Earlier this summer, we hosted a group that had participants spanning three or four generations. Within an hour of checking in, some of the children found the natural playscape and began a gagaball tournament. During that same hour, a few adults called the front desk requesting help accessing live TV. They were genuinely distressed when they couldn’t get it working. After twenty minutes of troubleshooting, staff members were able to connect them to what they were looking for; I was not among them.
In the flurry of check-in and a busy afternoon, I felt irritated. Why come on a retreat to watch TV? Isn’t a retreat supposed to be a break from everyday life and a chance to enjoy a new pace and rhythm? Why do we resist disconnecting even when on retreat? What gets triggered inside us when we unplug from those things on the outside? Where can we dock in order to truly recharge?
I sat with these questions for weeks. However, rather than sharing insights from my reflection, I’d like to unpack something else: how a simple question about TV launched me into a spiral of judgment. Why did I have such a strong reaction to something most people do every day? Why would my opinion on how someone else wants to spend their time matter anyway?
My quick judgment, I realized, did not reflect the kind of hospitality at the heart of retreat. In his book Reaching Out, priest, professor, and spiritual guide Henri Nouwen writes, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find their own.”
I have a lot of ideas about how to experience change on retreat and could suggest strategies to feeling refreshed and renewed, but imposing those ideas on another would not be Christian hospitality. Authentic Christian hospitality does not coerce; it doesn’t patronize; it doesn’t judge. It doesn’t suggest one lifestyle is superior to another or one choice is better than another. Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center seeks to extend Christian hospitality which means everyone is welcome, every life is valued, and a diversity of ways of living are respected. Retreat center ministry is about creating friendly empty space for others to take up and find who they truly are.
What I intended weeks ago to be a reflection about disconnecting from distractions and redirecting ourselves toward renewal took an unexpected turn. Perhaps what I might disconnect from today is my judgment of others’ decisions about what’s best for them and instead redirect my resources toward creating free space for another to enter. Maybe if I spent less energy worrying about the choices of others, I would find more peace, harmony, and joy within. The next time I’m met with a request that differs from how I might retreat myself, I could choose a radical presence to their desire. Perhaps in that way, all of us might experience the gift of transformation in the specific way we uniquely long for it.
Jeremy Bork is the Director of Programming and Communications at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. To learn more about scheduling a retreat, fill out this inquiry form.