Vacare Deo: Making Space for God in Our Lives

god hurry retreat sabbath unhurried time with god Oct 04, 2023

Blog by Alan Fadling

At Unhurried Living, we often talk about the practice of making uncluttered space and unhurried time in the rhythm of our live to enjoy the presence of God. A Latin phrase some have used to label that practice is vacare Deo. This Latin phrase can be difficult to translate well into English. The verb vacare can mean “be empty,” “be free from or unoccupied,” or “be idle or vacant.” To some that may imply a tone of irresponsible leisure. But vacare Deo simply God the gift of my full attention when so often I give him only a small percentage of my attention at any given moment.


The idea of vacare Deo may be what we hear in Psalm 46:10: “Be still [vacare] and know that I am God [Deo].”


In the Rule of Benedict, vacare appears six times in chapter 48 as part of a discussion about “being free” or “having leisure” for holy reading.     There are certain ways of being present and attentive to God that are best cultivated in a place of solitary quiet. The Rule of Benedict provides plenty of space in the monks’ schedules for holy leisure.


Benedict arranged a daily schedule for his communities that provided several hours of solitary quiet time. So the idea here is to open up moments each day, space each week, and perhaps a day each month to simply be available to sense God’s presence, discern God’s guidance, and hear God’s voice—in scripture, in nature, in our own hearts and minds. It is a mode of receptivity rather than a mode of initiative or intense activity.


Hurried or Unhurried Retreats?

I’ve said before that, as a pastor, I’ve led a lot of getaways that I called retreats and some of those retreats seemed more hurried than unhurried. I now think that the word “retreat” should be reserved for a particular time away that is more focused. Let me highlight the differences between these two ways of designing a retreat.


An unhurried retreat makes space for attendees to engage directly with God, whether in solitude or community. A hurried retreat tends to focus more on attendees as an audience listening to a speaker.


An unhurried retreat is scheduled with plenty of open space for reflection, interaction, prayer, and listening. A hurried retreat is often scheduled down to the minute with little or no time for such practices.


An unhurried retreat is often designed in a way that learning happens in encounter with God, with others, and even with oneself. There is time for discovery, reflection, and discussion. A hurried retreat tends to focus more on information delivery, most often through presentations by content experts.


An unhurried retreat tends to be programmatically simple, personal, and focused on “being with God.” A hurried retreat can be more personality focused with an entertaining, engaging speaker who offers interesting presentations full of good information.


An unhurried retreat tends to arrange for individual housing that allows space for solitude and reflection. A hurried retreat is more likely to provide communal housing that doesn’t allow for time alone.


An unhurried retreat has a smaller ideal group size (usually fewer than 25 retreatants) than a hurried retreat does.


An unhurried retreat arranges time for participants to reflect and to share with others through group interaction and even honest disclosure. Hurried retreats tend to expect that participants will mainly sit and listen to someone else speak.


An unhurried retreat arranges for enough teaching to be digestible. A hurried retreat tends to cram in more teaching than can be absorbed within the timeframe of the retreat.


An unhurried retreat provides intentional space within the schedule for personal encounter with God. A hurried retreat may talk about the importance of spiritual practices without providing space to actually engage in them.


An unhurried retreat schedule has a built-in openness for divine surprises. A hurried retreat schedule usually maps out in advance what will happen.


Looking back over retreats I’ve attended or led, how did I know whether a retreat was more hurried or unhurried? Here are a few questions that have helped me: 

  • Was I more tired after the event than I was coming into it?
  • Was I more excited about the speaker and material, or more excited about the presence of God-with-me? Who or what did I talk about after the retreat?
  • Was I encouraged to continue my “long obedience in the same direction,” or was I urged to get involved in the “latest thing”?


What I’ve called a “hurried retreat” might also be called a conference, and there is a place for such events. But a conference has a different purpose than a retreat.


Let me close with a few thoughts about Jesus’s own practice of retreat.


Jesus and Retreats

The Gospel of Luke gives us the best view of the rhythm of retreat Jesus practiced. Luke shows that Jesus would spend time in retreat before critical moments in his ministry.


  • The Spirit leads Jesus into the solitude of the wilderness as his ministry begins (4:1-14).
  • Jesus begins a day in solitude as he prepares to embark on a preaching tour of synagogues throughout Judea (4:42-44).
  • Jesus spends the night on a mountaintop in prayer prior to choosing his twelve disciples (6:12-16).
  • The disciples witness Jesus’s rhythm of regular prayer and ask him to teach them to pray (11:1-4).
  • Jesus retreats regularly (“as usual”) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane to pray during his last week (22:39-46).


The idea of retreat is something Jesus models. I believe it would be good if our vision of discipleship to Jesus included following this same rhythm of life as his apprentices. Discipleship is not only about proclaiming the words of Jesus or doing the works of Jesus but also following the way of Jesus.


Alan Simpson, an Anglican retreat director from about a century ago, unpacks this sense of Jesus as our model for retreat:


“The Gospels do not declare to us only the outward life of going about doing good. They show us, at least in glimpses, the inner life which lay behind all that in Jesus Christ has commanded the admiration of men. We see as part of this background forty days of Retreat before the ministry begins. When it has begun, at the very times when the opportunities of the kingdom were most abundant, when crowds were coming from the towns and villages demanding His teaching, and bringing their sick to be healed, we see Him deeming it neither a waste of time, nor a turning aside from duty, to go into the wilderness, or up into the mountain, simply to be alone with God the Father.” (Alan Simpson, The Principles and Practice of Retreat [London: A. W. Mowbray, 1927], pp. 8-9.)


Withdrawing to be alone and quiet with the Father was a critical rhythm in the life and work of Jesus. Retreat provides us an opportunity to follow his way of life and leadership.


I’ve come to believe, especially in our hurried times and culture, that the strategic practice of spiritual retreat, both alone and in community, may be one of the most important practices for the health of our souls and the vitality of our work with God.


For Reflection:

  • When you think about retreats you’ve attended (or even led), in what ways were they “hurried” and in what ways were they “unhurried”?
  • When would you like to next make time in your schedule to enjoy some unhurried time with God?


Photo by Nicole Geri on Unsplash