A Sabbath Retreat…But Where?
Originally posted as a guest blog on author J. Dana Trent’s site here.
After being honored to get a sneak peak of Dana Trent’s forthcoming book, For Sabbath’s Sake, I was inspired by her reflections on various approaches to observing the sabbath. In particular, I was struck by a practice that Vanna Fox, senior vice president of the Wild Goose Festival, maintains. Each month, Vanna sets aside time for a sabbath retreat. No talking, no other people. Just an extended time for quiet, reflection, rest, and solitude. I loved the idea when I read Dana’s description, and for the past three months, I’ve taken a 36-hour sabbath retreat.
Before I started, I told a friend about my plan. She was enthusiastic and— I could hear in her voice— a bit envious. “I love the idea,” she said. “But where are you going to do it?” I was surprised by her “where” question. Of all the challenges, the where seems the least daunting to me. It’s the how and the when that get me. How am I going to negotiate time away from my family…without feeling guilty? When am I going to squeeze something else into the schedule?
Over the past few months, those questions have remained challenging, but so far, the where has been easier. The first month, I house-sat for friend who was out of town. She didn’t actually need a house-sitter (no pets, barely any plants), but I was a bit bold and asked her if I could stay at her place while she was gone. She was happy to let me. The second month was the same. Another friend was traveling, and I asked if I could spend two nights in her apartment. No problem.
This month was different. I had reserved a day off from work. In my negotiations about scheduling with my husband, David, we had agreed that I would try to schedule my sabbath retreats on Fridays when possible, so that I would be taking time away from work rather than precious—and more limited—family time on the weekends. But this month, I hadn’t organized the where. Things had been stressful, and I just hadn’t made the time to figure it out. I knew I could get a cheap, last-minute motel room on Priceline; I have done that before when I needed to get away to write. But I didn’t have the energy to organize it, and frankly, I didn’t want to leave my house. So this month, the where became my back porch.
I laid down a tarp, pulled out the extra mattress from under my daughter’s bed (usually reserved for sleepovers with her friends), and I created an outdoor bedroom. Since our porch is right off the kitchen, I nailed up an old sheet over the sliding glass door so that I could have privacy –visual and physical—from my family.
Over the next thirty-six hours— during my Thursday 8:30pm to Saturday 8:30am retreat—I interacted with my family a little bit. It was inevitable, of course – I knew that when I opted to stay at the house. When I realized that my husband was running late on Friday morning, I came inside to help pack my daughter’s lunch for camp. I went out to get dinner that evening, and I brought them home brownies and then we chatted for a few minutes about our days. But they respected my space, and I had two nights sleeping outside by myself. The cat kept watch over me. The second night, before bed, my daughter, Lila came outside briefly to give me a kiss good night. “You’ve created something magical out here,” she breathed, looking around. It was funny: the set-up on the porch was the same as it always is with the exception of the mattress. Yet the sabbath space felt magical to her.
One gift that this month’s retreat provided is that I learned something about summers in North Carolina. Around midnight, the oppressive, damp, heavy heat lifted. I woke up in the dark and found that the air—which has been stifling for so many weeks – was cool. I almost shivered, and went inside to retrieve a light blanket. Who knew? It seems a strange and sad insight, but I am typically cocooned in my always-74-degree air-conditioned bedroom, and so it’s easy to miss the changes in the night air.
And when I woke up at 4am on the second morning, I didn’t groan with worry about sleeplessness like I normally do. I laid in the darkness for an hour, grateful for the time to think, reflect, pray a little bit. And then I watched the sky lighten slowly. No light switched flipped by me. I wondered if perhaps my chronic early morning bouts of insomnia – which have been such a source of annoyance, stress, and confusion over the past year—could perhaps just be a sign that my body is changing. That maybe I’m actually becoming more closely aligned with natural rhythms. And I wondered if my early morning wakefulness could provide some unexpected sabbath space in my life instead of something that I often try to medicate away. Or maybe if I was less stressed overall, I would sleep better and for longer. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I need time for these sabbath retreats. My body yearns for it; my mind hungers for it; my spirit delights in it. Recently, there has been a lot going on in my life and in my family’s life. Some of it’s been really good; some of it’s been really hard. Almost all of it has been fairly intense. After giving a friend an update over coffee the other day, she said, “Wow. I don’t know how you’re metabolizing it all.” Metabolizing. It’s the perfect word. There is a lot to metabolize in this life. What we read about in the news, the challenges our loved ones face, the obstacles and opportunities in our own lives. Talking things through with others helps me. Worship on Sundays does too. And I’ve found that a sabbath practice is one of the best and most reliable tools to help me metabolize it all. That’s why I’ve committed to trying to take a once-a-month sabbath retreat in addition to my weekly practice of sabbath rest. While fitting one more thing into the schedule – especially during this particularly intense time –seems counter-intuitive on one level, it also feels essential.
And so, in this context, the where feels fairly straightforward. Anywhere I can get a sabbath break feels like a gift.