Solitude is a way to defend the spirit against the murderous din of our materialism.”
― Thomas Merton

“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

“Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.”
― Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”
― Thomas Merton

“Keeping a journal has taught me that there is not so much new in your life as you sometimes think. When you re-read your journal you find out that your latest discovery is something you already found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences.”
― Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”
― Thomas Merton

“Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”
― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

“Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.”
― Thomas Merton

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”
― Thomas Merton

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
― Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton

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