Retreat (n)-a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation and study.

Once a year I and some like minded friends gather deep in the woods of north Alabama for a Spiritual retreat. It takes place at a beautiful camp belonging to a religious denomination in possession of a great deal more certainty than we ragtag band of spiritual vagabonds. The woods and even the very walls of the buildings seem to radiate with the patina of decades of spiritual pursuit.

As we turn into the drive the world begins to fall away. Our worries, our hopes, our struggles get out of the car and step away. They will be waiting for us as we go out on Sunday, but they will seem smaller somehow and harder to see. But for now, we are lighter by the minute.

We drop our bags and head into the woods. Soon there are no man-made sounds save the crunch of leaves under our feet. We follow the music of the wind in the trees and the songs of birds. We descend into a canyon and stand for a time in silence surrounded by boulders left there by glaciers. It has been a dry summer and a small creek barely trickles into a pool made in the rock with a few minnows swimming lethargically.

We hike back out and the rest of our friends are there, some we saw last week, some not since last year. There are hugs, laughter and a dozen conversations at once. We eat, we laugh, we study, we meditate. There are moments of connection, big and small, as we walk the trails or rock on the porch.

I lay down for a nap on Saturday, but there is a serious card game going on in the other room. I am pulled back to consciousness by the sound of my friends’ laughter. I open my eyes in the twilight and inside I am perfectly still.

On Sunday we load our cars, hug our hugs, our minds already beginning to think of the things we left at the entrance. But we go back to our lives more peaceful versions of ourselves.

My mind goes back to the canyon. As we stood in that place as old as time, my friend bent down and gently brushed away a clump of leaves. And what had been a trickle of clear water became a gush and flowed over the rocks into the little pool. The minnows began to swim around, their tails moving faster and faster on the rising tide of hope.

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