I Think I Need a Break!
Retreat, Anyone?

I have some friends – John and Isobel de Gruchy – who live near Cape Town in South Africa. John is Professor Emeritus of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town, and his wife, Isobel, is a talented writer and artist. (In fact, one of her paintings hangs in our front hallway by the door.) John is the author of many books on theology, and his latest – titled This Monastic Moment; The War of the Spirit & the Rule of Love – has just been released. (Cascade Books, 2021. See lead photo.) Early in the book, the following quote caught my attention: “As we journey through life ... we need places that provide space to catch our breath, unpack our backpacks, drop our burdens, and open up hearts. We need time to reflect, pray, and gather strength for the journey ahead. We need to regain hope.” (p. 6)

We need time to take stock of things, right? Of course, I’m always making lists – every Monday I make a list of things to accomplish for the week. In fact, I’m taking stock all the time. “Are we out of paper towels? Did you remember your daughter-in-law’s birthday? I have to get this email out this afternoon before that office closes.” As Kate Bowler wrote recently, “Each day sits in piles, there to be sorted between the things worth remembering” and things that don’t matter a hill of beans. Bowler ends her piece this way:

What strange math. There is nothing like the tally of a life. All of our accomplishments, ridiculous. All of our striving, unnecessary. Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started. We can only pause for a minute, clutching our to-do lists, at the precipice of another bounded day. The ache for more – the desire for life itself – is the hardest truth of all. (The New York Times, August 29, 2021.)

Well I actually don’t end up where Bowler ends. I don’t really believe that all my accomplishments have been ridiculous or that all my life’s strivings aren't worthwhile. But here we are at this juncture in life’s trajectory, forced to halt for a while due to pandemic slowdowns, and so maybe this is a very good time to take stock.

Back in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, a more optimistic writer in the Times saw this horror we were caught in as a time of opportunity, a chance to reinvent ourselves in the process. (Roger Cohen in The New York Times, May 2, 2020.) Taking an historical point of view, he writes that “after the Black Death came the Renaissance. From the depths of economic horror came Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Quoting Blaise Pascal’s observation that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” we are beginning to learn to do just that in this time we are living through.

In fact, I’ve been going through a rather strange time lately – sorting out what matters in my life and what doesn’t. I’ve touched on this theme before in these blogs, but here comes further reflection ... and I’ll start on an optimistic note, because I’m basically an optimistic person and I believe that God has given humans as well as other creatures the ability to change. I mean, look at the coronavirus. It changes, it mutates, in order to survive as best it can. So some changes are bad, right? At least bad for us. But humans can change too: We can “sit quietly” and take stock of our lives. And resolve to change course if need be. To retreat from the daily grind and head in another direction. Or, in other words, to take stock by going on a retreat.

Now over the years of my entire adult life I have always managed to find a place for a retreat. St. Meinrad’s Monastery in southern Indiana; St. Vincents College and Seminary outside of Pittsburgh; Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia; Shalom House near Ashland, Virginia; a cabin outside of Crozet, Virginia – as well as other venues over the years. Most recently I've taken my retreats at Wintergreen resort south of Charlottesville. I feel the need right now for such a break.

For complicated reasons, however, I haven’t taken myself off on retreat for a couple of years. But I’m working on it. In the meantime, maybe instead of taking a staycation at home, I’m thinking about taking a “stay-retreat” at my home in Richmond's West End. Actually turning my cellphone and computer off (!) and setting aside a whole week for no appointments or major social events.

See, I said I was an optimistic person. I’ll let you know in a future blog how that’s all going!

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.