I watch people at New College Berkeley’s contemplative retreats. As the hours pass, their bodies shed tension.
They become comfortable with the shared solitude that the silence allows. The lines of concentration around their eyes evaporate, and some people move to the floor in postures of prayer while others pray outside on balconies and in the garden. Everyone slows down.
Just as Sabbath is a weekly invitation to be still and know that God is God (as Psalm 46:10 calls us to do), Lent is a forty-day speed bump in the church year. It holds space for us to slow down, remember Jesus, and pay attention to the meaning of His life for ours. The word “Lent” comes from Romance language cognates meaning long and slow (like lento in music), and it comes to us from the Old English word for springtime, lencten. As seeds stir underground and the days lengthen in spring, so we attend to God’s slow, steady work in our lives. What is stirring in you in this new year of your life?
For more than twenty years New College Berkeley has offered contemplative Lenten retreats. Initially they were held at the Lutheran seminary on the hill, overlooking the San Francisco Bay to the west and the rolling hills of Contra Costa County to the east. We spent a good deal of time outside noticing intimations of springtime. For the past ten years the Lenten retreats have been co-sponsored with and held at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. Men and women sink into the retreat’s contemplative pace in large, quiet rooms, and linger in the PrayerGarden.
As a host to the time, I pay attention to what people say and how they look. They arrive on the Saturday morning, sometimes from long drives and almost always from full weeks. Many people look tired. Some look as though they’re beginning to wonder if it might have been better to sleep in, or finish some work that was still incomplete on Friday. They also look expectant as they settle into the welcoming space we’ve prepared for them, and begin to notice what’s stirring within them. Each person has made the effort to set aside this particular time for prayer as we all remember Jesus’s final weeks on earth. How are you doing that this Lent?
The word “contemplative” has to do with being in or with the temple—that space in which we hope to encounter God. That makes both Sabbath and Lent, in essence, contemplative times. The movement is a receptive one: We pause, turn from our engagements, and turn toward the Holy with open hearts and hands. People go through those movements at the retreats. With them I, too, stretch out my roots toward the ground water and my hands toward the light of the One who shines in the darkness; the One who, as Lent and Easter remind us, is not overcome.
Susan S. Phillips (Ph.D.) is executive director of NewCollegeBerkeley, teaches Christian spirituality at the GTU, RegentCollege,
and other seminaries, and is a spiritual director. She is the author of Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction.(September, 2013, November 2013, April 2014,