By Ashlye Elizondo Vanderworp

What I Learned From My Silent Solo Retreat

Staring at the pile of dry, unlit logs, I shared with God my deep longing for something new. It was almost my senior year, and it was the first time my faith felt dry since first discovering who Jesus really is as a freshman.

Holding nothing back, telling God all my worries and hopes, a small stream of smoke began to rise. Then it grew bigger and bigger. Then, a spark. This pit of log and ash caught flame on its own right before my eyes. It’s as though God was clearly speaking, “I’m here. You’re here. And I’ll ignite that spark again.”

My own burning bush –– or in this case, burning fire pit –– experience happened during a silent retreat at an InterVarsity chapter camp. Silent retreat days were a tradition and staple of these formative getaways. Sometimes, it was a struggle for me to remain silent for all those hours (Hi, extrovert here!). Sometimes, I didn't know what to talk to God about. Sometimes, I’d follow the guides staff equipped us with, only to doze off into daydreaming, or worse, actual, sleep-dreaming.

But this time was different. While I see many theological problems with the overused Christian phrase, “God showed up,” it’s hard to explain this moment any other way. (I guess, maybe, “He revealed himself to be present through physical means” might be better. ;))

Last summer, I planned my own overnight silent retreat. I left work on a Thursday afternoon and went, all alone, to a cabin about two hours away. I went on walks in the forest, freaked myself out about being a small woman alone in the woods, made food, journaled, sang some worship music, and didn’t talk to a soul for nearly 24 hours. Here’s what I learned and what I want to share with you.

1. You don’t have to pursue answers from God –– just pursue him.

When I planned this overnight retreat, I was set on bringing a bunch of questions to God: questions I had about my job and vocation, about opportunities that had been presented to me, about things that I wanted but wasn’t sure I needed. As the first couple of hours passed, it became apparent that God didn’t want me to talk to him about those things. He just wanted me to be with him.

So that’s what I did. I went about my time, aware of God being with me. I imagined him sitting across the table from me. I talked with him, both in my head and out loud, while I walked, colored, and wrote. I sang and danced in this tiny cabin, focusing on making sure I was actually singing the words to him.

By the end, I felt more at peace than I ever expected. I felt rested and whole. There wasn’t an agenda or list of things to get done. We were just there, together.

And bonus, I did leave realizing I knew what to do about the things I wanted to ask him for direction on.

In Scripture, do we only see God’s people do things if he’s given them clear words? No. Sure, it happens sometimes, but not every time. Do we think those who have chosen to live a monastic life are always just asking God about their next steps or big, life-directing decisions? Nope.

I think something to learn, and something that signifies a mature faith, is realizing that the more we know God, the more apparent and clear things are for us.

2. Not every moment with God has to be a big “Aha!” moment.

I think as a church, we take for granted the miracle of having everyday access to the Lord. We want to feel something. To cry and sob. To see a physical flame in front of us.

Sometimes, feeling the Holy Spirit means feeling a sense of gratitude or levity. As followers of Jesus, we often mostly remember the big, heart-pounding, physical manifestations of encountering Jesus. But God is moving in us and around us all the time.

Even as an emotional Latina, I didn’t cry at all during my personal silent getaway. But it still was profound and memorable. Let’s grow to value the large and small ways God moves and see every opportunity to be with him as meaningful.

3. You don’t need an InterVarsity guide, staff, or camp to have a silent retreat.

One of the best thoughts I left that 24 hours with was, Why can’t I do this all the time? And I challenge you to ask yourself that question too. Why do we wait until a camp, conference, or designated time to just be alone and quiet with God?

If you’re a student, you don’t have to wait until your next InterVarsity camp to create your own silent retreat. Maybe try taking a Saturday to put aside your homework and studying, and just be alone with God. Get away from campus if you can. If you’re an InterVarsity alumnus or friend of our movement and you haven’t gone on a silent retreat since college, what’s stopping you? As an InterVarsity staff, an incredible benefit we get is a monthly retreat day where we can take off and just focus on resting with the Lord. Though you might not have that, do you have an extra vacation or personal day you can spare? Can you take a day or even a few hours away from your roommates, spouse, or kids? Our society makes us believe that our free time has to be filled with productive tasks, but part of following Jesus in sabbath is living counter-culturally to that.

Here are some additional things to consider when planning your own silent retreat:

  • Choose a change of scenery. If you like the outdoors and that helps you feel closer to God, great. If not, maybe choose a cozy coffee shop or library.
  • Don’t feel the need to go in with a plan or prompt. Maybe just continue in whatever you’re reading in your personal quiet times. Maybe just do some ordinary activities but choose to talk to God while you’re doing them.
  • Journal to record whatever it is you feel, sense, or hear. Maybe this will help you see what God is revealing, or maybe it’ll be part of a puzzle you put together later. Maybe you’ll just have it as a reminder that he is always there with you.

I heard someone once say that they were working on incorporating aspects of vacationing into their daily lives. I thought this was so profound. She talked about drinking her morning coffee outside on her porch, taking herself out to a nice dinner every now and then, going to the park to lay down and stare up at the sky. What are aspects of silent retreats you can incorporate into your daily life?

You’ll never hear anyone say, “Man, I really regret taking that time out of my schedule to be with God…it was such a waste of time.” So, go be with God. However you choose to do it, you’ll be glad you did.

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Ashlye works as the Managing Editor for InterVarsity's Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. She enjoys deep conversations with friends and adventures with her husband (a Video Producer for InterVarsity) and their corgi, Penny. You can support her ministry here: