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By Deborah Haak-Frost and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

After four months, GilChrist Retreat Center is open once again. 

In March, as we closed the door behind us with uncertainty and sadness, we didn’t know when we would return. We wiped the calendar—full of group bookings and personal retreat reservations—clean. The cabins, usually filled back-to-back with guests, would sit empty. But we committed ourselves to hold this situation with open hands and hearts, ready to learn and listen and wait and wonder. 

We encouraged our guests, who could not be present on our land, to “retreat in place:” to find centeredness and peace in the places they found themselves. We dialogued with an already strong network of retreat centers in North America, giving and receiving support. We watched the land take a Sabbath of its own. 

While we worked from home and watched the trees fill with leaves outside our windows, we also witnessed a renewed uprising around the persistent racial inequality in our nation and in our world. As we reflected on the need for safety and emotional support during a pandemic as well as the need for personal renewal to support social change, we felt a pulling in a new direction that would shape our re-opening. We decided to take a break, for a time, from the busyness of short-term retreats to specialize in supporting solo retreats of seven nights or longer, what we are calling Deep Rest Retreats. Our reservations filled up amazingly quickly, and we are now welcoming retreatants on site. It seems that guests had been thirsting for this very thing. Some guests have wondered, though, why the shift to longer retreats? 

On a very practical level, the cleaning regimen that feels safest for our staff and guests right now involves at least one week of down-time for each cabin between guests, creating a grounding rhythm of one week on, one week off.  

But beyond the practical considerations, a longer retreat is an opportunity to slow down and deepen in during a moment that feels particularly frantic and fragmented. With the acknowledgment that an extended period of solo retreat can bring its own set of opportunities and challenges, GilChrist caretaker John Howie put together a list of considerations for a longer retreat to support our guests in this experiment. “People often come into retreat with lofty goals in mind,” he says. “What we don’t know when we go on retreat is what the retreat has in store for us.” 

In addition to serving our human community, longer retreats uphold the continuation of Sabbath: a rest for the land we tend at GilChrist, which, over the past several months, has noticeably changed the behavior of the animals who call this place home.  

We do lament that this decision results in fewer guests being able to experience retreat at GilChrist. Due to limited cabins in use and extended cleaning times, we have already reached capacity, and we’re also aware that spending seven nights away from home, work, and personal responsibilities is not possible for everyone. Guests have consistently remarked that even a short amount of time at GilChrist is deeply valued and restorative, and we are so grateful for that. Through the coming months, we will continue to evaluate the timeline for a return to shorter retreats. In the meantime, we’re tracking other centers in our region that are currently accepting reservations for shorter retreats. 

In a staff conversation recently, we discussed GilChrist as a space offered to help guests breathe—a space to slow down, catch one’s breath, and breathe into the present. In meditation, breath is the centering focus. And, we know, breath carries much significance at this moment in history.  

We hope that Deep Rest Retreats will serve as a breath that sustains our guests for good work, inspiring deep transformation in every corner of our broken, beautiful world. 

Deborah Haak Frost, caretaker for community engagement, and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, head caretaker, both work at the Institute’s public retreat center, GilChrist.