The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat

Happy Advent! It's time for another installment of my column "The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices" for Off The Page. This month, I wrote about the discipline of retreat. I have to say, this was a tricky one to write. My year-long experiment of implementing new spiritual disciplines has gotten off to a rocky start, and it's hard to admit when things are not going as planned. But, I figure I am just embodying Wendell Berry's words in the poem "Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front:"

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Here is how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat, starts:

"Last month I arrived puffy-eyed and haggard at a writers’ workshop on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, Washington. The emotional whiplash from the presidential election a week prior, combined with work and at-home stress, had left me feeling crunched and shriveled and no good. The first day of the workshop I nursed a low-grade headache that would not let up. Even my sleep was restless; the retreat center’s silence was unsettling and I missed the sound of city traffic.

The first morning I took a walk through the Legacy Forest on the island, which towered with slender Douglas firs. The sky was gray, with a classic Pacific Northwest drizzle, and my boots squelched through puddles and mossy earth along the lush, green trail. I tried to listen for the voice of God as the wind moved through the trees, but all I could hear was chattering within myself. It sounded like a trapped squirrel, a noisy and unrelenting voice that bounced from worry to worry—intrusions left and right.

As I walked, my mind jumped to items on my to-do list; my thoughts scrambling and scratching. So used to stimuli at home—children asking for breakfast, dishes to be washed, emails to answer, the dinging of my smartphone—that my spirit no longer had the capacity to enter the quiet. The silence of the forest was lost on me. I might as well have been walking in the middle of a city street."

Keep reading here.

The Skeptic's Guide to Spiritual Practices: Introduction

I am starting a new series for Off the Page about doubt, skepticism, and reclaiming spiritual practices. These actions - tangible expressions of our faith - seem especially important these days. Right now I am in deep lament after the outcome of the presidential election, but soon I am going to start looking for sprouts of hope. We have so much work to do.

Here's how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Introduction, starts:

"This spring marked ten years since I graduated from a conservative evangelical college. It is where I met my husband back when he still believed in God. Friends I haven’t seen since graduation, the ones whose faces I remember only from their profile pictures on Facebook, have been asking if we will make the trip to suburban Chicago for our ten-year reunion this month. The event is over Homecoming weekend, but my husband and I haven’t made plans to go back. I can’t garner up much sadness; I never attended a college football game when I was an undergraduate, anyway.

It’s not that we are opposed; it would be fun to see old friends, to revisit old landmarks around campus. We might go to the student center, walking into the cozy fireside room where I used to do my morning devotions, reading My Utmost for His Highest. We might walk through the Stupe, a coffee shop with old diner-style booths, where I once interviewed my husband for the student paper. We might walk over to the mailroom, the one with all the tiny post office boxes, where I would check mine after chapel, the walls lined with colorful flyers for prayer meetings and spring-break mission trips.

My husband and I met at this school when we were just twenty years old. Babies, I think now. We have changed so much.

Milestones like this always bring up my reflective side. College, I realize now, was a time of intense spiritual saturation. It was easy to be a Christian then, when Bible studies were conducted on every dorm floor, when we held “mocktail” parties (orange juice with seltzer, anyone?) because we all signed a college-wide pledge not to drink alcohol, when we prayed before each class. I would go to chapel three times a week, to church on Sunday, and again on Sunday evenings for World Christian Fellowship. Spiritual disciplines didn’t take much discipline—the school structured them for me. Anywhere on campus I felt as though I could stretch out my arms and smack into Jesus.

Life after college, by contrast, has felt like windmilling my arms into the wide open air. After the legalism of Christian college—the proverbial checklist of Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and worship, to name a few—the freedom and disillusionment I experienced after college had me slowly shedding these spiritual practices, one by one. While I still attend church, I haven’t cracked open my Bible in ages. I often feel as though my faith is limping along; it doesn’t help that my husband’s is gone completely. I struggle with cynicism, with heartache over how different my life is from what I expected it to be.

All I know is that I want to find Jesus again, but I don’t know how to find my way back to what Richard Rohr describes as a “second simplicity”—a faith that embraces mystery, that names its doubts, that transcends legalism, that soars in the wide open air.

Keep reading here.