In this article, we’ll discuss some practical ways that the ministries of spiritual direction and worship leading interrelate. In Part 1 (catch up HERE if you missed it), we discussed some of the ways the two ministries are unique and the particular developmental benefits of spiritual direction in the life of a Worship Leader. We then turned our attention to these specific questions: How might a Worship Leader prepare, plan, and lead worship as a Spiritual Director? Is it possible to some extent? Could it be beneficial to consider? I said I believed the answer to both of these questions was a resounding “Yes”, so let’s dive in.
Let me address a question you might have right off the top; “Why should I adopt or embody this style or method as a Worship Leader?” Especially if you haven’t had an experience with spiritual direction and don’t personally subscribe to it as an element of discipleship in your life, this is a fair objection. But, whether you are a “fan” of spiritual direction or not, it’s important to consider that as Worship Leaders, we are also Culture Makers. Meaning, the way you approach, prepare for, and lead worship creates values and cultural touchstones within your context. Whatever you’re doing to get people in your pews, you will have to continue to do to keep them there. If your strategy and values, for instance, are high-production, Vegas-style smoke and mirrors, having the right fitting jeans, or staying up on the latest, greatest worship songs, you will need to keep that up, or do one better each week in order to keep your congregation engaged and entertained.
I’d propose another way, a deeper, more thoughtful approach. What is the culture you want to create through your leadership? What kind of worshippers do you want your people to become over time? Let these greater questions shape your worship leading. You and your congregation will be grateful and blessed by doing so. And, again, because I’ve experienced first-hand the profound journey of spiritual direction in my own life, and researched its effectiveness in the life of believers around the world, for over a thousand years, it seems worthwhile to pursue this connection between spiritual direction and worship leading.
It also seems logical and helpful to discuss elements of preparing for worship before addressing the act of leading worship in this way. It’s particularly interesting to reflect on the ways a Spiritual Director is instructed to prepare before meeting with a Directee, and how those items of preparation have some corollary with the preparation to lead worship. So, before talking through practical ways to lead worship as a Spiritual Director, let’s look at ways to prepare for worship leading through this lens.
These prayer points are copied from my course syllabus in Spiritual Direction and Soul Care at Talbot Seminary. I’ll list them, just as they were written (with a few edits for context), and then unpack various ways I see these instructions and values inform the preparation of worship leading. I see these prompts being helpful as Worship Leaders begin to plan a service or liturgy, or as they enter the sanctuary or worship space to prayerfully get things ready for the already-planned gathering to come. These postures take practice, repeated over time, to develop, and so they are listed as “practices” for that very reason.
5 WAYS TO PREPARE FOR WORSHIP LEADING AS A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR
1. Practice stillness. Ask the Lord in prayer, “Spirit, how quiet is my soul? Show me and hold for me what is in my soul so I can be truly present with those I’m ministering to. Give me peace, make me still.”
What a powerful prayer for anyone preparing to offer service to another! How might starting your time of planning or preparation with a prayer like this shape your experience? How “still” is your soul as you plan your worship services, print chord charts, or plug in mic cables? If you took even five minutes to pause and ask this of the Lord in prayer before jumping into all the necessary, practical activities of preparation, your entire demeanor, pace, and availability to God and others may be changed. How might it change you?
If we’re honest, often our Worship Leader souls (especially in preparation for leading) are a churning, turbulent sea of anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness, rushed and compressed by hurry, busyness, turmoil, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, if this is the case, it gets reflected to our teams and congregation. We cannot provide a peaceful place of stillness to those around us if we are not experiencing it to some degree ourselves. We need the Spirit’s power to help us do this. That’s why this is a prayer, a request: “Give me peace. Make me still.” But not only is this a prayer, it’s also an action-step that we can begin to walk out. We can begin to evaluate the state of our souls as we prepare or set-up for worship. It’s an orientation that can color our every move, action, and word. What would it look like for a Worship Leader to lead from a place of inner peace and stillness? In what ways would this be a gift to our congregation and volunteer teams? In a chaotic and anxious world, this posture can make our sanctuaries truly become sanctuaries for many.
2. Practice safety. Ask God in prayer, “Lord, am I safe? Make me a place of confidentiality. Take away any judgment.”
Spiritual Directors operate with a code of confidentiality, like many other therapeutic practices, so this particular element may not directly apply to worship leading, but there’s something here nonetheless. What would it mean for a Worship Leader to be a “safe” person, without any judgment? Are you a leader that your congregants and volunteers can trust with personal disclosures, with vulnerability? Are you a safe person that others can be honest and real with about their failings and doubts? Can you keep confidences and respond with grace and love instead of judging too quickly? Do you thoughtfully address any hint of “gossip” as you manage your team members, their personal challenges and prayer requests? How about addressing musical or liturgical differences? How do we approach the various musical tastes, preferences, and suggestions of our congregants and volunteers – with snap judgments and quick dismissals if we don’t agree, or with grace and a suspension of criticism?
Practicing this kind of posture as we plan and lead our teams in rehearsal and preparation can help us deepen relationships and provide a space for accountability, honesty, and spiritual growth. Practicing safety also enables our congregants to express their unique perspectives, challenges, and insights, strengthening a sense of dialogue and conversation – key elements of spiritual formation for all believers.
3. Practice love. Include this in your preparatory prayers, “Lord, give me the capacity to love these people. Remind me of how much you love me.”
What “love” looks like from the Worship Leader standpoint can take many forms. It has profound, practical implications in our song and liturgy planning. When you, as a Worship Leader, choose your songs, have you thought lately about how “loving” your song choices are? How about the choice of song keys; is this key loving to your congregation or more helpful to you as a singer, or to your electric guitar player or pianist? Our love should be directed to those we are ministering to, the congregation. How can you love them better in your worship planning?
How about your liturgy, service order, and pacing? How might you love your congregants with these decisions, as well? Greg Scheer, in his book Essential Worship draws a helpful analogy here. He describes our worship gatherings as “nourishment” for our spiritual formation. We know a loving thing to do when caring for a child is to provide a balanced diet, a healthy plan of nourishment for them to grow. In the same way, we can view our congregants as people who receive nourishment from our worship services, and this means we need to lovingly provide a balanced diet for them, not a reliance on our own personal preferences or strengths as a leader. Greg writes, “If worship services are indeed sustenance for lives of worship, we could approach them in the same way we do with the meals that maintain our physical health. We wouldn’t fall into the trap of the head mode, which is all vegetables and no dessert. And we wouldn’t fall into the trap of the heart mode, which chases after anything sweet and memorable. Instead, we would be careful about our long-term diet. Are there some things we focus on to the exclusion of other things? (All praise and no lament, for example.) Is there enough Scripture to fill our services with the right ‘nutrients’? Do we sing about all facets of the faith? Do we pray for the needs of the whole world? Do we enjoy a balanced diet of Word and Table and celebrate the work of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit?”
This is a loving way to plan and prepare for worship!
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV) reminds us: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“Lord, give me the capacity to love these people. Remind me of how much you love me.”
4. Practice hospitality. Prayer point: “Lord, help me welcome these people and be fully present, as if they were you.”
As a Spiritual Director, this means practically making sure your meeting space is calmly lit, tidy, chairs are comfy and placed intentionally, cell phones are silenced, and Bibles, tissues, and other items are visible and available. These are small things that speak volumes and reflect our intention to love others well. As Worship Leaders, we can adopt this same value and practice hospitality in the way we prepare our worship spaces.
Before rehearsal, are the necessary materials and technical needs prepared in advance for your volunteers? How is the lighting, tidiness, and organization in the room? Does it represent a still, peaceful, loving, and hospitable soul? The attention paid to these details will greatly help your teams experience peace, love, and hospitality, and they will reflect it back. It will enable them to move beyond petty distractions and to focus more clearly on the important things, like their own spiritual formation and call to service, as well as the task at hand.
Before your congregation enters the worship space, how hospitable have you made it? How is the lighting, cleanliness, and organization? Are things intentionally placed exactly where they should be? Have you given adequate attention to how the platform looks (since most people, as they enter for worship, will sit in their seats and look in that direction first)? Is it organized, thoughtfully planned out, and clear of unnecessary distractions? If Jesus where to walk in a few minutes before service and have a seat, what would he be noticing? What are the surroundings saying about your gathering to come? Is the lighting pleasant and warm, theater-dark, or blindingly fluorescent? Are the seats arranged with adequate space around them, crammed together, or scattered haphazardly? Does the platform have intentional lighting, meaningful, color-coordinated items on it (candles, art, pulpit, nature, Scripture, etc…)? Or, is it cluttered with guitar cases, broken drum sticks, dusty plastic flowers, candy wrappers, and dented water bottles? Again, these items are surprisingly important to the care of others. When the topic of soul care and the eternal trajectory of a believer’s spiritual formation is on the table, the first step of hospitality is crucial.
5. Practice attentiveness. Prayer point; “Lord, help me focus on others and their experience, to feel for and pay attention to them. Help me set aside anything going on in my own life. Help me to be absent from myself and present with you and for these people.”
This last one is complex because there are often personal experiences we are going through as Worship Leaders that can be quite helpful to share with others. We need to be discerning, though, on what things might be truly helpful or not. This is where practice #3 comes in; is what you want to share about your own experience “loving”? Be skeptical and suspicious of your own motives. It’s likely better to error on the side of the prayer above, to be “absent” from yourself and more present with God and others.
In our worship planning and preparation, it is a rich gift to offer our attentiveness to others, instead of ourselves. How might they experience these songs, these readings, or this liturgical order of things? When we are able to step out of the way, we can more deeply connect with God and others, which allows others, in turn, to more deeply connect with God.
So to recap, the five practices are stillness, safety, love, hospitality, and attentiveness. I pray these five ideas will be an encouragement to you and those you serve with. These aren’t “5 Quick Steps” – they’re more like deep, inward character traits that we learn to embody over time. There are entire books written about how one becomes a person of “stillness” for instance. Putting on an act, or trying to emulate a behavior pattern is not the same as internalizing these values and becoming a person who is these things. This is a work of the Holy Spirit, so be patient, and begin by opening to God (maybe with the help of a Spiritual Director!) and inviting the Lord, the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) into the places where change and growth are needed.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the preparatory elements of worship leading, the next article will touch on the mechanics and execution of worship leading, through the lens of a Spiritual Director. I’ll present “5 Practical Ways to Lead Worship as a Spiritual Director.” Stay tuned!
Subscribe (HERE) to receive updates on future articles. And feel free to leave a comment below. Are you a Worship Leader, Spiritual Director, or congregant with further reflections to share? What’s been your experience with these topics and where do you see the connections? I would love to hear from you! Your voice would be a welcome addition to the discussion. Also, consider checking out Greg Scheer’s helpful book Essential Worship quoted in this article.
Leading worship for thirty years and serving as a Spiritual Director for the last five of those, has given me a unique perspective on soul care, formation, and the dynamics of worship leading. In this article, I will briefly attempt to describe the interrelatedness of these two roles, how they are alike, how they differ, and how the ancient art of spiritual direction can inform and deepen the ministry of worship leading.
Many Christian leaders have found great value and support in meeting with a Spiritual Director as part of their ongoing discipleship and spiritual formation. This is a growing trend in evangelical circles, and I’m grateful for the interest in this aspect of spiritual formation. Graduating from Talbot Seminary and serving as a Spiritual Director these last several years has been a deep joy. Describing the many ways that serving in this ministry (and personally receiving spiritual direction) enriches my life and faith would constitute an entire article by itself, so I’ll simply say here that it has profoundly impacted the way I shepherd, lead, and love others. It has also shaped the way I approach worship leading and my role as Pastor of Worship at Grace Community Church.
HOW THESE MINISTRIES ARE UNIQUE
Before diving into the interrelatedness and connection between spiritual direction and worship leading, it might be helpful to discuss how they are not the same. Worship leading usually describes the activity of guiding a small-to-large group through an experience of corporate singing, prayer, reading, and listening to God together. It’s a role that can quickly scale from a few individuals in a quiet room to thousands in an arena. Traditional, formal spiritual direction, on the other hand, is limited in scope from a one-to-one relationship up to a small group setting, with usually never more than about ten people. It is not effective in a large group because spiritual direction relies heavily on the participant (the “Directee”) having space to talk, share, and process out loud the activity of God in his or her life. There is more content coming from the participant rather than the leader in spiritual direction. Significant time and opportunity must be created for this to occur, and a Spiritual Director goes to great lengths in providing a spiritually and emotionally open space where the Directee is free to set the pace and take the conversational and topical lead. Worship leading, especially in large groups, is the opposite; the worship leader provides most of the content, pacing, and agenda. A Worship Leader is more “directive” in this case, intentionally planning a structure and program for individuals or a congregation to follow and participate in.
Spiritual Direction meetings usually occur once a month to give adequate time and space between appointments for a Directee to process God’s activity in their lives and to collect and ponder their unique experiences before they meet again with their Director. Quite different from this schedule, the people of God, in groups small and large, often gather for worship once a week on Sunday and sometimes on various days in between. The frequency of these meetings poses a unique set of challenges and opportunities for a Worship Leader that are not shared by the Spiritual Director. Formational practices that occur this frequently demand a thoughtful and directive approach as the Worship Leader must consider what truths, experiences, and messages are most important for the Christian to rehearse and habituate. These many gatherings over a length of time also pose a unique opportunity to lead through a variety of themes and seasons, with the goal of expanding a believer’s knowledge and experience of God’s ways and the whole of Biblical narrative and revelation.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND WORSHIP LEADER DEVELOPMENT
With these basic differences in mind, let’s begin to turn attention now toward the various ways that spiritual direction and worship leading interrelate. The first aspect of this being how spiritual direction can play a specific role in the devotional life and professional development of a Worship Leader. As mentioned earlier, the value and benefit of spiritual direction has gained visibility in recent years. Church leaders and pastors, particularly, have been espousing its restorative, reflective, and soul-nurturing aspects. For Worship Leaders, specifically, there seem to be several poignant benefits.
First, spiritual direction helps Worship Leaders develop an ability to be in tune with the leading and activity of the Holy Spirit. It gives them space to ponder and reflect on God’s presence in their own lives, to learn to hear and trust the voice and stirrings of God, which in turn informs the way that they lead others. It strengthens their sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit in worship planning and the facilitation of worship gatherings.
Secondly, receiving spiritual direction helps a Worship Leader get better in touch with their own emotions and situation, with where God is taking them personally. The contours of this journey often lead to deeper, contemplative places of honesty, confession, and growth, exponentially broadening a Worship Leader’s understanding of developmental spirituality and the complexity of human anthropology. The concept that a leader cannot effectively guide people to where they have not gone themselves takes on critical meaning here. Spiritual direction enables a Worship Leader to more contemplatively write and choose worship elements and liturgies that reflect these realities of heart, soul, body, emotions, and habits. It gives them the long view of spiritual formation in the life of believers, taking into account process and conversational prayer, moving beyond merely the goal of emotional expression or musical excellence. This perspective gives the thoughtful Worship Leader new metrics for evaluating the success or effectiveness of their ministry, including the ongoing development of a congregation’s prayer life and overall growth in spiritual maturity.
HOW TO LEAD WORSHIP AS A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR
Now that we’ve discussed some of the dynamics of these two ministries and how spiritual direction can specifically play a meaningful role in the life of a Worship Leader, it seems interesting and worthwhile to explore the ways these ministries are alike and the many ways they may further inform one another. How might a Worship Leader prepare, plan, and lead worship as a Spiritual Director? Is it possible to some extent? Could it be beneficial to consider? I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”
In the next article (before getting into practical ways a Worship Leader might lead worship as a Spiritual Director), I will explore several ways that a Worship Leader can prepare and approach the ministry of worship leading through the lens of spiritual direction. I’m hopeful these ideas and suggestions will inspire fresh thinking and creative application. Stay tuned for “5 Practical Ways to Prepare for Worship Leading as a Spiritual Director.”
Subscribe HERE to receive updates as this article will be released in several installments – and please leave a comment below. Your voice would be a welcome addition to the discussion. Are you a Worship Leader, Spiritual Director, pastor, church volunteer, or congregant with further reflections to share? What’s been your experience with these topics and where do you see the connections? I would love to hear from you!
Also, if you’re curious about spiritual direction and interested in finding a Spiritual Director yourself, may I recommend graftedlife.org. This is the organization I affiliate with, and helpful information plus their extensive Spiritual Director Listing can be found HERE
* Special thanks to my academic and professional colleagues for help in shaping this initial conversation and providing valuable feedback and input: Beth Balmer, Matthew Lewis, David Bunker, Monica Romig Green, Andrew Yee, and Mike Ahn.
I had the privilege a couple weeks ago to teach on Sunday morning at my church on the topic of silence. Here’s the sermon audio if you’d like to take a listen. May God strengthen and stretch you this Lenten season!
Remember when you had to wait a week for your favorite TV show to come on? On-demand streaming has taken away a bit of the drama, patience, and anticipation of a slowly unfolding storyline, so to recapture that (and help us experience Lent more deeply) I’ve created eight, weekly audio meditations, like mini-Podcasts. These are imaginative exercises based on Scripture which take us through Jesus’ Passion Week, leading to his crucifixion. They range from around 5-10 minutes each, and are designed to lead to further reflective prayer afterward if you have time. Just choose a moment each week, grab your favorite blanket or comfy chair, maybe brew up a warm drink, settle in and hit “play”. You could also listen along during a daily activity, like a car ride or preparing a meal in the kitchen. Don’t skip ahead and binge-listen, though! I pray these are a blessing and guide you these seven weeks to a more intimate connection with Christ’s love and sacrifice for you.
If self-care is somewhere on your New Year’s Resolutions list, you might be asking yourself:
How can I get a rest, a real rest this year?
What would best help me clear my head and reset my heart?
What could most refresh and refuel me?
What might deeply reengage my relationship with God?
…and if you can carve out a 24-48 hour block of time to dedicate to this endeavor (which you should!), then I have an adventure for you:
A Benedictine Retreat!
You know that feeling when you get out of a hot-tub or sauna after a long time; that mellow, mushy, super-relaxed, nothing-can-upset-me type of feeling? A retreat like this does that for your soul, and there’s nothing quite like it.
So in the next few paragraphs, I will explain exactly how to go on a solo, silent, self-guided Benedictine retreat at a monastery, on your own terms, in your own way (but steeped in hundreds of years of spiritual history and practice) that will stretch and grow your mind, enlarge your soul, and help you deeply unplug. Let’s go!
BOOK YOUR RETREAT
The first thing you’ll need to do is look at your crazy-busy, jam-packed calendar and find a 24-48 hour window to block out. This may be tough, but it will be worth it. The longer the better, so try for 48 hours if possible. Choose a couple options, because when you call the retreat center they may be booked. Most don’t do email often, so calling is best. There are Benedictine monasteries all over the world that host individuals for self-guided retreats. I’ve been to three, and I highly recommend them:
You’ll simply call them, tell them you’d like to come for an individual, self-guided retreat, and they will help you book your room. You normally pay at the end of your stay, with a check that you leave in an envelope and drop in a key-slot (and they are patient and gracious if you forget your checkbook and have to arrange payment later). Room and board costs are about $100 a night. This fee can sometimes be covered by your employer through a self-care/development budget, or through a spiritual development account if you’re in ministry, so don’t be afraid to ask your boss or supervisor about this.
PRAPARE FOR YOUR RETREAT
Now that you’ve got the dates booked, begin thinking through what to bring with you on the retreat. Pack light. This is a perfect time to practice simplicity!
Meals: If you don’t have any dietary restrictions, I highly recommend not bringing extra food or snacks; eat the simple, healthy meals that the monastery provides and nothing more. Skipping a meal or two, as a fast, is also another powerful practice, but I personally like the mealtime because it’s a unique setting to experience, and it fits nicely into the rhythm of the day. The food is healthy and simple and often locally farmed.
Clothes: Bring a sun hat and good walking shoes, and a coat for the cold nights (when you’re walking to and from the chapel). Dress is casual, plain, and muted. Wear what’s comfortable and what will be least distracting for you and others.
Books/Journals: Bring your Bible and a journal to write in. It’s fine to bring some other reading material, too, but don’t be tempted to fill up your entire retreat with reading catch-up or homework. The idea is to create space for your mind and heart, not constantly fill it with material. Also, these monasteries have interesting libraries where you can sit and read, or check out a book or two to take to your room.
The rooms are furnished with simple sheets, blankets, and pillows, so no extra bedding is needed. They also have clean, working, in-room bathrooms and showers, with little soaps included…so no need to bring a bunch of toiletries or beauty products, either. Go natural and leave the hair spray at home!
GETTING TO THE RETREAT CENTER
Driving out to the abbey for your retreat is a great time to begin slowing your mind and heart, calming your spirit, and preparing to be with God in a quiet, unique way. Take your time, go slow, listen to soul-nourishing music or stay in silence and begin practicing a posture of thoughtfulness. Ask God on this drive if He has any direction for you during the retreat. Questions like the ones below, followed by silence and listening, can sometimes begin to give shape and direction to your retreat:
“God, is there anything you want me to particularly do on this retreat?”
“God, is there anything you’d like me to particularly not do?”
“God, is there anything you’d like me to pay particular attention to?”
“God, is there a theme or topic in my life right now you want me to explore?”
A petitionary prayer you can fall back on at any time before or during the retreat could be something like this:
“God, I want to be open to You. Help me notice You – what You are doing, and where You are leading…and graciously guide me as I seek to follow You.”
ARRIVING AT THE RETREAT CENTER
Try to schedule your trip so that you arrive around 11:30am. This will get you there in time for noon lunch (you paid for it after all!), and get you settled in so you have a full afternoon ahead. Once you arrive, you’ll park your car and find the little office where the host will give you your room key and any instructions. Put your stuff in your room, check to see if you need anything, and intentionally decide what you will do with your phone. Definitely, don’t take it to meals, or the chapel, or anywhere if possible. Put it on silent – and no vibrate. Put it in the desk drawer if you can bear it. These retreat centers have no wi-fi (intentionally) and sometimes cell service is spotty. Give the retreat center’s phone number to family or friends before you leave, so they can reach you in an emergency, and that way you can feel more free to keep your phone packed away. Try to make a purposeful break from work demands, social media, and any other distracting temptations.
Again, getting there for lunch is a great plan. Different monasteries eat meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) in different ways, so be ready to be flexible, patient, and just go with the flow. Some places have their meals in complete silence, others include some background music or even a monk reading from classic literature, and others make this time casual and conversational where you can get to know the other folks taking a retreat like yourself. In my experience, there’s usually about 5-10 other retreat goers there, mixed in age and gender, and everyone seems to be particularly calm, quiet, and polite. Be friendly if you’d like, but also don’t feel any pressure to talk (definitely don’t network!). There’s an understanding in these quickly formed communities – some primary goals shared by all; to connect with God, to rest, to be peaceful, to listen, to slow down, to be humble, to unplug, and to practice some silence and solitude. So be sensitive and aware of these values as you settle in and find your way around.
THE FIRST FEW HOURS
The question I probably get asked the most about a retreat like this is, “What do you do all that time?” You might be wondering how in the world you’d occupy yourself for a couple days at a monastery, so I’ll attempt to help fill in some blanks here…
The first afternoon, after lunch, is a great time to get settled into your room and maybe do some exploring around the retreat center grounds. I also take this time to read over all the brochures and retreat information they give. Benedictine abbeys have a regimented, strict schedule of services in their chapel, so I make sure to mark the times for these and become familiar with everything I can. It’s fun and interesting to learn about a place and its history. I love looking at all the antique pictures in the lobby or library and generally trying to soak up the setting. If you’re exhausted when you arrive, diving into a nap before dinner is also a worthwhile pursuit. This is a time for rest, and if that means actual, literal rest then by all means, take advantage of it!
THE CHAPEL SERVICES
As mentioned earlier, your time at the abbey will be punctuated by several chapel services, all marked by the ringing of the bell tower. These services are fairly short (about 20 min.) and are very interesting and stretching experiences. Try to attend them all! I find they help break up my time, give me scheduled handholds throughout the day, and make me feel part of something bigger. Their rhythm spurs me along, and their content (mostly the Psalms, chanted or sung by the monks) begins to soften my heart and widen my view of God and the world.
Benedictine monasteries are unapologetically Roman Catholic in theology, ritual, and tradition so sometimes this will be evident, and if you’re a “regular ‘ol Baptist-ish-Protestant-Christian” like me, sometimes a prayer to Mary or a saint may catch you off guard (although I’ve actually found prayers like these to be quite rare). I, personally, enjoy keeping an open mind to all this, and I encourage you to do so, as well. It’s so different from my normal church experience, and it’s educational and inspiring to sit with other Jesus followers from different backgrounds…all being led by around twelve monks who’ve given their very lives over to worship God.
As you walk in the chapel door, there will be a printed handout for the service. Take a copy and use it to follow along. You’re welcome to join the small congregation in singing along with the monks (I always try it!), and there are tons of responsive reading parts that you get to do, too. There’s sitting, standing, bowing, kneeling…lots of actions that keep things interesting. Try to do them all, and see how God uses these unique spiritual practices to speak to you. The service before lunch (“Mass”) has communion as a part of it, and this is the only element that non-Catholics can’t participate in, but you won’t feel awkward abstaining from that part.
If I don’t sleep in, I try to attend the early morning chapel around 7 or 8am. Then it’s breakfast, a break, and the service before lunch. There’s also a service before dinner called “Vespers” (which includes an epic sunset view if you’re at Prince of Peace in Oceanside during the winter!). Following dinner at around 8pm is the “Compline” service. This last chapel service before bed is a wonderful way to prepare for nighttime, rest your heart and soul for sleep, and enter into the evening silence. Some monasteries have a midnight or incredibly early morning service (like 3:30am!). Heading out to this one in the middle of the night ups the adventure quotient if you’re game!
It’s something about the rhythm of these chapel services, the ringing of the bell tower, and the pervading silence enveloping everything else that starts to work this “soul sauna” effect. The words of the Psalms, sung without rhymes or drumbeats, and the simple, ancient prayers begin to weave there way into your heart and spirit. By bedtime, there’s a deep peace and stillness falling over everything, and you can’t help but be wrapped up into it. In monastic communities, this time is sometimes referred to as “The Great Silence”, and something about the atmosphere makes it truly feel like that.
The last retreat I took, I left at 10am, arriving before lunch, and left after the evening “Vespers” service the next day, getting home around 10pm. This gave me about 36 hours of dedicated “retreat” time, and it was perfect. It turned out to be a good compromise and alternative to my original 48-hour goal.
OTHER FUN THINGS TO DO TO FILL UP YOUR TIME
Most of these retreat centers have an elaborate “Stations of the Cross” walking path. These can be a formative practice. Take your time, go slow…really slow…walk slow, think slow, read slow…see how long you can stretch the experience out! There’s often other nature walks or different places to explore, as well (like a huge cross on a hilltop) so get out there and do some walking! I sometimes like taking pictures of my surroundings. Capturing some of the natural beauty on these retreats is a good way to remember these moments, focus your attention, and create some snapshots to reflect on later.
Make sure to take advantage of the coffee and tea stations along the way. Most places have hot water and assorted items available (hot chocolate, etc…) throughout the day and night. I’m always trying new tea flavors or experimenting with coffee/chocolate/mocha combinations. Ah, the simple indulgences ☺
Between nature walks, reading, resting, and participating in the chapel services, you might still find yourself with potentially several hour-long blocks of time to fill, and this is where some prayer guides or personal spiritual exercises can be helpful. I’ve enjoyed a variety of activities in these times, from playing my guitar or ukulele and singing worship songs (or old favorite, obscure tunes that I rarely get to play), to imaginative Bible reading, listening prayer, centering prayer, good ‘ol fashioned prayer requests, journaling, and drawing. There’s an endless array of options, and it keeps things interesting to ask God to lead you in these times and to be open to trying new things. A retreat like this might be a great time to just “play”; bring along your musical instruments, photography gear, hiking boots, or painting supplies and take time to do fun things with God that your busy schedule at home rarely permits. Avoid undertakings, though, that require intense focus or demand all your senses toward a task. Activities like these can leave little room for God to speak and distract you from an open, listening posture.
Remember to intentionally pray through your drive home from the retreat. You’ll be coming out of a very slowed-down, quiet, and hopefully soul-nourishing experience and possibly heading straight back into the noise, chaos, and demands of work and family. You want to be ready and prepared to be a blessing to your loved ones when you return. Think through how you can serve them or be especially present when you arrive back. Entrust the special, intimate time you had with God to His care and be ready to shift gears for the sake of others. The spiritual treasures you experienced on retreat will stick with you (especially if you write them down in a journal!) and continue to work their way through your life, deepening your walk with God and leading you to places of peace and maturity in Him.
There’s so much more to say and offer in the way of personal prayer and spiritual activity ideas while on retreat. There are books and websites dedicated to this kind of thing and even retreat devotionals catering to particular themes or seasons of life. Reach out to me if you’d like some more ideas, links, or guidance on finding specific content. I’d be happy to offer suggestions and support as you take this plunge into the “soul sauna” of Benedictine retreat. You’ll be glad you did!