Light and Darkness: Lent Retreat in Bratislava and Vienna

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)

Lent seems like an appropriate time to discuss light and darkness, especially in Central Europe, where the winter days are cloudy, gray, damp, and cold, and the nights are long. The past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been walking through the darkness. Many days, I do not feel like God is present in my life, and it has been difficult to experience God in the ways I am used to: through daily worship, in song, in my relationships, in creation, and more. As I entered our retreat time together, I was looking forward to exploring these themes deeper with my friends, gaining some insight to why I was feeling so detached from God.

We spent our second retreat, once again, in cities (see my blog about our Advent retreat in a city). Our first stop was four days Bratislava, Slovakia. Our country coordinator, Rachel, completed her seminary internship with the Bratislava International Church, and still has many connections there. In one of our sessions, we studied the Road to Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35), to learn how God speaks to us through scripture. One thing that stood out to me was how the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and they say, “‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” It was only after the fact that the disciples recognized him. Maybe I am in a similar time now, and I will look back and say, “oh, that was Jesus” or “oh, that was the Holy Spirit at work.” It’s just frustrating to be in the midst of the period of unrecognition.

After Bratislava, we journeyed to Vienna. We stayed at the Magdas Hotel, which is part of a social business organization that employs people who have difficulty finding work for a variety of reasons.  The Magdas Hotel employs refugees from many different countries. This hotel was transformed from an old retirement home that was run by Caritas, a Catholic charity in Austria. It’s decorated in an upcycled style (think Pinterest), and they had donations of furniture from all over Austria. The hotel’s intention is to provide refugees with the opportunity to work, giving them job experience that they can take elsewhere in the community. Magdas has only been operating for one year, and have already been internationally recognized for their work in the hospitality industry. It was uplifting to encounter a business that is doing such good work in the local community, and is a light in the seemingly endless darkness of the refugee crisis.

Here are some links to articles about the Magdas Hotel (here, here and here) and their main website.

While in Vienna, we went to Dialog im Dunkeln (Dialog in the Dark), a walk-through exhibit lead by a person who is blind. We walked through a forest, crossed a street, went shopping, rode a boat, and even visited a bar, all in complete darkness. It was really disorienting to have one of my senses gone. I felt really vulnerable to depend on my other senses, the others in my group and our guide. I’d never realized how much I rely on my sight, and when that was taken away, it completely jolting. When we were finished, I wanted to go through again with the lights on, to fill in the gaps of the experience. But I’m glad we were not offered that chance.  It taught me that there are many ways to experience the world around us, if we just engage our other senses.

I’ve come to realize that God works in a similar way. Say you suddenly lose a familiar way of interacting with God (such as moving to a foreign country where English is not widely spoken), and at first, you’ll feel lost, left behind, in the dark. But God is with us at all times and in all places, even in the darkness. It’s kind of like the electromagnetic spectrum (I watch a lot of educational science videos in my free time, but I hope this will make sense). There’s all this radiation out there: radio waves, infrared radiation, the visible spectrum, x-rays, and more. We directly interact with the visible spectrum, and if we take out the visible spectrum, the radio waves and everything else is still there, interacting with the universe. However, we can’t experience it with our eyes, as we do with the visible spectrum. We need some other method to experience the electromagnetic radiation.

One of the biggest struggles of this year has been finding those other ways to experience God. This darkness has been frustrating, because when I read scriptures like those in John and 1 John, it sounds like I am not following Christ (“in him there is no darkness at all”). But even in the darkness, God is still beside me. The retreat equipped me with new skills and tools to experience God in new ways. It has taken some time, but now I am beginning to experience God in other ways in my community. I’ve been intentional about reflecting on this every day: maybe it will be the way the birds wake me up in the morning, or the conversation I have with a teacher in the coffee room, or witnessing an interaction between people on the bus. It’s not what I’m used to, but God is still with us at all times and in all places, interacting with the world in surprising ways. Even in the darkness, God is still at work in the world.

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