The picture on the new Sticks and Snakes banner is one of my favorites. I took it in September at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I love the Black Hills. I've been there three or four times, but had only been to Custer once before this recent trip. It is a truly special place--South Dakota's oldest and largest state park, covering an area of 71,000 acres. The park is also the home to a herd of 1,500 free roaming bison, like that big guy up there!
The Black Hills are a beautiful place to spend some time wandering, wondering what North America looked like a long time ago--before you came along, before your problems or preoccupations even knew the time of day. It's a great place for a retreat, and that's why I was there last fall.
I take a lot of retreats. In fact, since I went to a Jesuit High School and then was part of a great college ministry, I can say for sure that I have been taking at least one retreat a year (and in recent years, a few more than that!) since I was fourteen. That's a little crazy to me. Since being ordained, I've also led a few retreats myself. In both cases--retreat-taking and retreat-leading--I've found that one thing is always the same: I kind of dread taking the retreat, then I'm really glad that I went. Now, enough time has passed that I can just count on the being glad part and push through the dread. It happens every time.
So, last year I decided to take my retreat practice up a notch and plan my very first self-directed silent retreat. At that point, I had taken silent retreats before and had enjoyed them (hard to believe), but I had never been on one that I led myself. In other words, I had never taken a retreat by myself that I led myself, for myself. Does that make sense? No other retreatants. A totally solo experience.
From talking to colleagues and reading books and articles, I learned right away that you can't just set out for this type of retreat and expect it to be good. It takes planning and a certain amount of regimented scheduling (which is not always the case with other types of retreats), or else it can quickly fall off the rails.
So, I spent the bulk of my summer researching self-directed retreats and planning mine. The book that ended up helping me the most, practically speaking, was Ben Campbell and Paul H. Lang's wonderful Time Away: A Guide for Personal Retreat (Upper Room Books). I ended up relying heavily on their overview for a five-day retreat, which provides tools for prayerfully reviewing your entire life through a series of writing and meditation exercises.
Then, in late September, I took off for a week alone--totally alone--in South Dakota. The retreat wasn't exactly what I planned for it to be (shouldn't I have expected that?). Challenges that I expected to have never materialized, and ones that I never would have thought to worry about slammed me over the head.
In a future post, I'll tell you all about it.