clouds and blue skies over prairie and trees
By Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

This piece is part of a series offered by the GilChrist team during the month of October about practices of healing, in honor of GilChrist’s 25th anniversary on October 15.

When I was a toddler, my hair was very slow to grow, but my mind was always racing with all of the things I was noticing and learning about the world. My mom would say, “Grass doesn’t grow on a busy street!” At 41, I have more hair, but the mental race is still on. I have to remind myself often to lower my shoulders away from my ears, unclench my jaw, breathe, and listen.

Before I got connected to the retreat centers west of Three Rivers—the Hermitage Community, St. Gregory’s Abbey, Apple Farm Community, and GilChrist—I hadn’t really considered the value of silence. What I considered my work in the world was all about doing: writing, publishing, organizing events, networking, promoting, teaching, fundraising… If it was all in the service of justice and flourishing for all people and all of creation, what could be wrong with working from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I fell back into bed at night? In fact, wasn’t it my obligation to work as hard and as much as I possibly could to change the world? Admitting exhaustion felt like failure, and prayer, one of the central practices of my religious tradition, felt like a waste of time.

Severe burnout found me in my early twenties, just as I was finding my way to Three Rivers and discovering the contemplative communities there that hold space for silence—not because they’re detached from what’s going on in the world, but on behalf of the life of the world and all that is in it: trees and humans and cultures and waterways and systems. I had a sense of coming home.

Today, my work involves both community development in a small, rural city and tending space for retreat just outside those city limits, and I’m thankful for the back-and-forth conversation between these two forms and geographies of my vocation. How can a retreat center, as an institution, embody social equity? How can an organization working to help build a more just community witness to the practice of silence as solidarity, as lament, as soul nourishment for the long journey? In all of this, the practice of silence brings me back to wholeness when I’m feeling fragmented, to hopefulness when I’m feeling despair, to what-is-my-work-to-do when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It both brings me back to myself, and to everything and everyone beyond myself.


GilChrist retreat center logo with white pine sprig

GilChrist is the public retreat center of the Fetzer Institute. We support the Institute’s mission of helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world by preserving a contemplative environment for healing self, society, and the natural world. We warmly welcome both groups and individuals and people of all faiths and affiliations.