Summer holidays are in a full swing, and articles about holiday stress seem to make their periodic reappearances to mass media. Many of us have read the disheartening statistics how domestic violence cases and divorce rates peak over the holidays. Being around our family more than we are used to often brings up hidden tensions from the past that we never had time to notice, let alone talk about in the busyness of a normal life.
Some of us planned to get away for a week in a retreat center to pray, rest, and reflect, yet once again the holidays crept up on us too soon and we failed to make real plans on time. Here we are, managing yet another disappointment (now, seemingly even our spiritual identity is at stake!) for a season that we all have been looking forward to and so desperately need: a time for refreshment, reconnection, and rest. I will share some of my, a spiritual director’s, ponderings about this and suggest that not all is lost yet. There are still choices that we can make that can have us come out into the new school year rested, refocused, and more connected to God, ourselves, and those around us!
1. Plan a Short Personal Getaway
Even if you haven’t made a reservation with a retreat center, and frankly don’t have the budget for it, it doesn’t mean you can’t carve out time to be in solitude. The place and time are important but even more important is your commitment to spend extended time alone with God. If you have a whole weekend, get a cabin or airbnb to yourself, or offer to house-sit for a friend or family. Bring a book, journal, prayer guide and some reflection questions, easy meals, candle, and leave your phone at home! If you only have a day or half a day, go to a park, quiet coffee shop or somewhere where you can rest and allow God to nurture your spirit. Again, grab your journal, a short reading, and perhaps a prayer guide with one or two questions to reflect on.
For a short personal retreat like this, it is important to reflect on your expectations before hand. Often we tend to want to “overachieve” and have a list of things to accomplish: hear from God on an significant life decision, read a book, follow an entire prayer reading plan etc. Really? My advice is: Less is more! If you haven’t taken an overnight retreat before, be open to the option that sleep might be the most important spiritual discipline that you can offer!
2. Set a Rhythm for a Daily Silence
Tensions escalate when we are in each others’ space all the time and allow no time for undisturbed solitude. Even on a road trip around the country or touring Europe, I believe most of us can appreciate building in an hour or two of stillness and silence every day. It is my own experience, and of those who write about their practice of solitude as their spiritual discipline, that solitude does not only help us pray, but it also counterintuitively nurtures intimacy between people. Two hours separate from your travel mates or family each day most likely will make you a lot nicer person to be around the rest of the times together. And if this is not true for you, just out of love, give your more introverted friends a break. ;)
A Note for Families with Children
Especially families with young children can think that taking time alone is impossible, yet they are the ones who perhaps most need it. Experiment by setting a firm commitment that for a set time everyone in the family is expected to be still. Depending on your family and the age of the children, they may well need to take a proper long nap during the day, or just quietly read, play, listen to music, draw etc. in their rooms without talking to others or leaving their room. Being alone in stillness gives children and adults the needed energy to be fully present to each other and all the day’s activities. Model this by going to your room to rest, read, pray or journal. If possible, I’d challenge myself and kids to stay away from screens for this intentional time of recharging, which is harder while playing on the phone or watching films.
3. Use Little Moments to Unplug
Speaking of the screens, I have observed in myself that if I “rest” while browsing Instagram or other social media or media updates, I don’t feel nearly as content and rested as I do when I have done something else by myself. I also noticed that often the reason for reaching for the phone, and not a book or an embroidery project for example, when I feel a need for a break is simply a matter of habit and ease. When I have taken good books out from the library or have started a needle work project, art piece or alike, I am much more prone to do this rather than aimlessly browse my phone, when I am in need of rest.
After simply just walking around the block for 5 to 10 minutes I feel much more grounded and rested than after hours on my phone. Take a moment to reflect on small things that you enjoy doing and that are easy to plan for, that can draw you to prayer, still, wonder, and give you satisfaction. If you need to visit the library to get a new interesting book or art supply store to spice up your journaling, do that. It’s a time well spent!
4. Revisit Your Spiritual Practices
Transitions, like holidays, are good moments for reflection. If you notice that your prayer life doesn’t feel fulfilling and you struggle to connect with God through the spiritual practices you are currently engaging in, perhaps it is time to try something new. Prayer is our relationship with God, and picking up a new prayer practice or other spiritual discipline obviously won’t transform it overnight. However, by considering which moments and practices have helped you to connect with God, and which have felt less significant and perhaps dry most recently can give you hints of a new invitation of God for you.
Journaling, and talking about your experience of God in prayer, relationships, church worship, nature etc. to a soul listening friend or a spiritual director might be needed for discerning this new desire or need in you.
5. Notice Your Resistance and Hindrances for Silence and Stillness
It is quite normal to feel restless, uneasy or even reluctant to be still. Most of us feel productive, useful, needed and stimulated (things that our society values) when we are active and surrounded by people. Stillness and solitude can poke at your sense of worthlessness, lack of self love or satisfaction with life, and fear of being unloved, unseen and lonely. When you spend time retreating to yourself, whether it is several days, a day, an hour a day or even few moments, it will most likely awaken some emotions in you. Try to stay with them and notice what they can offer you. Again, a companion to reflect your experiences in stillness can be a gift and add a lot of value and courage to you. Next to the interior resistances, there can be many concrete hindrances for solitude. Review your physical space, day rhythm, habits and energy levels and you might notice some practical things that make stillness harder for you, but when named, can easily be removed (for example, my discovery about the social media habits).
Finally, as plans often unfold differently than how we intended them, could it be that our changed holiday plans and unmet expectations are an invitation from God to let go, lean into the moment, practice grace, and accept life as it presents itself?
If you would like to talk to a spiritual director over the summer, I would be honored to hear from you and either accompany you myself or refer you to my one of my colleagues.
Wilderness Sojourn, Notes in the Desert Silence by David Douglas
Going on Retreat: A Beginner's Guide to the Christian Retreat Experience by Margaret Silf
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
Enough is Enough! by Barney Saltzberg (Picture Book) Journey to the Heart: Centering Prayer for Children by Frank X. Jelenek and Ann Boyajian (Picture Book)
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