Planning a Weekend Retreat
A while ago I was asked to lead a retreat for a church weekend. I chose the theme of "Creative Mindfulness". The intention of the weekend was that it might provide resources to people who didn’t think of themselves as having spiritual resources - the folks who say, “Well, I don’t pray every day, and I don’t know that I have a spiritual life.” I hoped to introduce them to things that they already did, or things that they could do, and draw spiritual meaning out of them.
It’s been very important to me to realize that “prayer” and “meditation” are not solely church or religious activities. As a creative person, I have worked to understand that my creative activities – art, writing poetry, dance, photography, can all be understood as a way of acknowledging God in my life, of being mindful of God’s presence. Many people do not realize the healing qualities of creativity, because they were discouraged when they were young, and assume that they “can’t” draw, write, sing, etc. Others were passionate about a creative activity in their youth, but dropped it as adults due to lack of time, or a feeling that it was no longer important.
This program would be valuable to any group of people seeking a little retreat time outside of their daily life, to refresh, and to bring them to a new understanding that they already have ways to communicate with God and feel God’s presence, but may not have considered the activities they take pleasure in as having that dimension. I’d recommend it for just about any group in your congregation, whatever age group, and however they minister in your church.
Leading the Retreat
As the leader, all you need to lead this workshop is:
- A passion for some activity that brings you closer to God.
- The ability to talk about it, perhaps sharing something you have created and the feeling of making it, as well as talking more generally. (Consider inviting a second person with a different creative skill to co-lead with you.)
- Create up to three activities that others can participate in and give them the materials, resources, and the time to do it.
- Gather them together to share and reflect.
- Lead a time of simple worship.
I begin with a simple mindfulness meditation:
- Be comfortable in your space, whether sitting or lying, eyes closed or open.
- Be aware, in the silence, of all the sound around you.
- Be aware of your breathing.
- As you breathe in, know that God dwells within you and you dwell within God.
- As you breathe out, be aware of peace; send it out to others.
- As you breathe, listen to God within you. Listen to your deepest self.
- Open yourself up to silence as well as “answer”.
Talk about: What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is being aware that whatever we do, wherever we are, whether we are calm and centered or completely out of control, God is with us and knows us. Being mindful helps us to be aware of God’s presence, and being aware of God’s presence helps us to deal with the times that are less than ideal.
Sing a song: I choose one very simple unaccompanied song to be our theme song for the event. I might also add other songs for gathering, and finishing. See an upcoming post later this month for suggestions.
Talk about: The Zone People are using this term fairly commonly these days, to mean that place where you’re doing what you’re doing with a real sense of involvement, pleasure, confidence and results. Some people find this in their daily work. Some in exercise, or the experience of nature. Some in prayer, some in arts based activities such as art, music, writing etc.
I shared my experience of this is writing poetry. When I write, I feel that the small discipline of finding the right topic, the right phrase, the right word can absorb me totally. If I stop to think about it, I realize that it is a place where I co-dwell with God – I’m not so much aware of God’s presence as a separate entity, as aware of dwelling in God, and God in me. I also invite people who identify themselves as artists, musicians, etc, to share their experience.
Sharing experiences: Ask people, as they wish, to share similar experiences in any aspect of life. Emphasize that there is no “wrong” or silly answer. It might be looking after children, washing up, a bike ride, writing letters.
What is common in this experience? Ask people, after this sharing, what common features we might list: Maybe deeper breathing, a sense of peace, a sense of focus, feeling able to cope, etc Write these on a whiteboard.
Make this section very loose. Be clear that these are ideas, and that people can choose their own way to be mindful. Give plenty of time, but schedule a feedback session.
- Take a walk. Use the five senses to be aware of the experience. What do you see, hear, touch, taste, smell? If you feel inclined, write poetry or prose to express this – or draw a picture. If drawing gets you nervous, do it all with nothing but color (no representative) or with magazine collage, or with scratchboard. Or take an item of nature, and use it to make prints. (a pine cone, a leaf, a pebble.)
- Use nature to make art. Create a nature collage, using Andy Goldsworthy’s books as inspiration (see below). Use things you find outdoors to make a decoration (maybe for your altar if you will be having worship). For example, we made a heart outline of small pinecones, and filled it with red berries.
- Read – a poem, or religious or secular prose. Treat it like African Bible Study. What words or phrases leap out at you? Write them down, and see if you can bring them together. Make a picture with the words and connect them somehow.
- Make music / sing – on your own or with others, learn a new song, ideally in harmony. Change the words of a known song to something that reflects your feelings.
- Look at art / Make art. Look at art books and reflect on a picture you love. Write about it, or create your own picture taking something of the style, or medium, or the message you see in it.
- Create your own art that reflects mindfulness / the place you are in.
- Sing your song, or another gathering song.
- Invite people, if they choose, to share what they created, and what their process of creating felt like. Assure confidentiality, and be affirming.
- Ask each person to say what they have gained from this experience, and what they will take home with them.
- Decorate your space with the work you did, fabric, candles, art from nature
- Sing your song
- Repeat the opening mindfulness meditation.
- Give thanks for all you have learned, giving time for people to share.
- Pray for the ministry you do together, and the hope that what you have learned will enrich that ministry, giving time for people to share.
- Share bread and wine if possible, and / or bless / anoint one another and sing a blessing song
- Sing a parting song
- The PBS program, The Buddha offers many educational resources.
- For using with young people, check out The Still Quiet Place.
- "The Zone" or "flow" concept is described by Míhaly Csíkszentmihályi and can be used to understand more about mindfulness.
Using poetry helps focus the mind on images. The Poetry Foundation is a good search engine for certain poets and poetry. Mary Oliver's poems epitomize mindfulness (Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Volumes 1 and 2 and a number of other shorter collections). Children's poetry collections are also great because the include illustrations. My favorites are The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems and Caroline Kennedy: A Family of Poems. Stirling also publishes a series, Poetry for Young People in which a single poet is studied and illustrated (about 20 poems each).
Any book covering an art collection is full of resources. These are expensive when bought new, but can often be found in second-hand book stores. Some favorites:
- The Smith College Museum of Art: European and American Painting and Sculpture, 1760-1960 is great.
- Andy Goldsworthy is a sculptor whose medium is the natural world - leaves, flowers, ice, snow, stone, wood, vines. The beautiful pictures of his work can be seen as both art and inspiration to go out and find materials that you can create with. Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature (Harry Abrams, publisher)
- America's Glorious Quilts by Dennis Duke (Hugh Lauter Levin, publisher) is a huge book of quilts through the ages. Masters Art Quilts (several volumes) is a collection of modern art quilts from Lark Crafts Publications.
- Material World and others by Peter Menzel compare the belongings and lifestyles of families from different cultures.
- Doorposts and other books of religious calligraphy by Timothy Bott
Think and pray on what you hope for your retreat. Find a short song, hymn refrain or verse that people will be able to learn by heart. Teach it as the beginning of the event and sing it several times more, especially when you are re-gathering after time apart. The following were chosen as not needing accompaniment. A solo instrument would be a great help:
- Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit - 751 (refrain)
- All who hunger - 761 (A verse and the refrain, or just the refrain)
- As we gather - 763 (Choose one verse)
- Taste and see - 764 (Refrain, with solo verse if possible)
- Baptised in water - 767 (First or last verse)
- We all are one in mission - 778 (First or last verse)
- Heleluyan - 783
- Pelotsorona - 784
- Santo, Santo, Santo - 786
- We are marching - 787
- Peace before us - 791
- Many are the lightbeams - 794
- I want Jesus - 805
- If you believe - 806
- Thuma Mina - 808
- Bless the Lord my soul - 825
- Laudate Dominum - 829
- Ubi Caritas - 831
- Veni sancte spiritus - 832
From My Heart Sings Out
- I thank you Jesus - 10
- Give thanks - 8
- Peruvian Gloria - 11
- Halle, Halle Halleluia - 18
- I will praise your name - 25
- Holy, Holy, Holy - 26
- Your kingdom come oh Lord - 27
- Know that God is good - 31
- Take oh take me as I am - 46
- Behold I make all things new - 47
- Bread of life - 48 (Refrain)
- May the God of Hope - 54 (Refrain)
- Yo soy la luz del mundo - 75
- Sing oh People - 101
- Oh the Love of my Lord - 147 (Choose a verse)
- The tree of life - 149 (Choose a verse)
Ending songs in My Heart Sings Out
- Let us now depart - 53
- Blessing songs - 55, 56, 57
- In you our hearts find rest - 145
- God to enfold you - 146
Fiona Vidal-White is a musician, Christian educator and Liturgist with a Bachelor's Degree in Performing Arts, a Master's Degree in Sacred Music (BU), and most recently, a Master's Degree in Elementary Education (Lesley University). Her passion for transformative change, in Sunday worship and in the whole wide church, is a gift from her father.