leaning into God in a time of crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic is a distressing reality that is shaking our world and forcing us to live differently. For some, it has brought with it a demanding workload and almost crippling hours and conditions. If this is you, or someone in your relational circle, we salute you!

For others, it may feel as though the world has come to a screeching stop. Many of us are confined to our homes as we wait out the contagion. Perhaps we are working from home, or overseeing kids as they do school online. Some of us are living alone and feeling the isolation of compulsory quarantine. Certainly, our usual routines are disrupted and we might feel as though we are no longer in control of our lives in the ways we had assumed.

How might we enter with some intention into this unusual season? What are some ways to create the space we need to listen to God’s voice, beneath the clamour of news and social media updates? This season of restricted movement has been described by some as an enforced sabbatical. And while it might not feel like your idea of a sabbatical, I believe this season offers us an unsought for opportunity to practice ways of paying attention to God, and to the state of our own hearts. Indeed, unless we do so we will find ourselves lacking the resilience and inner resources to live well through this particular season and on into whatever our post-pandemic reality looks like.

5 steps to retreat with god

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that, for some of us, this could be the perfect occasion to take a personal retreat - a day or even just a couple of hours of focused time with God. Perhaps you have taken a retreat before, travelling to a church or retreat centre and participating in a structured retreat time facilitated by others. Or perhaps you’ve often thought of doing such a thing and just never carved out the time. Many of us now find ourselves in a position of managing our own time and spending longer than we normally would within our own homes. What sort of an invitation does this offer?

Perhaps as you read this, the suggestion of a retreat sounds counter-intuitive. How do we turn aside to rest and listen to God during a time of crisis? Yet this is exactly what Jesus did - he went looking for new spiritual landscapes at times of great pressure. I find myself longing for renewal, for the focus of my attention to be redirected onto God and his purposes. I feel the disorientation of this season and long to be oriented to our unchanging God and his steadfast love, for me and for our world. If you find similar longings in your own heart, this opportunity is for you.

Ordinarily, we take retreats as a way to get away from the hubbub of our everyday lives. A retreat is a time to reset, to refocus on our values and priorities and maybe, in light of that, to consider making some adjustments to the way we are living life. A retreat is an opportunity to give our attention to God, to give ourselves the space to get in touch with the ways God is making his presence known to us in our unfolding circumstances. If we are in the process of making a decision, it can offer us room for discernment, or it can be a place to lay out our doubts and uncertainties and perhaps to see them from a new perspective.

If you are anything like me, your soul is thirsty for this kind of recalibration. Beyond the endless round of life-as-we-know-it, beyond the murmurings of fear and the wonderings at the unknown - beyond all this there is an invitation from God to turn aside to be with him, to allow him to make his presence known to us in ways that minister to our souls.

step 1: before your retreat

I wonder how realistic it sounds to retreat from your ordinary life without leaving the house? Let’s get practical about how to make it work for you. There are some things you might do before your retreat time, as a way to prepare.

1. Prepare a place

While we would all love to have the perfect retreat space at home - a summer house, a study, a sunny garden - that is simply not available for those of us confined to apartments, or small shared spaces. You will need to set aside a small area for your retreat, and that could be as simple as moving a favourite chair into the bedroom or to face a window, or placing a candle or a meaningful image on the dining room table. 

In addition to these few visual or tangible aids, you could lay out some art supplies, your bible and journal, and a blanket or a throw to wrap up in if it’s chilly. The idea is to create a holy space, a place that feels set aside for you to settle into a time with God. 

For your retreat, you will need a degree of privacy. In busy households, securing time alone can be a problem. This is especially difficult when the others in the home do not value this retreat time in the way you do. In this case, you might consider dividing your retreat time into 2-3 hour segments and spreading it throughout a week. Perhaps while everyone else is watching a movie, you could retreat to another part of the house. Or you could get up early to enjoy a couple of uninterrupted hours before the rest of the household stirs. It is even possible, if not ideal, to wear headphones and listen to instrumental music in order to draw aside from the rest of the household. Rest assured, you can still follow the principles of retreat and need not miss out because of your home circumstances.

2. Prepare your heart

A retreat is not another tedious task you have to do, but rather a gift to yourself. Generally, a retreat is a time to grapple prayerfully with the deep questions of your heart. It is a time to risk having our assumptions shaken, and a time to be expanded in our understanding of God. Most certainly, a retreat is a time to ‘wake up’ to the activity of God in you and in the world around you. It is important to be in touch with your desires for the time, what is this retreat about for you? Take a moment to ask yourself this question, and make a note of what comes to mind.

There is, of course, a little bit of discipline to this act of setting your intention. It is helpful to decide ahead of time how long your retreat will last, and determine that you will stick with it even when you begin to feel restless. It is very usual for us to feel a sort of restlessness of mind and body when we determine to get still with God. As we pass through that experience, it can help us to ask what emotions this restlessness is masking. Offer your restlessness to God and continue to ‘show up’ to him. 

It will help ahead of time to set some sort of flow to the time. This could be as simple a short selection of activities you would like to include, not necessarily in a particular order. A walk outside, if you are able; some sort of creativity; and some journalling, for example. As you consider how you will begin your time of retreat, allow some time for quiet, for slowing down and settling into a posture of reflection and listening. You might also take some time to decide the focus of your time. This could be a question, an image, or a scripture. 

step 2: entering in

There are some things you might do as you get started, as a way to enter into your retreat.

1. Consider reading a poem, or a piece of writing that settles your heart. 

Here I offer one by a poet called Ted Loder. It is called, 'It would be easier for me to pray if I were clear' (from his collection called Guerrillas of Grace). Read it aloud, slowly, and let the words express some of the things that feel true of you too.

O Eternal One, it would be easier

For me to pray if I were clear

And of a single mind and a pure heart;

It I could be done hiding from myself

And from you, even in my prayers.

But, I am who I am,

Mixture of motives and excuses,

Blur of memories, quiver of hopes,

Knot of fear, tangle of confusion,

And restless with love, for love.

I wander somewhere between

Gratitude and grievance, wonder and routine,

High resolve and undone dreams,

Generous impulses and unpaid bills.

Come, find me, Lord.

Be with me exactly as I am. Help me find me, Lord.

Help me accept what I am, so I can begin to be yours.

Make of me something small enough to snuggle,

Young enough to question, simple enough to giggle,

Old enough to forget, foolish enough to act for peace;

Skeptical enough to doubt the sufficiency of anything but you,

And attentive enough to listen as you call me

Out of the tomb of my timidity

Into the chancy glory of my possibilities

And the power of your presence.

2. Allow yourself to get quiet and ask yourself how you come to this time. 

To what extent do you feel sad or scattered? Fearful or dismayed? Peaceful or energised? Weary or depleted? Give some time for what is most true about you today to rise to the surface, and simply offer that to God. ‘This is how I come, Lord.’ How might God want to be with you in this place, with these feelings?

step 3: bringing focus

You may wish to give focus to your retreat time in a particular way. This will add some form and structure to your day.

1. Focus your time by choosing a particular scripture. 

For example, Psalm 91 speaks of dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. This psalm is short enough for you to read it through several times. Notice the particular phrases that catch your attention and write them down. How might God want to speak to you through these words? In what way is he inviting you to be with him? How is he making himself available to you? 

Later on, you could take this image offered in the psalm: ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.’ Perhaps you want to draw what comes to mind when you read these words. This creative exercise is not about producing a spectacular work of art, but simply about engaging your body in the process of hearing from God. How does he speak to you as you draw or paint? What new images or understandings come to you through your illustration? Allow the process to deepen your own experience of being drawn by God into a place of shelter and refuge.

2. Similarly, you could focus your time by taking time with a work of art.

Consider the ways your chosen image speaks to your heart. While art is a very personal thing, you could choose an image as simple as the one here, by Chris Hopkins here. Notice the movement of your own heart as you sit with the picture. What longings are there within you to be embraced by the Lord? How do you want to express that to him? In what ways does he minister to you as you bring your need to be held to him?

step 4: reflections

Asking ourselves open questions can help us to get in touch with what is going on in our own hearts, and offers us a way to bring these things to God. Perhaps a question brings an awareness to you that you didn’t have before, or perhaps the Holy Spirit has an insight to bring to you as you consider one or more of these questions. You could consider one or more of these questions while going for a walk, or journalling.

How do I feel about silence?

For many of us, too much quiet makes us uneasy and leaves us feeling a little undefended. We are so used to being surrounded by noise - music, information, entertainment - that insulates us from what exists within us at a deeper level. If you are anything like me, you experience a simultaneous yearning for the intimacy of prayerful silence, and a resistance to entering into that place. How would it be to embrace the discomfort of whatever might rise to the surface during a time of silence? Perhaps that is the very place God will meet you.

How do I feel about waiting?

A time of retreat offers us an experience of waiting on God, within our larger reality of waiting (for the end of confinement, for the assurance of provision, for the answer to our prayers). Psalm 130 says, ‘I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy’ (v.4-6). Sometimes we miss the tiny, humble signs of God’s presence because we are expecting the spectacular. The watchman’s stance is one of constant, unrelenting attentiveness. Whether he expects the dawn to bring good news or disaster, his work is to watch. This is not casual, purposeless waiting, but waiting for God. What is the deepening work God is doing within you as you wait?

What longings stir in me?

Augustine prayed, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ Take some time to explore your own restlessness. Maybe you have denied it and need to rediscover it, or maybe this time of restricted movement and activity has made you especially aware of your restlessness. What longings lie beneath the experience of restlessness? Ask yourself, What can I let go of easily? What should I let go of? What are the loves that define and sustain me?

How is God making himself known to me?

It is hard learning to accept the fact that all our efforts at creating security for ourselves, however prudent they might be in worldly terms, are at base illusory. Indeed, no corner of the earth can promise tranquility if we let ourselves look beyond our own small circle and at least try to absorb the stories of devastation that flood the media. The psalmist tells us that God is our stronghold, our fortified place. But we will be shaken—this is part of the human condition. The God who is our stronghold is the God who holds us like a good mother and invites us to whisper our secrets in the safety of that holding. Ask yourself, What do I truly need to sustain me? What deeply nourishes me and what does God offer me in my place of need?

step 5: closing

When you are drawing towards the end of your time, take a few minutes to look back over your retreat. Where were the significant moments for you? Can you identify the movement of God over the course of your time? What shifts have happened in your heart that you want to notice in a special way? What did God affirm in you? What is the posture of your heart as you reengage with your everyday life? What grace do you need in order to live well in light of this time with God? 

It can be helpful to connect with a trusted friend to share with her or him how God met you during this time. Similarly, perhaps some things surfaced in your heart and you are not sure with whom you can share them. This might be a time when you would benefit from talking to a spiritual director. You can find our more about this ministry, and ways to get in touch with trained spiritual directors, here.


Margaret Guenther (2000) My Soul in Silence Waits

Liz Hoare (2019) Going on Retreat: how to make the most out of time with God