Tomorrow I’m driving to a log cabin in remote northern Quebec to spend a month in the woods by myself. That said, I’m not exactly roughing it. The cabin has electricity, a kitchen, a bathroom and what looks like a comfortable bed. The purpose of this adventure isn’t to prove I can survive in the wilderness without basic creature comforts for four weeks, but rather to unplug and re-centre in solitude and silence. Just nature, the Spirit and me.
I’m both excited and apprehensive. I’ve done many silent retreats in the past, but never for this long. A month is a long time to be by myself. Some people assume silent retreats are like a relaxing holiday.
To those people, I say, “Go on a silent retreat, and then we’ll talk.”
Yes, it’s restful and rejuvenating to be in nature, but being fully present with yourself without the distractions of smartphones, Netflix, news updates, social media, sports highlights and conversations with other people is no small feat. Try it for a month. A week. Even a few days. I double dog dare you. It’s not as easy as it might sound.
So it is with some trepidation that I embark on this journey. Yet I know I need it. It’s been a long time coming. This hermitage marks the beginning of my first sabbath season (sabbatical) in 23 years of pastoral ministry. I’m extremely grateful to Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont., and my family for providing me with this opportunity.
I realize that not everyone understands or supports sabbaticals for pastors. I get it. It’s not like pastors are the only ones with demanding jobs.
Why doesn’t everyone get sabbaticals? I don’t know. Perhaps we all should. What I do know is, at this point in my life and ministry, this feels right, providential even. And I’m very grateful to be part of a denomination and church that values this restorative practice for pastors.
Why do I need this? It’s not just that I’m tired. Who isn’t these days? I think I need this because I’ve lost perspective. When you pastor non-stop for decades, eventually you get out of touch. Out of touch with people who don’t go to church. With the people you pastor. With who you are besides being a pastor. With the divine Spirit who is beyond the church and Mennonite theology. With your family, because you’re stuck in “Pastor Dad” and “Reverend Husband” modes. With your true calling, gifting and passion. With why you became a pastor in the first place.
A few years ago, there was a series of Febreze commercials about nose blindness that featured people living in spaces that smelled like fish or cats or hockey equipment, but the inhabitants no longer noticed because they had been living with the smell for so long.
We all get used to the smell of our own space. We can’t smell it anymore. But others can.
This happens to us as individuals and as churches. Over time, we no longer smell the soiled, rotting, toxic stuff in our midst because we’ve gotten used to it. Others notice, but we don’t.
And the problem isn’t that our unique “aroma” is an acquired taste that is mildly off-putting to others at first. The problem is that sometimes our odour is selfish, racist, sexist, prejudiced, hateful, paranoid, exclusionary, superstitious, delusional, idolatrous or worse.
Someone once told me, “We become what we tolerate.” I think this is true for individuals and churches alike. Getting away from it all can help us see what we’ve been tolerating in our lives and in our churches.
But it’s not only the negative stuff we lose sight of. We also become blind to our gifts, strengths, passions . . . our calling. We can become so overcome with our shortcomings and imperfections that we lose sight of all the good and beauty in our lives and in the church community.
I think this is why this sabbatical is important for me. (This and finally finishing my book.) I will step away from church, pastoral ministry and my routine to renew my perspective. To see the negative stuff I’ve been tolerating in my life, ministry and church, as well as the positive things in my life, ministry and church that I’ve lost sight of. Like when you go away from your house for an extended period of time and, upon returning, you get a whiff of what your house really smells like.
Troy Watson is not out of the woods yet.