Each year around the time of my birthday, I try to go away for a 24-hour prayer retreat. I started this tradition about four years ago, and it has become a lifeline for me. As the fall schedule and responsibilities ramp up, it has become essential for me to have a whole day and night set aside on my calendar for quiet, for solitude, for prayer and for listening to God.
Most years, I have taken this quiet retreat at St. Mary’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. The journey there takes me literally “up the mountain,” and what awaits me when I arrive is a one-room hermitage set among the trees and mountains of Monteagle. (There is also a larger center and dormitory there, where some of you have been for the Gifts and Talents retreat, but I prefer the solitude of the hermitage for this particular occasion.)
To the mountain I bring with me my Bible; A Guide to Retreat, by Reuben Job; lots of spiritual reading by my favorite writers like Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson; and simple, whole foods like cheese, fruit and bread. (This year I also brought chocolate covered strawberries that David had given me for my birthday. After all, it’s not a fasting retreat!)
One of the things I love to do while I’m up in Monteagle is worship with the convent community that is there. There is a small community of Episcopal nuns who live in a convent that is only a ten-minute walk from the hermitage. They welcome visitors to worship with them as they gather four times a day for the singing of psalms and prayers. On Thursday evening, I joined them for vespers, the prayers at the 5:00 hour.
As I walked into the chapel, I saw they had a schedule posted of their prayer times each day. Visitors were welcome at any of the services—except on Wednesdays. The schedule said, “On Wednesdays the convent is closed to the public. The sisters are in retreat.” At first it surprised me. I mean, doesn’t living in a convent mean that you’re always living in retreat? But then I realized my ignorance. The sisters in the convent do not stay in the convent all day. Many of them work in the community. They garden. They welcome visitors. They teach. They interact with each other and support each other. But they dedicate one day a week to silence and Sabbath. Even these women, who dedicate their lives to prayer and ministry, need one day a week set aside for solitude and retreat.
Their example inspires me. No matter what our daily schedules are, no matter how faithful we are in our prayer time or in our church-going, we all need “set-aside” time to rest, pray and listen to God. Here I was getting all impressed with myself for taking 24 hours a year, and these women do it once a week.
I believe God is calling me—calling all of us in this congregation—into deeper practices of prayer and Sabbath rest. God has done some amazing things among us already: the Prayer Ministry has bloomed, a new Sunday School class has gathered around centering prayer, and the All-Church Retreat will help us explore practices of prayer for daily living. As we move into this fall, I urge all of us (myself included) to make time in our daily lives for prayer, quiet and listening. I have no doubt it will make all the difference.