Our Plenty, Our Poverty: A Spiritual Retreat in the Central American Rainforest

We live in a restless world. While God is certainly not absent in the noise and bustle of day to day living, our culture does have a subtle way of anaesthetizing our senses to His Word and presence. The clarion call of the Christian contemplatives is to resist the seductive summons of the world’s purposed chaos through abiding prayer, thought, meditation, and study. This call is predicated on a willingness to acknowledge our need of God. The first of the Beatitudes deals with our need to mourn our sin, to seek God’s presence actively, and to walk humbly in his Spirit. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Contrary to the world’s teaching, Jesus condones a poor spirit, one that is not proud or self-sufficient.

If poverty of spirit is associated with relying not on one’s own merit but upon God alone, it must follow that few people are truly poor in spirit. No, our poverty typically takes an alternate path. It lies in an ignorance of Scripture, of who God really is, and in our penchant for staying so busy that we have little time or energy to seek beyond our present knowledge.

Much of this was brought home to me in a vivid way during a recent Outward Bound expedition to Costa Rica with several students. The theme of our trip was “Pay Attention: God’s Call to the Contemplative Life.” The purpose of the trip was to challenge ourselves physically and spiritually, quietly reflecting on God and our need to depend on Him alone. We prayed for rest and restoration, for renewal and revival, and for revelation and resolve.   At first, the seeping silence was intimidating. Few of us could remember a time when we had been so far from cars, airplanes, cell phones, radios, and television. What better place to think on God, to listen for His still small voice, to look deeper into “these things,” than the remote rainforest?

Prior to the trip, students reported being time-, sleep-, and God-starved. They expressed a desire to reconnect with God, to reflect on His plan for their lives, and to be refreshed in spirit. This theme was repeated in pre-trip interviews where student after student confessed that the demands and pressures of school, compounded by the expectations and lure of the culture were keeping them from a life of consistent devotion, prayer, godliness, and worship.

It is an interesting phenomenon that Americans are, more than ever, pursuing some form of spiritual life. In a culture of rampant extravagance, countless choices in the marketplace, soaring personal debt, and information overload, many find themselves longing for a life that has identity, meaning, and purpose. The poverty of spirit we are enjoined to pursue is supplanted by a prideful lust after the things of the world. We are rich in choices and opportunities, yet we lack the time or inclination to pursue them. We are rich in information, yet poor in discernment. We richly assert personal rights, but are poor in selflessness. A constant self-absorption prevents us from being attuned to and attached to God in any significant way.

It is clear that our poverty is not one of spirit but of character. It is also self-induced. We are asleep to God’s call, and we ignore His Word. We are prone to arrogance, immature and happy to stay that way in a culture that worships youth, and utterly unable to dialogue continually with God or to have any lasting affection for Him. Out of all our material blessings, we are a people benumbed and bewildered by a palpable discontent, loneliness, and boredom.

Could students struggling with these realities really connect with God on this trip? Could they find rest in the midst of very restless lives? Could they “recreate” in a way that pointed them back to their Creator? As I pondered these issues I was sorely reminded of the popular reality TV craze of extreme beauty makeovers, and the irony in the true reality of our need for spiritual, rather than physical overhaul. Most striking is the very poverty of our poverty, expressed by an inability to recognize and own up to our inattention to the things of God.

Leaving home in the ice-cold January dawn, sleepy students boarded a bus for the 3-hour ride to Chicago-O’Hare. We had been instructed to pack only the essentials for two weeks in the wilderness. The gamut of personal CD players and cell phones that emerged on the bus told a sad story of students cocooned in their own very little worlds. Later, as we neared Miami airport, one student commented on the beauty and randomness of the estuaries and mangroves of the Florida Everglades compared to the sterile, streamlined streets of urban Miami, and I lamented in my heart that we even seem to suffer a poverty of landscape, trading the loveliness of creation for the cement of progress.

Soon after boarding the plane for Costa Rica, the power went out over the entire airport, locking the gateway to the plane so that we could not taxi away. We waited an hour while the temperature inside the plane soared to 98o on my husband’s watch-thermometer, a prelude to the heat and discomfort of the coming days. We were hot and thirsty, longing for a cold drink and fresh, cool air. Were we longing for God with the same intensity?

The next morning, after three hours’ sleep and a breakfast of cold rice and beans, we boarded rusty jeeps for the final ascent to our rainforest drop-off. Past small towns, then coffee plantations, and up into dense, dank primeval forests, we left civilization behind with nothing but the packs on our backs and each other. No sooner had the jeep drivers disappeared than we were enveloped by the largeness and stillness of the rainforest.

  Bone- penetrating sunshine and the whisper- flight of impossibly huge indigo butterflies welcomed us in the morning, laying bare the true poverty of our senses up to that point.   Suddenly, the chaos of the past 24 hours of travel melted away into a much simpler rhythm. Students later recorded in their journals that the immensity of the moment was nearly overwhelming. We each harbored secret fears that we would not be strong enough to begin, much less complete our journey. Asking for God’s blessing and protection, we began hiking–straight up, in the rain and heat and altitude for ten kilometers. At first, the seeping silence was intimidating. No CD players here, only the music of our own labored breathing punctuated by birdcalls, thunder, and rain dripping on our packs. Few of us could remember a time when we had been so far from cars, airplanes, cell phones, radios, and televisions.

Hard work has a way of stifling frivolous chatter. My own heart and mind, so intent on focusing on God and listening for His voice, could instead only concentrate on my feet; steep rocky paths required constant vigilance, and it seemed I could only get enough oxygen for one more step. And yet, to be so physically stretched was uncannily exhilarating. At the same time, it was humbling: my students and their robust legs and lungs could climb circles around me.

I agreed to lead this trip for some of the same reasons as the students; I felt a need to reorient, to point myself back to God, to energize a sagging, tired soul. A middleaged angst had settled inside without warning, a combination of our only child leaving for college, my parents’ sudden frailty and dependence, and full time work that is demanding and draining. Add to that an irrational sense of sorrow that, having intentionally stayed home with our daughter for ten years, I had somehow missed some of the most professionally productive years of my life. Instead of gratitude for delightful, healthy relationships with my daughter and husband, for a job I adore, for the finest Christian students a professor could ask for, and for the lifetime love and sacri- fice of my parents, I could only think, step after sweaty uphill step, that this climb might possibly do me in, and that my life itself was a climb–getting more challenging with each passing year.

God never fails to sustain us when we need it most. A student asked if he could carry something from my pack to lighten my load. I was elated to release that five pound burden when only days before I would have found the process humiliating. It was an exhausted group that finally stopped to set up camp for the night. The blessings of a simpler life were immediate; we ate when we got hungry, we rested when we were weary, we went to bed when it got dark (a wise decision in snake country where the common fer-delance is locally called the “3-Step Snake”–once bit, you have three steps before you drop). That first night, we shared life stories and M & M’s under the dripping rainforest canopy, and learned to be content in the moment without regard for tomorrow’s agenda. We prayed together. And we slept soundly on a blissful bed of cold, hard ground.

Bone-penetrating sunshine and the whisper-flight of impossibly huge indigo butterflies welcomed us the next morning. The rainforest worked its miracles in laying bare the true poverty of our senses up to that point. All of what God surrounds us with is a gift, a seed, but we seldom see it or appreciate it (New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, p. 14). Suddenly, the greens seemed greener, another’s smile more delightful, and the hum of waterfalls in the distance irresistible. Rice and beans were like manna. The new simplicity of our lives–no watches, no conveniences, no deadlines, no money, no Starbucks–stimulated our senses in a new way. A slowlydawning poverty of spirit awoke us to a new life of abundance far different than what we’d been living on campus.

In a tiny treatise called The Poverty of Spirit, Johannes Metz wrote, “A man with grace is a man who has been emptied, who stands impoverished before God, who has nothing of which he can boast…” (p. 25). There’s nothing like an enormous rainforest to make a person feel insignificant. There’s nothing like needing other people just to survive a river-crossing or a rock climb.   The plenty we surround ourselves with in the name of comfort only acts to exclude the God we say we love. In a perverse way, our plenty causes our poverty.   We are so programmed to be strong and independent that it rarely crosses our minds that God calls us to a different attitude. If Augustine was right, the plenty (I call it “stuff”) we surround ourselves with in the name of comfort only acts to exclude the God we say we love. In a perverse way, our plenty causes our poverty. Instead, the call is to spurn instant gratification and pursue the excellence of patience. We are called to confront carelessness with the virtues of compassion and stewardship, to renounce the cultural “noise” that numbs our awareness of our need of God, and to seek the voice and counsel of the One Who loves us.

These mandates seemed quite clear to us as we examined our accustomed way of life. We wondered aloud how we could transform our daily lives back home to create space and time for God and to think deeply about and love the things that are pure and lovely and of good repute. How could we continue to love God with all our heart and mind when both routinely collide broadside with a busy, clamorous culture?

It was difficult for the students to get used to the silence, and refrain from meaningless, staccato chitchat about who was dating whom, who had recently become engaged, and what the best movies of the season were. Because they were not practiced listeners, they were very uncomfortable with silence. Perhaps that’s because they are habituated to rushed, monotonous, perfunctory conversations punctuated by all types of shallow chatter via cell phones and instant messaging, banter that quickly deteriorates into nothing better than gossip. However, in Costa Rica, conversations on the trail were unhurried; we had time to share our struggles and hopes, to pray with and for each other, and to consider together God’s plan for our lives. We had time to go more deeply into listening and speaking with patience and wisdom.

When the literal day of reckoning arrived– a 24-hour solo deep in the heart of the beautifully dangerous rainforest–we were allowed few comforts: a tarp, some water, a headlamp, an emergency whistle, a New Testament. As dusk approached, I worried about snakes. Sleep was more like a fitful 9-hour prayer for daylight to come. I tried to console myself with the thought that strange noises in the dark were not foreign to God at all. My consternation at being a human highway for various creepy, crawling bugs was somewhat humored by the hope that the insects were put out at the inconvenience of having to go up and over me. With the sunrise, I used a smuggled teabag to make sun tea, and set up an outdoor office on a large rock. For the first time in years, I had nothing to do but think, and pray, and contemplate God’s goodness to me for the next ten hours. More importantly, there was no one else to talk to but God. I thought about what it means to be poor in spirit, and how a yielded life leads to great riches–the blessing of walking with God, and the assurance that we have when we choose a life worthy of our calling.What a joy it was to experience time for uninterrupted contemplation. I felt attuned to Merton’s description that contemplation is a “response to a call…from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is…[F]or we ourselves are words of His…[w]ords that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him…” (p. 3). The tiny leaf-cutter ants who work without ceasing spoke to me as loudly as the river, the monkeys, the macaws and the giant trees: God requires a response from us to reflect and echo His calling to be at work in the kingdom.   Instead of being asphyxiated by the details of countless things that don’t really matter, we are called to know God more deeply, trust Him more completely, and serve Him with humility.   My family, my vocation, my students, my past, my future, and all of Creation are God’s gifts to me. My slumbering spirit awakened, replaced with a new sense of gratitude, awe, and purposed calling to a unique and important work.

It is so simple that it defies explanation. Instead of being asphyxiated by the details of countless things that don’t really matter, of being so restless that we rarely experience God’s rest, of being unable to sit peacefully in the fullness of a moment because of all there is to do, we are called to know God more deeply, trust Him more completely, and serve Him with humility, the crown of all God’s most excellent gifts (Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, World Publishing, 1956). I prayed that my students, flung across the rainforest, were being stirred to these same truths.

Our reunion after 24 hours was subdued; no one wanted to break what had been a rare and precious silence. Over the course of the next day, we shared lists of resolves, the foremost being, not surprisingly, the intention to pay more attention to God. We would listen more and speak less. We would pray. We would take a closer, more intimate look at Scripture, and study it more deeply. We would go to bed earlier, see more sunrises and make better use of the early morning. We would be more grateful for God’s hand in our lives. We would turn off our cell phones more often, and take better care of our bodies. We would be more aware of the hurting and needy people in our lives. We would recall the wider world and our call to minister to it with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We would take time for an annual 24-hour solo. The greatest delight of all was that the students and I were no longer restless.

On our last day in Costa Rica, when we had backpacked, then rafted all the way to the Pacific Ocean, I awoke early only to find most students already up. They were at the beach singly and in small groups, praying, jogging or reading as the sun came up red and ripe for a brand new day, and, in a real sense, a brand new life.

Once home, we were bewildered by the excess we saw on every corner, and the genuine poverty it illumined. There were so many cars with just one driver, stores selling just “stuff,” too many pairs of shoes in our closets, fast food burgers with enough beef in them to feed an entire Costa Rican family for a week, and television programs about nothing particularly edifying. This world–our world–blindsided us by its noisy glare, hurried triviality, and wanton wastefulness.

Since that time, we have gone separate ways refocused on God’s call to live out our lives on campus and in the wider world as agents of renewal. Foremost in our hearts is the promise: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” May the poverty of our humanity be revealed in our own poor spirits. My students and I are eyeing the prize and praying that God will continue to reveal Himself to us as we yield daily to Him with our full attention.

Julie Walton is an exercise physiologist and assistant professor of exercise science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she also directs the employee wellness program.