If you are lucky enough to get time for vacation, you know that the week leading up to time away is a slog. The hours pass slower, and slower, and slower, until the clock seems frozen. The work feels more tedious and all you notice is how tired you are and tense; how urgent a break is.
What a gift it is to retreat and relax. This past week I stayed in the Adirondacks with my entire family. The environment up there is stunning: dark curves of mountain against pale blue sky, every shade of green dancing on the leaves, lakes as rich as sapphires. My muscles began to melt, and the weight of my body relaxed. My mind was at ease, concerning itself only with what book to read next or what snack to munch on. Success was measured by how much time I spent laughing or laying in the sunshine.
When I am there, my heart becomes extra tender and I feel a sense of yearning: everything seems simpler up at the lake. I have always had a soft spot for the wilderness, which might explain why I moved to Kentucky after graduation or why I love the parts of the Gospel where Jesus retreats to find some solitude. I am introverted by nature, and a lover of solitude by nurture. The tall pines and the mist in the valley seem to protect and nurture that.
I am tempted by the dream that living in such a place would bring those things I seek most: freedom, peace, joy. If only I were there, not here…. If only I were able to retreat…If only I could get away from the anxieties of my day to day life. Life would be just that much richer.
But then I realize I am only dreaming. Life is complicated everywhere, and in different ways. And our human longing does not leave when we “escape” to anywhere. The questions are there – in the desert or the mountains or the suburbs – and they are waiting to be lived, regardless of the environment. The questions are there, too, in the midst of a busy work week or in folding four loads of laundry or in checking email at 7 a.m. But maybe escaping the ordinariness of our lives is the easy road. It is true that some have the vocation to live a solitary or secluded life, but it’s truer that most of us do not. It is harder to live the questions at the kitchen table than in an Adirondack chair with toes in the sand.
Clearly a time to retreat is necessary. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,” says Matthew at the start of Chapter 5. Luke 6:12 mentions that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” And yet it would be a mistake to stop there. What follows in each passage is a return to community and great wisdom: the Beatitudes. The yearning for a break, for a little clarity and simplicity, is a call to Wisdom. We need to heed that call, but we also need to recognize what that wisdom is for: the here, the now, the ordinary community in which we find ourselves. We need to heed that call for our own peace, and for the world’s.