Having lived in Los Angeles for 7 years now, I most often think of “retreat” as a retreat from the city. I love the spirituality that is so tangible in a natural setting and often find that tangibility muffled or muted in the dense, urban setting of Los Angeles. But it’s possible to retreat in the midst of an urban jungle. Late last fall, I took most of a day for a silent, personal retreat in the midst of downtown Los Angeles. Below are some reflections on that day offered in hope that you might find space reflection in your life even if you’re trapped in the middle of a city.
After considering finding space at a retreat center or monastery, I decided instead to retreat in the midst of downtown Los Angeles. While not the typical or idyllic retreat setting, I wanted to experiment with being present with God in the midst of a familiar urban setting. So I spent a day downtown at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
My retreat began as I exited Union Station in downtown and set out walking the mile from the station to the Cathedral. In some ways, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage. As I walked uphill, I saw the Cathedral bell tower towering over the downtown skyline and found myself reflecting on the Psalms of Ascent and the journey of pilgrims traveling upward to Jerusalem.
In addition to practicing silence and presence with God, I also wanted to listen and respond to God through art and creativity. Having previously spent time in the Cathedral, I knew some of the major artistic features in the cathedral (specifically the Communion of Saints and Baptistery tapestries) and planned times of reflection around them. I spent time in the small rotating art galleries placed around the sanctuary and also captured some of the features of the Cathedral with my camera. After my retreat, I read an article from Time about the construction of the Cathedral and was not surprised to find the architect designed the Cathedral in order to “provide [the] community with a sense of monastic enclosure.”
The Time article continues:
Monasticism may seem an odd inspiration for a building as central to the larger community as a cathedral, but it’s key to this one, a high-walled enclosure in ocher concrete with a minimum of window or entryway cuts in its lower half. The mostly windowless exterior and the Spanish-mission-style walls that surround the entire compound can make the church seem to be holding itself apart from the city. The edgy silhouette is both familiar and new, not a postmodern replica of Spanish missions but a sophisticated recollection of them, one filtered through the jagged memory of the urbanized era that followed theirs. At its skyline it has the excitement of the new, but it beckons you into the past.
During the retreat, I spent just under five hours in silence. I entered the Cathedral and sat for the last ten minutes of the mid-day mass, remaining in the sanctuary for some time reflecting on the repeated refrain sung during the Eucharist: “I am filled with Christ and it brings me joy.” I found my prayers centering on this line throughout the day, recognizing areas of my life that are neither marked by the fullness nor joy of Christ and praying for God’s fullness and presence in these areas.
The words of Henri Nouwen were also on my mind throughout the retreat. I read In the Name of Jesus for the first time in college and have returned to it many times throughout my ministry experience. As I read in preparation for the retreat, I marked and underlined many selections of the text glossed over during previous reads. This was encouraging to me, as it signaled growth and new life in my leadership despite recurring fears of inefficacy and stagnation. It also gave me greater appreciation for the depth of Nouwen’s insights for the journey of the Christian leader.
Specifically, I was struck by Nouwen’s words that “often…priests and ministers are the least confessing people in the Christian community.” Despite regular practices of confession built into the rhythm of my church community, I identified areas of my heart I have not opened up in a posture of confession and, listing these in my journal, hoped and prayed that I might experience the “reconciling and healing presence of Jesus” in these areas. Later in the retreat, I walked through the Cathedral’s mausoleum, I connected items on my list with feelings and experiences of death, loss, pain and grief in my journey.
While I found it helpful to reflect specifically and intentionally about pain and brokenness, I also attempted to balance my retreat with encouragement and rejuvenation. Nouwen writes about the mystery of leadership, that “leadership, for a large part, means being led.” Though it is a great struggle for me, one of the core hopes my co-pastors and I have for our congregation is that we would understand and grow in their identity as a child of God. As God’s child, I can fall into the arms of a loving and patient father and grow as a follower even as I lead in my congregation.
Closing out my retreat by focusing on growing as a follower, I finished my time near the Cathedral’s baptistery where five tapestries nearly fifty feet tall portray John’s baptism of Jesus where God offered these loving and affirming words to Jesus: “this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). After time of critical reflection on brokenness, loss, and pain, I prayed that fresh reflections on this understanding and experience of God’s love would continue to provide encouragement and affirmation for my ministry going forward.