Inside a Self-Directed Retreat



Let me get this straight—you’ve come to another crossroads. Okay, it’s more like a rotary, with about four different directions you can go with your life. And you can’t make up your mind so you go round and round. You carefully consider each turn off, each option, but they all look equally desirable or undesirable depending on the time of day. You stare at the scenery, pulling on your lower lip. Round and round and round.

You decide to stop and get away from it all, so you go on retreat to a hermitage in the New England countryside, close to nature. But what do you discover? Nature can’t seem to make up his/her/its mind either. It’s April. The sky wavers between dark clouds and bright sun. Driving here, you stop at a light and watch somebody wearing a down parka pulled over his or her head walk past a guy wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

You reach the hermitage and it’s the same ambivalence. The fields are green; the trees are bare and brown. Looking into the woods, all you see are dead leaves, while beside your porch, yellow daffodils wave in the wind. The first night you walk along a tidal river. Standing on a bridge, you look to your right and the river is full, reflections of trees etched on the water. Turning to your left, you see the water drained away, leaving mud, broken tree limbs, and more dead leaves.

The next day is worse. Most of the day is hot—94 degrees according to the thermometer outside the main guest house—with a southwest wind that must have blown directly from Arizona. Until suddenly, in late afternoon, the wind suddenly shifts to the east and picks up, bending the spruce trees and churning the river into white caps, and you’re shivering and trying to find a sweatshirt. The sky darkens and for about ten minutes, a cold rain falls. Then the wind dies, the sun returns, and it’s spring again.

None of which helps you make up your mind.

Let’s walk by the river on this carpet of dead leaves. See, sticking up through all that brown—green shoots. Kick some of those leaves aside and what do you find: more green. Has it ever occurred to you that Nature is not indecisive? That what you are witnessing is the evolution of winter into spring, a process that doesn’t happen in any kind of linear progression, but which ebbs and flows like that tidal river in front of you. Look up. Into the trees. See? Today’s heat has brought out the leaves in the birch trees, like tiny green butterflies fluttering on the branches.

It’s April. It’s the Easter season. In Sabbatical Journey, Henri Nouwen writes:


The resurrection stories reveal the always-present tension between coming and leaving, intimacy and distance, holding and letting go, at-homeness and mission, presence and absence. We face that tension every day. It puts us on the journey to the full realization of the promise given to us.


Have you considered that on this journey—this pilgrimage, as you like to call it—we are always in the process of becoming? That we’re always facing decisions, one rotary after another? That there is always tension? The promise of Easter is that you are loved, no matter what you decide: “and lo, I am with you always; even to the end of the age.”

Look, you’re not going to reach a decision about what to do with your life here on this retreat, but you might realize that what seems like inaction and indecision is actually a time of germination and growth. Your decision will come, as surely as the leaves will burst from the branches of the maple trees around you.

In the meantime, look at those trees along the river outlined against the sunset. See how their fine, bare branches fan out like a net one might cast into the sky, perhaps in hope of catching a few stars. Watch the blue sky turn to gray and the pink clouds darken to red. Listen to the chorus of birds. Look at how the houses on the opposite shore send chalk-lines of light across the river. See the new moon.



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