Moving from "Now what?" to Now
As I write this I am on day four of a six-day silent directed retreat.* The pace has become a flow, the moments feel long, and at last my body, heart, and mind are still. It doesn’t take long, once I return to normal life with its schedules, pressures, and to-dos, to somewhat forget the feeling of openness, the wideness in my soul that settles like a blanket on retreat. That forgetting doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is the pattern of deepening during retreat that cannot be rushed.
We are a doing culture. We look ahead– days, weeks, months, years into the future– planning out our lives and setting goals. We are fully comfortable living in places and times that don’t yet exist, more comfortable, perhaps, than living in the moment we actually inhabit. To some degree this is a necessity of the world of which we’re a part, a world in time, with families and work and expectations of us both internal and external.
This compulsion to look to the series of “next things”, in long succession, and especially deluding ourselves into thinking we have control over them, doesn’t just evaporate when we go on retreat. This, to me, is an indicator of precisely why living a contemplative life requires regular and significant periods of time away.
I found myself restless after my first 24 hours. I had settled into my one room cabin, set my phone on Do Not Disturb and my screen time to nil, spent time centering out on the lawn, journaled, attended the official retreat starting circle with the other twenty or so participants, shared silent meals, slept a full night, and met with my spiritual director. Something I had come pondering had found meaning, if not resolution, and I had created art around that understanding.
And after one full day out of six, I felt the gnawing "Now what?” in my belly.
“Ok, God, what’s next? Is this all? I have five more days. What am I going to do for five more days?”
This is where retreat really begins.
I’ve led and attended enough retreats to know that this restlessness, this irritation, is chapter one. The settling in is merely prologue. The Spirit is in it for the long haul, and simply waiting patiently for the “dust of doing” to settle. God doesn’t know how not to be present.
So I journaled some more, acknowledged my feelings, and prayed a prayer of “being with”, recognizing that I must allow God to move me from “Now what?” to Now. This is the point in retreat where it’s easy to give up, check out, and find something to do.
The deep truth is that we aren’t to do anything. The movement is not ours to make, and if we trust the Spirit, trust the space and time set apart, deepening will happen without our help. This depth is where the real soul work takes place, expanding us, giving us the ability to receive the welcome of God and learn how to welcome ourselves.
It takes time. And that time is a gift in which we must invest if we are to live soul-fully– free, if only for a brief time, from the “Now what?” cycle of our busy lives.
*a silent directed retreat is a time of renewal organized by retreat centers or other organization and usually includes daily meetings with a trained spiritual director. Some have a theme or central focus (art, seasons of the church year, etc.) and some are simply open for your own prayerful practice and structure.