Making Time for God
by Theresa Scherf
“I have so much business,” wrote Martin Luther to a friend, “that I cannot get on without spending three hours a day in prayer.” In a peculiarly incisive way, these words bring clearly into focus what is perhaps the single most important issue of our spiritual life.
We know all too well how filled our lives are with ‘so much business.’ At times we feel almost suffocated by it. Confronted with an often wide array of responsibilities, we become as adept at multi-tasking as our computers, while inwardly wondering if we will be able to keep holding it all together. We often feel drained, even depressed, by the weight of what we have to ‘get done’ and, at the same time, deprived of time and space to ‘be.’ We lose the capability and pleasure of being fully present to the moment. We find it difficult to access the wellsprings of creativity and purpose that we know are present deep within us, buried beneath the clutter of debris that has blocked their flow.
There is a way in which, amid all the unique opportunities and advantages of our time, we have become ‘victims of possibility.’ The number of things we might wish and be able to do with our time and energy threatens to overwhelm us. Moreover, so much of what people once took for granted as givens in life—education, work, place of residence, marriage, children—are now matters of choice, and sometimes a variety choices that is almost bewildering.
There is also the heavy toll that force-fed consumerism takes upon us as individuals and as a culture. Endemic and all too easily addictive, the incessant pressure we feel to desire and obtain things we do not have has changed both the shape and the pace of our lives. Focusing on the material and technological, it has robbed us of both time and a sense of connection and made our daily living feel much more highly stressed and complicated. This too often leaves a thread of anxiety and dissonance running through the fabric of our life.
What tends to happen to us in the midst of all of this is that we and our lives get out of control. We are no longer able to see the great extent to which our use of time and the amount of it that is available to us are a matter of the choices we make. We fail to grasp and own the relationship between our use of time and our fundamental priorities. What we make time for is, in effect, what we really value, the treasure where our heart is. When we suddenly begin to assess our life from this vantage point, it can be something of a shock.
Luther’s observation challenges us as persons of faith at the point where all of these issues intersect. It contains the implicit axiom that until our time for all the other things in our life is balanced and supported by our time with God, then we will never really get either right. Paradoxically, it is only when we have made time for God that we will really have time for the other things that are important in our life—and the perspective to know what they actually are.
Making time for God is a process. As we go about it, as it unfolds, its contours and textures keep changing. It asks us to stretch and grow in new ways. Over the course of my life, I, like many others, have come to discover that the lynchpin in this process, the key to its working, is taking periodic times of retreat. Only in these special blocks of time do I find the conditions necessary for me to discern deeply where and who I am in this process of being with God—and what that means for the living of my life with others.
Jesus models for us this way of making time with God. Again and again, according to the gospels, right in the midst of all the many activities of his ministry—indeed, often precisely when he was busiest or most under pressure—Jesus ‘goes apart’ to a quiet place to be alone with God for times of rest, prayer, and discernment. Such a time was crucial for him on the night of his arrest, enabling him to become ready for what was to follow.
For many of us in Protestant circles, the word ‘retreat’ has become a contradiction in meaning. Groups going ‘on retreat’ change environment, but spend their time in task-oriented activities related to planning and programming. Even if we wish to make a retreat focused on renewing and deepening our relationship with God, we often do not know just where to begin or what should be included. We are not very accustomed, as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are, to drawing upon the resources of religious communities and area retreat centers offering space for directed and non-directed retreats.
I think the kind of retreat that is at the heart of spiritual life and growth, of making time with God, has three especially important elements. The first of these is coming to rest. This has to do with a process of letting go, unwinding, or decompressing—a movement away from the rhythms and preoccupations of ordinary daily life to a place of stillness both inwardly and outwardly. Often it involves meeting needs for bodily relaxation and rest. Many people find they sleep more, at least initially, when the go on retreat, and a growing number of retreat centers are making opportunities for therapeutic or centering massage available to retreatants.
A recent study indicates that teens actually need more sleep than younger children because of the tremendous change and growth they are undergoing both physically and emotionally. In much the same way, coming to rest on retreat creates the necessary conditions for spiritual change and growth.
This coming to rest that is a part of the retreat process is one of the very important ways we follow the fourth commandment to observe a sabbath day and keep it as holy. An emphasis upon keeping the sabbath in its broadest sense permeates certain strands of the Hebrew scriptures. The sabbath was a regular time of rest and renewal, to be safeguarded even for livestock and land. The creation story of Genesis 1 was inserted by later editors at the beginning of the canon of Hebrew scripture partly because of this emphasis. Here even God observes a sabbath rest. A retreat is a time of ‘holy rest.’ To use another, related image, it is a kind of sabbatical.
Coming to rest serves to refresh us. It opens us up, making us more fully available for our time with God. It is the precondition and context for all that will come forth from the retreat process. When we come to rest, we are able to be more vulnerable, pliant, and receptive to God’s presence and leading. By caring for our self in this way, we also honor who we are—another theme of the Genesis 1 creation story. We are persons made in God’s own image, blessed with the blessing of God’s firstborn and entrusted with all that God has made, and ‘it is very good.’ Coming to rest reconnects us with our identity at this deepest level and with its implications for our life.
Another important element of going on retreat is that of solitude. Solitude has to do with detachment, a kind of inner stripping away of all the clutter and preoccupations of our ordinary life and coming into harmony with a certain simplicity and bareness in our daily rhythms. It allows the sloughing off of obstacles and distractions that impede our quality of presence. It is a turning inward that both narrows and expands our spiritual horizons.
While solitude is something we may sometimes actively seek in going on retreat, at other times we tend to resist it. Thus one of our tasks when making a retreat is to be mindful of whether we are moving more and more into a place of solitude or finding ways of avoiding it. Learning to move deeper and deeper into solitude through the supports offered by the retreat process offers us a valuable resource for simplifying our daily life and resisting the pressures of consumerism and competing possibilities.
One of the important functions that a retreat can serve is that of giving us an opportunity for withdrawal in the tactical sense. Moses and Elijah, like Jesus, show us examples of this kind of retreat. A retreat can be a place of refuge and sanctuary in the face of difficult or painful experiences, allowing us a protected space in which to process with God what has happened and more fully open our self to God’s healing. Sometimes we may need to run away for a while, like Jonah, or to spend some time wrestling with God, like Jacob. Retreats give us the right kind of environment to do this.
At such times, a retreat setting that allows us the possibility of some kind of vigorous physical activity or sustained movement can be a very helpful component of the process. One of my most significant retreat experiences, during which I was working through a major life decision with God, took place within the context of a day I spent skiing non-stop. Outward exertion imitated the process of labor, helping to give birth to something new within. Hiking has served as a form of ‘walking meditation’ for many.
Solitude is not escape, even if it begins with that desire. It is not a running away from intimacy with God and others, but toward the discovery of a self that is authentic, from which all true intimacy springs. Solitude is an embrace of self that opens us up to the embrace of God and others. Drawing us deeply into the heart of our being, it enables our becoming.
This brings us to a third important element of religious or spiritual retreats: communion. This is the point of fruition to which the retreat process is always leading, even at those moments when we seem to be moving away from it. At rest and in solitude, we are able to enter into deep sharing and connectedness with God—and sometimes, at a distance, with others and the reality of who they are for us. This is why forms of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and worship are always at the center of the retreat experience. Communion is where we know our self to be within the heart of God and our own heart to be capable of loving as God loves.
A dimension of communion which has traditionally been very significant in relation to places of retreat is close contact with the natural world. Some of the places to which Jesus retreated were the desert, the mountains, the lakeshore, and the garden of Gethsemane. Connecting with the world of nature is an important aspect of virtually all spiritual traditions, and most retreat centers offer some kind of outdoor space for contemplation. This is all the more important for us in a culture that has become increasingly detached from the natural world and its rhythms which, all the same, continue to nourish and shape us and are vital to our wellbeing. Another theme of Genesis 1 is the essential coherence of all of creation and the important role we have in relationship to other forms of created life. Retreats can be a significant time for renewing our sense of that connection.
Communion, together with resting and solitude, gives rise to discernment. The authentic self in relation to another continually discovers new possibilities for its life—and of a very different sort than those offered by the frenetic world around us. New paths and recovered direction, important insights and enhanced creativity, and transformative ways of bringing the various elements of our time apart with God to bear upon daily life, are all dimensions of discernment. Our processes of discernment begin to lead us back into the world again.
Making time for God is not something that is optional if we are to grow and deepen spiritually. And, like Luther, having ‘so much business’ signals to us that we need more of this time, not less. Making time for God will not automatically happen, once we have decided that we want it to. Like other important time in our life it has to be scheduled, written into our calendars as well as our hearts. Utilizing retreats as a focal point for our time with God is a vital part of this process and a good place to begin.