In this season of staying at home, what might it look to take time to stop, be still, and listen to God? What might it be like to take a retreat at home? The added work and stress of these days may mean brief respite for some while others seek meaningful ways to use their time. Realizing we have different capacities, here are a few ideas to consider.
If stopping at all seems overwhelming yet desired, consider something small, a short pause. Susanna Wesley—the mother of Methodism—had ten children including John and Charles. Susanna couldn’t get away. She would sit or kneel in the kitchen, sometimes for ten minutes, and pull her apron up over her head. The children were still all about, but everyone knew not to interrupt when the apron was up because she was praying.
Perhaps it’s not an apron. Maybe putting on a particular jacket or hat or shawl could symbolize to your family and to yourself—I am stopping now to pray for ten minutes, even in a room with others. Perhaps you have the ability to go into a room or a closet for a time. Perhaps you could hang something on the door to show—I am in here now to pray. What would it take for you take ten minutes a couple times a day? Could you schedule a day off from most of your usual routine? If so, what would you reduce? To what extent, in what space, or during what time could you be uninterrupted?
Besides time and space, try doing one thing in order to slow down. Turn off your devices. Whether standing, sitting, or dancing, just do that. When eating or drinking, savor the flavor. When something catches your eye, stop and gaze at it. Perhaps a picture or the sunlight or a shadow. Gaze to really see it. Perhaps get closer or see how it or your perception changes with time. Sleep, savoring, and gazing help us slow down to pay attention and be still with God.
Exercise and gentle movement enliven and refresh. Take deep breaths, and exhale with sighs. Stretch your arms up and out. Swing your arms, your legs, and what you sit on. Imagine you are tossing paint at the ceiling and like throwing or hitting. Try some slow, gentle movements, as if you are seaweed swaying in the ocean. Stop and be still. Take deep breaths, and exhale with signs. Put on music and move as you can, fast and slow, energetic and calm. Dance for an audience of one. Afterward, notice what you feel in your body.
Silence helps us hear what is present now. Shared silence still creates community. Retreat may something to share with those with whom you live. What would it be like to share intentional silence together? Perhaps you could choose to not talk, not listen to music, not watch devices, and still be together. Create a beautiful center, perhaps a candle or flower or image, and do your own reading, journaling, gazing, and praying. Then reflect about the experience together and name your gratitude. I know some housemates who tried this for a season. They doubted the idea but found it doable and refreshing. This practice might be as regular as a weekly Sabbath or a monthly or quarterly retreat.
On retreat, pray as you already do, in whatever form is already familiar: with or without words, eyes open or closed, standing, sitting, kneeling, in another shape, or moving. Pray with scripture. Read a short text slowly a few times and notice what phrase or word stands out. Hold it gently and listen for an invitation. That may be by drawing and coloring it. Take a psalm and write it in your own words, or use it to journal. When have you felt this way? How does your current life connect with these words? You might also pray without words. Sit in silence gazing a candle or focus of beauty. Sit in adoration at the One who is already gazing with love at you. Set a few times to pray through the day. Do what you know, and try something different.
Retreat, and any particular retreat, may take many forms and locations. How to begin? First, consider what time, space, activity and even clothing distinguishes and defines it.
- What could you claim to calm and refresh?
- What helps you slow down, rest, and listen?
- Where do you feel safe and secure?
- What invites you to encounter and struggle with God?
- What prompts thinking deeply?
The location, time, or practice itself doesn’t matter. What’s important is choosing to stop and spend time to be attentive, listen, and pray. What would you stop, and what would help you stop? What would support you in putting aside your daily work and routines in order to focus on prayer? How would companionship help or hinder you either in the planning, provision, or experience of retreat?
Start small. Be creative. There is no right way. Be gentle with yourself. You are worth it. God is present here at home with you, and delights in time turned toward each together.
Two companions are talking this way on the road to Emmaus, sharing grief. They talk of Jesus, their friend, whom they expected would save them, but who was betrayed, killed, and buried. There is talk of the body missing, and people supposedly seeing angels.
We are talking this way, talking much of our grief at so much death and loss. Talking of we have lost or fear losing: loved ones, health, employment, plans, and direction. The disorientation of life upended: staying at home, now all the time with the same people or so starkly alone, of aching added work or loss of work, with little idea what’s next or when this will change.
As the two walk to Emmaus, Jesus comes and walks alongside. They don’t recognize the one whom they most love and grieve. He is a stranger to them. Jesus asks about their conversation, sees and hears their sadness, and then shares about his own suffering, talking through scripture.
God, help me. Come quickly. “O Lord, make haste to help me,” cries the Psalmist. “Let those who seek after my life be ashamed. … I am poor and needy.” Don’t delay. “You are my helper.” The psalmist pleads, protests what is wrong, and trusts. You are my helper. You are my God.
About half of the psalms are laments. Lament is a cry of pain, a cry for help, and a cry of trust. Lament is stark and boldly real about pain and suffering, and it assumes being heard. Tonight we will chant Tenebrae, a service of shadows, with lament psalms and haunting solos from Lamentations about people abandoned, isolated, cut-off, and grieving. Though we chant psalms like these all year, tonight they come together in a particular prayer for Holy Week. Jesus was troubled in spirit, and so are we, especially now. The Surgeon General said this may be the “hardest and saddest week” for our country.[i]
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
When gardening or farming, one plans what to plant and where with preparation, precision,, irrigation, and protection so seeds may thrive. Jesus catches our attention with this one who casts seeds recklessly such that some fell where birds ate them, where shoots sprang up but quickly withered, where thorns grew alongside and chocked them, as well as where they bore fruit. No one plants like this, in places with little chance of survival. No one is so reckless.
God is no ordinary gardener. God is reckless with generosity, sowing love everywhere, including in the face of rejection.
My guess is you, too, have loved like this. There are times you continued to show up, listen, and provide even when a person wouldn’t turn toward you or did so only briefly before turning away. Remember doing this with children, family or others.
1 Samuel 3:1-20
God calls out three times: Samuel! Samuel says: “Here I am” and runs to Eli.
God speaks. From the beginning with “Let there be light” in Genesis to Jesus saying “Come” at the end of Revelation, God speaks. Our faith is not simply about a divine being or deep truth. We believe in God who is personal. God speaks to people by name.[i] Samuel! Moses! Mary!
Samuel listens, answers “Here I am,” and is confused by Eli’s response. With repetition and an awakened guide, Samuel learns God is speaking. Samuel listens and responds. Samuel learns to pray, listening and responding personally with God.[ii]
While we long for God’s voice, in my experience we are often surprised when hearing it, especially to hear God speaking personally. I have not literally heard my name except through people, which is one way God speaks. I hear and witness many who hear God speaking personally. Grace and love come touching me as and where I am now, different from what I at another time or you as another person receive.
When I’m told “be patient,” I squirm. For someone I love notices I’ve been squirming, wondering what will happen, and trying to make something happen. Perhaps we associate patience with being nice or good, yet it usually hurts.
“Be patient,” James writes. Along with the original hearers, I squirm. Be patient like the farmer who waits with a precious crop for the early and late rains to nourish mature growth. The farmer waits not simply for the rains to come but for the crop to survive in the meantime. Insects, weeds, and sun may harm or kill, and the farmer cannot control these.
To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering. The farmer does not know and cannot control what may eat, choke, or scorch the crops. Patience is hard, sometimes excruciating. I have also experienced that “be patient” helps prompt my renewed attention. Perhaps you have too. It is like the psalmist saying: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”[i] Wait patiently by slowing down from squirm to stillness, from noisy chatter to silence. As anxiety lessens, we can see and hear more, including graced surprises. God comes in unexpected ways that may at first confuse us.
In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Remember the great salvation night when God brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. As hundreds of thousands with neighbors and livestock, they fled. They were pushed out, having to leave quickly in the moment. “They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.”
They had not prepared food for the journey. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]