retreat photoIt seems that my May blog post on “stillness, silence, and solitude” struck a vibrant chord with readers. I’ve heard from several folks yearning to “go on retreat,” but then wondering how one prepares to “do” a retreat?

One SOS email came from a woman wanting to bail out of a retreat that ended up far more congested with other people than she anticipated. She felt herself “constricting” away from her co-retreatants, wanting to be alone. But, she said, that “feels a bit scary, because I have not learned to structure solo retreats for myself. Maybe I’ll create a daily schedule for myself that involves meditating, writing, walking, reading. Is that how it works, oh solo-retreat guru ;-)) ??”

I fear I have a somewhat ill-gotten reputation for retreating. Perhaps I’ve made my retreats sound way more spiritual and satisfying than the reality might warrant. I thought: oh, if only she knew how I REALLY “do” my retreats! But then, I guess that’s why she wrote to me, so I told her honestly: I’m an introvert; I understand “constricting.” I do it all the time. If remaining constantly “open” to others is what I’m supposed to learn, I’ll work on that one in my next lifetime, thank you. I wouldn’t survive if I couldn’t curl up in my snail-shell and close its door (it’s called an “operculum,” by the way, at least for snails, and maybe for retreatants too).

In fact, THAT’S what a retreat means to me – pulling back from daily demands to be very alone, with just myself and – if I choose to allow Her to join me (She never insists) – with the Holy One.

As for structuring solo retreats: the only advance planning I do is to answer these questions:

1) what do I hope for from this time away?

– to listen more clearly for the voice of the Divine?

– to write six poem drafts each day?

– to sleep as much as possible? (if so, do not take a clock)

– to simply wander in Nature and notice?

[note to self: focus on just ONE of the above – if you try to cram everything into a few days, you might as well stay home.]


2) where shall I go?

I’ve often stayed in inexpensive motel rooms, ones that have a small fridge, a coffee maker, a microwave, and a desk.

The hospitality offered by religious sisters, especially those of the Benedictine Order, comes with the option of spiritual direction, meals with the sisters (often silent), and is imbued with a gracious warmth – you can design your own solo retreat, do not need to follow any set pattern, do not need to be Catholic. (Check out

However, I’m on a fixed income, and often I’ve been lucky enough to be offered hospitality by a variety of friends who have a studio, a guest house, a mother-in-law apartment, a guest room. The difficult part for me is the asking. It’s worth it to take the risk.


3) do I really want to lug twelve books with me?

Leave behind the spirituality books (do I care what someone else thinks, or do I want to learn what I think and what I hear inside?). Leave behind the how-to-pen-the-perfect-poem books (if writing is the focus, just DO the writing). Okay, maybe take two books of well-written poetry for inspiration, plus one well-written novel to fall asleep with. That’s plenty.


4) what shall I eat?

– if I’m going to cook, have I packed all the ingredients and utensils I’ll need?

– if I’m only going to snack, will I be satisfied, and do I have enough finger-food? (Sometimes being on retreat builds up a powerful appetite.)

[note to self: eating at restaurants breaks the rhythm and the spell of away-time – not recommended.]


5) is there any special clothing I’ll need?

– do I plan to get out of my pajamas at any time during this retreat?

– am I likely to need a rain jacket or hiking shoes?


So much for “structure.” I generally avoid anything planned or facilitated by anyone else. And I seldom go away with anyone else unless I am certain they are of like mind and know how to be silent and solitary. If I do go with another, we may share check-ins during a pre-chosen time each day. Otherwise, we agree to be mostly in our own snail-shells.

Don’t use cellphone or internet. Both cellphone and wi-fi can decimate an operculum!

The real “secret” of a retreat, for me – the real magic – is closing my operculum, but opening myself interiorly and letting go to whatever emerges there. Being an incurable wordsmith, I usually journal the thoughts or questions that arise, but I don’t try to reach definitive answers – nor finished manuscripts – in the moment; answers and obsessions close off the creative/holy flow just as would a crowd of people (or the internet) clamoring to be listened to.

For me, becoming comfortable within a silent-spirally-alone-uncertainty is what retreats are all about.retreat photo

4 replies
  1. Ann Medlock
    Ann Medlock says:

    I’m realizing that the ONLY time I’ve done this has been a few stints at Hedgebrook.
    My own house, when I’m the only one there, helps me unwind but is too full of things that need doing. They can get so loud I uncurl.

    Good nudge, my friend.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Yup, there is always that “just one more little thing” that needs doing before you can sit down and focus, or nap, or whatever your intention is. As lovely as your house may be, AWAY is better for retreating and unwinding! Those shouting tasks are NOT your friends, and they are impossible to shush.


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