This Saturday, I will be helping to lead a contemplative skills training for folks in the DC area who want to deepen their spiritual lives and explore contemplative practices that help ground us as we engage in social witness. This day-long retreat will be held at the William Penn House, just blocks away from the US Capitol, the Supreme Court, and many other centers of power.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”– Mark 1:35-38
It is, perhaps, a bit ironic for us to hold this retreat on Capitol Hill, in the geographical heart of the very system that often threatens to overwhelm us. Would it not make more sense to hold our retreat outside the city, in a more secluded and idyllic locale?
Maybe. But the reality is that most of us do not have that luxury. While many of us occasionally escape from the pressure cooker of life in Washington, these times away are generally too short and infrequent to form the basis of a healthy lifestyle. Washington is simply too big, and there is too much work to be done. If we are not able to make a sustainable life here where we live and work, this city will eat us alive.
In preparation for this retreat, I have been meditating on Jesus’ prayer practice, and the way that he alternates between engagement with the world and retreat to places of safety and solitude. Jesus models a pattern of action and withdrawal that allows him to remember who he truly is, even as he is constantly pursued by friends, enemies and the ever-present crowds.
Jesus’ practice of cultivating inward groundedness and equilibrium is crucial, because he has nothing else to lean on. Jesus has nowhere to rest his head – literally or figuratively. He is chased from one place to another and rarely allowed much time to simply breathe and settle. Those few moments where Jesus can retreat and remember his mission are truly precious – like oases in the desert.
The two places where Jesus seems to feel most at home is in the solitude of deserted places and in the company of his intimate friends. Jesus demonstrates a deep affinity for deserted places and time alone with God. Before beginning his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days fasting and praying in the wilderness before finally being tested by the devil. It is only after this time of solitude, prayer and preparation that he is ready to take the plunge into a three-year ministry that will cost him everything. Throughout those intense years, Jesus withdraws as often as he can, taking opportunities to be alone in prayer with his Father.
But these opportunities are limited. Jesus is always on the go – teaching and caring for his friends; speaking prophetically to those who oppose him; and attending to the needs of the crowds that pursue him relentlessly. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jesus – whether seeking a cure to illness, hope in the face of death, or forgiveness and release from sin. Jesus is even busier than most of us here in DC!
Yet, though Jesus is rarely permitted to be totally alone, it is clear that he finds solace among his inner circle of friends. He does not retreat with them only in order to teach and lead them more effectively – it seems that he also draws strength from their presence. Perhaps the prime example of this comes on the night he is betrayed. Jesus has retreated along with his disciples to the Mount of Olives, as usual. This night, however, is different from the others, and Jesus spends an extended period in fervent prayer, asking God to take away the cup of suffering and death that he sees before him.
At this time of greatest vulnerability, Jesus turns to his most trusted disciples. He asks them to stay awake with him and pray through the night. The fact that he asks this of the disciples demonstrates how Jesus relies on his friends for support and a sense of “home.” The fact that the disciples fail to stay awake with him reveals just how homeless Jesus truly is.
Another, perhaps less well-known example of Jesus’ practice of taking refuge among his friends is his habit of retreating to Bethany. During Jesus’ ministry in the city of Jerusalem, it seems that he does not normally spend the night there. Jerusalem is the site of Jesus’ most intense, confrontational ministry, and after Jesus cleanses the Temple and drives out the moneychangers, he makes a point of leaving the city, spending the night in the nearby town of Bethany.
Why Bethany? That is where Lazarus, Mary and Martha live. It is a place of safety, comfort and support. It is one of the few places on earth where Jesus knows he will be accepted and welcomed in as a friend. Jesus knows that he will never experience that kind of reception in Jerusalem. The capital city is a place of public praise and hidden plots – not friendship. It seems significant that when Jesus does spend the night in Jerusalem it is the very night that he is betrayed and handed over to death.
How does all this relate to our modern lives as people working for justice and mercy here in a different capital city? What can we learn from Jesus’ cycle of retreat and engagement? What are we to make of his pattern of withdrawal into solitude and engagement with the masses, taking refuge among his closest friends while directly confronting the powers that be? How can we develop a similar practice, one that keeps us centered and ready to receive guidance from God?
God knows we need it! Jesus’ ministry was of the most intense variety, but it only lasted for three years. What kind of intentional practices does it take to labor for decadesin America’s fallen Jerusalem, constantly irradiated by the spiritual energy of a city that is founded on the raw exercise of human power? What could it mean to find our own little Bethany, an intimate and supportive community of friends who remind us of who we truly are and encourage us to greater depth and boldness?