By Whitney Schieltz
Last week I went on my first directed retreat. As I arrived at our Motherhouse in Cincinnati, I was concerned about how I was going to spend a full week in silent reflection and prayer. Before the retreat began, I went over to the assisted living wing to visit with some of the community’s “wisdom figures.” One of those Sisters gave me a piece of advice that converted my worry to excitement and stayed with me the entire week. She told me to view this time in retreat as a honeymoon with God. At those words, my attitude toward the retreat changed from a week that I “have to” go through to a week that I “get to” go through.
Since I’ve always felt closest to God in nature, I began my first morning by sitting in a small courtyard filled with birdfeeders watching the many birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits stop by for their breakfast. Within the first ten minutes, I sensed a direct message from God as a bluejay—my favorite bird—swooped down in front of me. I knew it was going to be a good retreat!
That feeling quickly faded as I became increasingly frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of “messages” from God. I sat outside, I kneeled in the chapel, and I walked in the woods, but most of the time I felt like God had left me alone. One evening, I entered the labyrinth near the Motherhouse cemetery with high hopes of reconnecting to God, but there was still a tension inside of me as I watched my feet follow the winding path. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t need to look down as I walked; but I could look around at the scenery while my feet navigated the labyrinth.
The tension suddenly eased, and I realized how perfectly that realization served as a metaphor for my discernment—and life in general. I always try so hard to search for God and tend to expect a prompt and clear answer to my prayers, but it isn’t until I slow down, let go of control, and truly open my eyes to the world around me that I usually “find” God and the answers I need. Instead of defining when and how I wanted or expected God to communicate with me, I had to just be present in the moment and ready to receive whatever message God was sending me, whether it be in the form of a bluejay or something less apparent.
Another day while exploring the grounds of the Motherhouse, I noticed something that was again such a perfect analogy for my situation that I couldn’t help but laugh. Painted on the front driveway was the message “One Way,” but above it were two arrows indicating different lanes. In that moment, it was a clear reminder that there is more than one way by which God communicates to me. While I spent my time looking and listening for a specific answer, God might be trying to reach me in some other way or place, or through someone else. I needed to discover the language of God. I needed to be open to new and different ways of receiving God’s love and grace.
Just like a couple on their honeymoon—or at any other stage in their relationship—I was learning how to effectively communicate with my companion, or God. Through the struggle to feel more connected to God, I realized that the connection was already there, I just had to be patient and more aware of it. Looking back on the retreat, I decided that it may not have been a week of profound emotions and experiences, which is what I expected or hoped it would be, but rather a week of observation and awareness. Going forward, I now have a better understanding of how I prefer to pray and how to be open to the response from God. I have to lower my expectations, and instead of waiting for ecstasies and miracles, I just need to appreciate the beauty and love that surrounds me every day, because that is the true language of God.