Monday, May 22, 2017

Withdrawing and Retreating: The Importance of Ascetic Elements in Life

IN MY LAST POST, I shared with you how I always look for God when I travel. And I’m doing it again this week as my husband and I return to the mountains of Southern California, a place we’ve been retreating to off-and-on for thirty-one years and plan to return to yearly now. I felt a little slow on the uptake this last week, though, since I was flattened with bronchial pneumonia, partly due to the horrendous winds we’ve had in Arizona the last couple of months (I’m allergic to dust, and there’s an overabundance of dust in the desert), and partly due to my overextended, exhausted lifestyle.
            I think that latter reason is caused by several factors:

1. It’s a curse I’ve inherited from my Pilgrim forefathers. (Although they did know how to observe the Sabbath, something—to my detriment—I’ve been laying aside the last couple of months.)

2. It’s an ingrained habit I’ve acquired from adopting that uniquely American, Puritan work ethic. (Something we Yankees tend to brag about, without examining some of the negative effects that can accompany it.)

3. I’m married to a visionary man who’s determined to pack a dozen lifetimes into one. (I shouldn’t lay all of the blame at his feet, though, since I have a propensity to do that too.)

4. For some unexplored reason (undoubtedly psychological) I feel guilty if I’m not functioning as a human doing rather than a human being. Somewhere deep down, and even though I know better, I feel as though my self worth depends upon it.

           If I’m honest with myself, that last one is probably the main issue: I feel as though my self worth depends upon it. And I’m (once again) paying the price for that erroneous belief.
            In the last several weeks, God whispered to me that I needed to s-l-o-w down, but—being the stoic, ex-competitor athlete that I am, I tried to muscle through. He spoke louder, and I backed off, a little. Then He hollered, I was flattened, and I waved the white flag of surrender. And now I’m on a re-scheduled relaxation vacation (funny how God plans these things ahead of time knowing when you’ll really need them), looking for God in the pine-tree laden terrain, decomposed granite peaks, and winter snow-drenched lake.
            I was still feeling a tad guilty about it, (probably because we had to leave our two four-footed children at a pet hotel), until I happened to read a passage from Mindy Belz’s great new book They Say We Are Infidels. (God even sent me vacationing with just-right reading material!)

            “Christianity has had an ascetic element from the start. Jesus withdrew to
            rest and to pray in private. He warned his disciples not to be weighed
            down by the cares of this life. The apostle Paul retreated into the deserts
            of Arabia after his conversation and later added his own counsel in favor
            of a solitary life. From their earliest days, some among the followers of
            Christ became solitaries, or monachos in the Greek” (pages 18-119).

            While I’m not about to begin practicing a life of extreme asceticism, abstaining from all indulgences, I do know I need to incorporate an element of it into my life. I need to take my own advice, and I need to take it more often. If withdrawing from the crowds and His closest circle of friends and from daily labors was good enough for my Lord, then it’s good enough for me. More than good enough, actually. If it was necessary for Jesus, then how much more necessary for me, a mere mortal? If He warns me not to let the cares of this world weigh down my heart and mind, then I need to take His advice. My physical, psychological, and spiritual health depend upon it.
            I need to set any guilt aside, reject any pre-conceived notions of a work ethic that borders on extreme and neurotic; and I need to remind myself—often—that my self worth is not measured by what I do or by my performance. My self worth is inherent because I am made in the image of God, and is further established by my relationship with His Son Jesus Christ.
            And knowing these truths helps me live more purposefully, and in a state of peace. And when I take time away, extended times of Sabbath and mini-sabbaticals, I can hear Him more clearly. I can love more fully. I can focus more intently. I can set aside those things that encumber me. And as I look forward to the week of rest and recuperation, I do so with an expectant heart. Because I know, as He is so faithful to do, God will be speaking to me, as often as I am ready to hear and listen.
            Even this vacationing can become an idol, though, so this is not about doing or not doing. This is about doing all that I do unto the Lord. It’s about eating unto the Lord. It’s about working unto the Lord, and playing unto the Lord. And this week, for me, it’s about resting unto the Lord.
            It’s about having joy and peace in all things because the joy of the Lord is strength to all who possess and enjoy it. It’s so much easier to do when you’re on vacation, but I know when I return home, I need to follow Jesus’ advice and find more frequent ways to remove myself from life’s stressors and its cares, so I’m already thinking ahead. I’m jotting down what I can do:

1. Daily—maybe setting my work aside sooner, getting myself ready for bed sooner, unwinding, and then spending some extra time in mediation and prayer at the end of the day before going to bed.

2. Weekly—making sure I really honor the Sabbath, from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. Rest, worship, and pray.

3. Monthly—Take a full day to take a drive, get away from my surroundings, go up the mountain behind my home. Or maybe head to one of our local botanical gardens to walk, sit, pray, and write. Niggle my brain and be refreshed.

4. Quarterly—Maybe pack a duffle bag and head to a nearby town for a change of scenery. Or load the dogs in the car, attach the trailer to it and head to some nearby campground to live in the wilderness for a couple of days. That’ll quickly recharge the senses.

5. Yearly—Taking at least a week-long vacation, although my husband and I are prone to stretching it out much longer than that. We find we have to, probably because we’ve avoided all of the ascetic elements—of withdrawing to rest—that we should have been practicing throughout the year. It takes us at least a week to recover so we can actually rest and rejuvenate on the vacation.

6. Sabbatical—It would be a dream to actually take a seventh-year sabbatical like some college professors get to do, but I’m dreaming!

            For now, I’m reveling in the week I’m being treated to right now!

               This is the vision I awoke to Saturday morning, the first full day of our vacation. I expect to enjoy a lot more of these kinds of views this week. My heart is already overflowing with the possibilities, because now there’s room there for them to be nurtured.

I’m even making sure that I am enjoying the delicacies of the mountain town and eating unto the Lord!

The playing will probably come later in the week as my lungs recover more fully. J

What ascetic elements do you practice, or can you start practicing in life right now? What’s working for you?


Pursuing rest and peace at 6,752 feet and above!

May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

Photos by Andrea Arthur Owan