I started feeling guilty even before I reached the retreat house. I was on my way to spend a weekend of prayer and silence at a Jesuit center in rural Pennsylvania. This was a chance to withdraw from the hectic pace of daily life and enter into the peaceful quiet to hear God’s voice more clearly.
Meanwhile, I left behind a world in chaos.
Earlier that week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence did not qualify for asylum in the United States. As we reeled from this decision, journalists toured a detention facility for children in Texas and emerged with disturbing images and stories.
I was relieved to step away from the news cycle for a couple of days. Like many others, I struggle with what some call “Trump fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from the relentless cycle of crises, the need to remain constantly alert and engaged in social action, the creeping sense that nothing I do makes any difference.
Like many others, I struggle with what some call “Trump fatigue.”
That exhaustion leads to Trump fatigue’s greatest danger: It can make you numb, a privilege that many do not have.
And so, as I drove deeper into the countryside, my guilt intensified. Was I taking care of myself or just burying my head in the sand? With the world on fire, what good could a weekend of prayer and silence do?
As a disclaimer, I have some professional bias in favor of retreats: I run them for a living. But one of the ironies of being a high school campus minister is that I am often so busy helping others deepen their faith lives that I cannot find time to nourish my own. So when I arrived at Wernersville, my primary goal was to settle in, quiet down and focus on God.
With the world on fire, what good could a weekend of prayer and silence do?
But shutting out the world was more difficult than I thought. At one point, I found a copy of The New York Times in a breakroom, featuring the now famous photo of a 2-year-old girl screaming on the side of the road as her mother is frisked against a border patrol vehicle. She reminded me of my own 2-year-old daughter. I left the room, shaken and feeling guilty.
What was I doing here? What did any of this matter, when children were being terrorized and detained, torn from their parents’ arms? How could I be so selfish as to step away?
Early the next morning, I met with my spiritual director, a Jesuit who did not have his head in the sand. Like many priests I have known, he was passionate about his faith and caring for Christ’s poor. Still, when I spoke to him about my exhaustion, he did not try to rally me with a speech about fighting injustice. Instead, he encouraged me to spend the weekend surrendering to God and recognizing who was really in charge.
“You don’t have to save the world,” he said. “That’s someone else’s job.”
If Jesus was not too busy to take a break, then neither are we.
I was amazed by how much trouble I had with this. I want to believe I have some power to change things in this country and in the world. Maybe I do—but probably far less than I would like to think. That fear drove my action, made me believe that if I did not sign a petition or read a news story or make a call to Congress, then everything would fall apart. That fear prevented me from taking breaks, even to spend time with God.
And now I was exhausted. What had it really helped?
I thought about the person whose job was saving the world. Christ knew the value of stepping away. Yes, he was active, frequenting towns and cities, and working directly with the poor. But he also found time to be alone with God: “The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (Lk 5:15-16).
Thinking about Christ gave me some much-needed perspective and humility. Instead of nursing my guilt, I took up my spiritual director’s challenge to surrender my will and worries to God. In return, God led me through that weekend, offering me rest, peace and a chance to learn a little more about God’s limitless love for the world. When I left on Sunday afternoon, I found that my strength and faith were renewed. I was ready to return to the chaotic world outside and to meet its challenges with love and courage.
Perhaps, in the age of Trump, Merton is the sort of model that Catholics need.
All of this from a few days away. It made me wonder if maybe one of the most important things that people of faith can realize in these days of struggle and outrage is that if Jesus was not too busy to take a break, then neither are we. Even if it is just a few minutes of prayer each day, we—like Christ—need to withdraw to the wilderness every now and then.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says that retreating into solitude should not be used as an escape from the world but as a means to live more fully in it. “Go into the desert,” he wrote, “not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.”
Merton spent the better part of three decades in a Trappist monastery and still managed to be active in the tumultuous world of his day. He was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., opposed the Vietnam War and spoke out against many other injustices. Perhaps, in the age of Trump, Merton is the sort of model that Catholics need: a holy man committed to living his faith through activism and solidarity, who nevertheless knew the importance of retreating to a quiet place and surrendering to God in silence. Like me, you may find this difficult. But if done with the right intentions, stepping away can be a truly radical and powerful act.