As a person who has gone through Catholic and Jesuit education for almost her entire student career, I have been blessed with the opportunities to go on endless retreats. Since I was young, I have always taken my spiritual needs seriously, so I took full advantage of the chance to go on nature retreats, community-building retreats, or even social justice immersion trips. I’ll admit I was (and still am) a retreat junkie with a tendency to opt for long periods of meditative silence over “real life.” In the growing push towards a corporate, capitalist, social media driven society, I value being afforded time and space to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas.
So when I attended a large public university in England for a master’s program, the lack of retreat outlets made me feel like my access to a sixth sense was cut off. While I’ve always recognized the educational privileges of Catholic schooling, it never occurred to me that something so basic and foundational as spirituality would suddenly affect me so deeply. After searching across campus chaplaincies for some sort of spiritual guiding light, I realized that if I wanted to go on a retreat or day of reflection, I was going to have to invent it myself.
After talking with some queer-affirming ministry leaders and friends from my local English activist church, I was led to the Holy Rood House, a community-retreat space about an hour train ride from Leeds, where I was living at the time. While they didn’t have any formally-led retreats I could attend, I was told that I could schedule a weekend to go and utilize their facilities to make up a schedule for myself. From the kindness of the University Chaplaincies and Holy Rood House combined, I was afforded a retreat scholarship to sort through my restlessness and overall spiritual/emotional discomfort. I decided I would go into the long weekend treating it like an Ignatian Silent Retreat: complete and utter introspection. I wanted to remove myself from the chaos of the world.
As God would have it, this is certainly not what happened. Immediately upon arriving I was invited to a tea and cake hour where a community of fellow spirituality-seekers engaged in deep and meaningful conversations — people who genuinely wanted to know my background and life history. Of course, this really made me angry. I eventually requested to eat my meals in a separate silent room. Alas, the lead house manager kindly denied my request and forced me to converse with fellow writers, poets, and spiritual leaders from around the world. After getting to know these incredible like-minded people, I quickly found myself cramming a week’s worth of silent walks, labyrinths, jam sessions, and art therapy sessions into a few days. I left with a plan to come back for a longer period of time, and it is within these two periods of time that I learned how to fully take on my spiritual needs as a functioning “real-world” adult.
I was recently interviewing a friend for the podcast I produce and host on spirituality and queerness (which, by the way, you should give a listen to), and I asked her what the elements of her spiritually consist of. She was shocked and pleasantly surprised by this question and I suddenly realized that my experience with the weight of this question was formed from my time at the Holy Rood House. I learned to take large chunks of unstructured time to really tap into what my body, heart, and mind yearn for. When I went in for the second week of my retreat, I hoped to make new connections to get myself out of my own tumultuous thoughts. Alas, God had other plans and nudged me into silence. It was through both the experience of self-guided community and self-guided silence that I learned what my personal elements of spirituality are comprised of:
1. Pilgrimage. There is something so holistically satisfying about making an intentional physical journey as a manifestation of a more symbolic transition. For me, a pilgrimage has taken the form of hiking in the desert, swimming in the ocean, sailing in Poland, and even traveling to India.
2. Artistic Expression. As a writer/creator/artist this one comes as a no-brainer to me. Sometimes it feels like every creative piece I put in the world is, to quote Florence + The Machine, “another way to scream your [Gods’] name.” I typically enter into relationship with God/the world/myself through collaging, watercoloring, and poetry.
3. Music. From a young age I’ve always enjoyed, practiced, and performed across a variety of instruments and mediums. It’s not surprising that picking up a guitar and playing my favorite song allows me to enter into a more intimate relationship with myself and God. However, even singing in the car with the windows down, like Maren Morris sings, can sometimes be “my church.” There is something so beautiful about using the gifts already given to your body to explore your own heart.
Had I not been given the opportunity to spiritually fend for myself, I’m not sure I would be able to keep as much as a peaceful heart through life’s most recent twists and turns. My time with Holy Rood House showed me that God truly gives us what we need, not what we want, and that ultimately we can control the health of our spirits. A year removed from this retreat experience, I’m comfortably okay with not having access to a more structured spirituality because I know now that I can implement my personal spiritual elements into my daily life.
I would highly encourage anyone interested in curing burnout, confusion, or restlessness to consider the activities, people, or places that bring them into a deeper spiritual connection as a starting point for self-guided mini retreats. Making small life changes has helped me clean my lens of life and help me stay more present to the people and causes that really matter. I am grateful for the lessons I taught myself, and I hope you can take away the affirmation that you can create a deeper spiritual life for yourself as well.
I have found that creating retreats for yourself is often made up of small spiritual activities you can incorporate into your morning, afternoon, or evening. While mainstream culture might view these as self-care practices, I believe there is a deeper spiritual invitation resting within all of the following suggestions. By carving out tiny bits of space, we can more clearly discern our own needs, as well as the needs of others, by allowing ourselves to discover and explore elements of our spirituality every day.
- a morning walk/hike before work
- daily journaling
- weekly poetry/spoken word open mics
- swimming laps
- a walk around the block
- small meditations (I suggest the app Headspace!)
- playing an instrument
- meditative singing
- eating in silence and intention
- stretching with mantra
- cooking/baking for someone else
- joining a choir
- joining a nature/hiking group
- creating an intentional music playlist
- eating a meal outside
- coffee date with yourself
- intentional no-tech time
- saying hello to neighbors
- welcoming the sunrise
Photo taken by Rob Mudge