Last year at this time, I was heading off for a silent retreat. It was a beautiful, rainy stretch of days, and it gave me the gift of spacious time – long, quiet hours; no meals to shop for or prepare; no agenda but to listen for Spirit and follow the leadings of my soul. I took along a journal and pen, and came away with page after page of sketches, musings, and joyful notes that surprised me with their clarity. In just a few days, the silence and beauty of that place swiftly helped me remember who I really am and what I’m here to do. That’s the great gift of a January retreat: it takes you away from your usual surroundings just long enough to see yourself, and the world, in the new light of a year just born.
This year, I didn’t plan a retreat. I thought it would be enough to stay at home in relative silence, letting my spirit recover from the difficult six months just past. So I cleared my schedule for January, and then made a quick two-day New Year’s trip to see my family in San Francisco. When it turned out that all my relatives had come down with winter colds, I decided to put myself up at a Holiday Inn for the night. It was nothing fancy, and certainly nothing I would have called a retreat: just a place to stay between family gatherings. But I had a clean hotel room to myself, a restaurant downstairs to cook dinner for me, a little journal, and a pen. And something surprising happened in the few hours I was there. The low winter light came through the windows at a different angle than it did at home. The wet leaves in the parking lot were different colors, sticking to the hood of my car like New Year’s confetti shining in the January rain. Outside my room, kids ran up and down the hallway—a sound you never hear at a retreat center. And yet there I was, once again effortlessly jotting down ideas for classes I want to teach, prints I want to make, new understandings about things that had been puzzling me for weeks.
Today marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when, according to legend, the Wise Ones arrived to see for themselves the Christ Child, the Light of the World, born new into a desperate, dangerous time. In that Light, they saw the hope their people had for so many centuries been longing to glimpse. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they found that Light, that great hope, after journeying a long way from home.
Okay, so at first glance, a night’s stay at a nondescript Holiday Inn, sandwiched between wonderful, noisy, chaotic visits with my family, bears almost zero resemblance to the long, silent, journey of the Magi. But I wonder if their journey might have something to tell us about the value of getting away, if only for a little while. Because while the Light of the World always lives in and among us, its radiant Presence is offering, moment by moment, to make us, and the world, new—the truth is that the Light regularly gets overshadowed by the length of our lists: things to do, things to fix, things we can’t fix but feel like we should worry about anyway. No matter how much we love our homes, it seems that the act of packing a camel’s saddle bag or an overnight satchel and simply walking away has power and magic in it: the power to help us see things in a new light; the magic of once again seeing clearly who we are, and who we are called to become.
As this new year begins, and as those ancient travelers arrive at their destination, I wonder if you’ll give yourself, and the world, the gift of a small retreat. It doesn’t have to be a long journey: no need to go last-minute gift shopping for frankincense and myrrh. Chapel bells and silent meals are not required. All you really need is permission to put away your to-do list, turn off your phone, and let yourself simply be. Perhaps, basking in an evening of silence and candlelight, you’ll remember what it is in all the world you love most, and what that great love is whispering in your ear.
If your soul is craving a bit of spacious silence this week, I pray that you find it with ease. And in the sweet hours of your own retreat, may you see yourself, and the world, in a newly born and gentle light—a light in which you see, once again, who you really are: loved from before always; blessed beyond imagining; and called to offer this beautiful, broken world the one gift that only you can bring.