Experiencing Joy on Retreat

Lying on the soft grass, I hear the roar of the approaching storm and watch the branches of the great oak trees thrashing about as the wind fills the sky with its powerful energy. Amid this magnificent display of nature, I, like Elijah who after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, heard God’s voice in a gentle whisper, “Sally, like the branches of these trees you may bend, but you will not break.” 

This is one of many retreat experiences that filled me with wonder at the amazing power of God to speak a word that fills me with joy and gives me hope. On this retreat, as on so many others, I came into the retreat wrestling with situations in my life’s journey or emotions that too many times left me feeling overwhelmed. This message, “You may bend, but you will not break,” brought with it tears of relief and joy. I am not alone. What felt too big for me is never too big for God. I was reminded of Psalm 139, “You hem me in (God), behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” (Psalm 139:5) 

Every retreat is different and while I enter a retreat trusting that I will have what I now call, ‘my retreat experience,’ the actual experience is always somewhat unexpected, I know that God will show up, and I never know what God has in mind for me. It’s always a surprise, but what I have come to see is that God always touches my life in exactly the way I need at that time. 

This past May I went to WVIS for my annual 8-day retreat. I had my plan for the retreat. I have felt called for some time to grow in my ability to live a balanced life and I very much wanted to create a Rule of Life. The Rule of Life I imagined would make time for all of the elements of my life that I felt were important (family, friends, prayer, work, exercise – well I felt I needed to add that one, and rest). With this in mind, before the retreat, I meticulously captured all of the elements that I felt would need to be included (and scheduled) into this rule. God had other plans. I did come away from retreat with a Rule of Life, but rather than something that contained all the pieces and parts that I was planning on figuring out, how to include on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis; God simplified the plan. 

I spent the first three days wrestling with my own thoughts (In the past I have done that a lot). During that time, I kept feeling more and more lost and confused – everything I read in scripture called me to let go of trying to be in control, but I couldn’t. Then, I woke up the next morning and during prayer, I heard God whisper, “Sally, you can keep trying to figure all of this out if you want. I won’t be upset, but it won’t work. Can you trust me instead?” Yes. Yes, I can. At that moment, I knew what would become my Rule of Life. I was (and still am) miraculously able to leave behind the fear that I won’t get everything right (as I imagine right to be) and I give each day the best I can do for that day and trust that God will do for me what I cannot do for myself. 

I felt giddy. I wanted to tell the world! This was life-changing for me; however, I was on a silent retreat so other than my spiritual director, there was nobody to share this with. I began thinking about the times in scripture when Jesus told those he healed not to tell anybody, “Then Jesus touched their eyes … and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, ‘See that no one knows about this.’ But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.” (Matthew 9:29-31) That is how I felt. I wanted to tell everyone. How many times while studying scripture had I pondered why Jesus said not to tell? At that moment my reaction was different. All I could think of was I understood why they could not do as Jesus asked. They couldn’t keep silent! When your life changes so dramatically, when everything you thought you knew is turned upside down in the best possible way, how can anyone keep that to themselves? 

Experiencing joy on retreat is a special type of joy. It is the joy of being known, the joy of being loved, and the joy of feeling fully accepted that invites me to fully accept myself.

Ms. Sally Orcutt, O.P. is an Associate Spiritual Director, Associate Ministry Director at the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality (WVIS), and a permanently professed lay member of the Order of Dominicans. A survivor of childhood trauma, Sally offers individual and group spiritual direction, silent-directed retreats, and the 19th Annotation Spiritual Exercises to those seeking to heal from past trauma and live freely.

Join Sally for a 4-week program offered through WVIS via Zoom entitled, Living in the Gap: Growing in the Ability to Respond (rather than React).