Just as Elijah had heard the question, “What are you doing here?” I too asked myself that question as our rental car approached the farmhouse just outside of Assisi, the city of Saints Francis and Clare in the spectacular Italian countryside. The farmhouse was a retreat center that was to be my home for nearly one week. A silent retreat center called Simple Peace Hermitage.
For those of you who do not know me, I am what they call an extrovert. My idea of solitude is sitting in a crowded café at my own table. What made me believe that I could spend six days with three strangers in a remote hillside in Italy in silence was an other-worldly call. It had to have been from God—a humorous God, who apparently knows more about what I am capable of than I do myself.
To get to the Simple Hermitage Retreat Center, Tim and I (actually, a very stressed Tim) drove through the winding, narrow, narrow streets of Assisi, out the opposite city gate, and into the hills. The small country road kept going and climbing until we came upon a wee sign that pointed us left onto a dirt drive. As we drove deeper into the woods I, the professional that I am, started to cry. You know the kind of crying—a mixture of laughter and tears. I kept repeating through my weird laughing and crying, “Where are we? Why did I feel called to this retreat center? What am I doing here? I don’t even like nature? What in heaven’s name made me think I could be silent for a week?”
I was having one of those desperate—cat caught in a cage—experiences, like when you have to face dental work and you would do anything to get out of it.
The additional twist in the “dropping me off event” was that I arrived five hours earlier than the retreat’s designated start time–long before the other three guests. Tim was going to teach the following two weeks at a University hours north of Assisi so he still had many hours to drive.
So here’s the picture: not only was he abandoning me, the retreat host, Katharina, (who did know I was arriving early), informed me that she too would be departing until evening.
That meant that I –and only I–would be spending the long afternoon utterly alone at the Simple Peace Hermitage silent retreat center. For some of you, I know that sounds like heaven.
For me, not so much.
The closest humans lived on a farm on the distant hillside: A 90-year-old mother and her 70-year-old daughter. I knew this because I asked, “just in case,” I explained, “I faced an emergency during my five hours of solitude.”
Katharina’s face was polite, but I could tell she was thinking,” Oh, great… She’s going to be one of those guests.” I would not have blamed her if she said, “Just Don’t pick up any knives, and you’ll be fine.”
Katharina said a very quick “Ciao,” and that she’d see me later in the day. Tim hugged me with an “I’m so sorry to leave you,” said his goodbye, and drove slowly away as I stood there in the gravel driveway like an anxious child being left at summer camp.
Resigned, I finally dragged my feet over to the edge of the hill and looked over the vast Umbrian hills.
I am not a thrill seeker in the least. But as I stood there, I imagined that what I felt in that moment surrounded by sheer silence, facing my week ahead, was what a cliff or sky diver must feel when standing on a precipice facing the simultaneous thrill and terror of the leap.
Rather than water or sky, I was going to plunge into my interior life.
“What are you doing here, Clover?” I heard.
“I am here for the sheer silence, Lord. I am here for you to gather up the fragments of my life.”
Our story in 1 Kings takes place after Elijah has been brought back to life from his near-death experience and has been fortified with food and rest for the journey ahead. The bold and weary prophet set out into the wilderness eventually coming upon a cave for retreat. Within the cave, God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah poured out his case to God defending his awesome work as a prophet and pointing out to God that the other prophets did not work half as hard as he did nor were they as faithful.
God said, “Get out of your cave; stand still because I’m going to pass by.”
Elijah waited and the sound of thunder came. God was not there.
The heat of a fire burned his skin, but God was not there.
The wind blew so powerfully that he had to hold on for dear life, but God was not in the gale.
Then the sound of sheer silence came upon Elijah. He knew God was passing by.
Elijah wrapped his mantel over his face, went back into his cave, and for a second time he encountered God’s voice. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
How wonderful it was to hear that our seminary intern, Rachel, wove the theme of Sabbath through these summer months. I am grateful that there were challenging conversations about our fast-paced lives, our addiction to busyness, our dependence upon noise and activity. Sabbath, given to us by God as both a mandate and a gift is intended to offer us space to de-clutter our interior space. Sabbath– in my case, a 3-month sabbatical– was a mandate and a gift to return to myself, to draw fragments of my busy life together, and to descend to that inner most cave where God shows up.
Of course, a person does not have to travel to another continent to find solitude and silence. We don’t have to cross the sea to find a deserted place. I am fully aware how decadent my experience was. I returned even more convicted that silence and solitude are essential to being human. I know they are central practices of the spiritual life, but I am convinced that withdrawing from the world for rest is an act of resistance against the dominant culture which places value on frenetic activity and elusive productivity.
Jesus regularly withdrew to lonely and deserted places. In this miracle story which is found in all four gospels, Jesus crossed the sea to reach a mountainside. Jesus had been curing the sick throughout the region. The crowd remained relentless pressing upon him with their needs. Even Jesus got really tired!
I read this story in May, as I was beginning my withdrawal from my busy life. What struck me this time was that Jesus made the crowd sit down. And, when they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.”
I was moved by the truth that during a time of rest, God can feed us and re-collect the fragmented pieces of our lives. It has been a very full ten years for my family: getting two children through their adolescence, accomplishing college entrance exams and sending them off, facing empty nesting, sharing ministry with a beautiful congregation like this; we grieved the deaths of two parents and endured family illnesses, and relocated an aging mother. My roles have been and continue to be wife, mom, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, pastor. It is a beautifully full and rich life; a life which I am humbly grateful to have.
We are certainly not unique in any way though. You all experience full, beautiful lives and sometimes, your lives feel fragmented and a little out of control, too, and you need God to gently gather up the pieces.
Jesus said, “Gather up the fragments so that none may be lost.”
Jesus asks us to offer up the fullness of our lives to him. Offer up your regrets and failures; but also your successes and triumphs; your fears and doubts, your faith and joy. Offer it all to God, over and over again. On my retreat, I felt the Holy Spirit’s prodding to do so. In God’s sense of humor, God assured me that I could have any one of them back at any time, if I needed it. God was holding all the fragments for me so that none would be lost.
A Danish proverb says: “Crumbs are still bread.” Jesus holds in his hands, cupped like a basket, all the broken pieces of our lives. Holding the crumbs is a sign of the wholeness Jesus sees in us. God knows what we are capable of. Like being silent for six days. Nothing goes to waste at God’s table.
In case you were wondering, my silent retreat turned out to be one of the most profound weeks of my life; and for that entire experience…I am speechless.