I just spent a little more than 24 hours at Well of Mercy, a retreat center in Hamptonville, NC. It’s a beautiful place—set back off a gravel road, with wooded trails and meditation spots by the river. The hospitality makes you feel at home and the natural surroundings makes you feel grounded.


I did struggle a little. Thrilled at first to have nothing to do, it took about an hour for me to start feeling restless. At home, I often lament not having time to read or simply be—but when those are my only options, I start feeling unsettled pretty quickly.

I’m used to a never-ending to-do list of work, errands, cleaning, laundry, exercise, and social engagements. When there is a moment of silence, I turn on a podcast or look up the latest episode of The Daily Show. I complain about not having space in my schedule, but when it does happen, I’m uncomfortable with it.

I decided to take advantage of the prayer path at Well of Mercy. Besides a walking trail with benches, chairs, and hammocks all along it, there is a stretch with stations named for directed reflection. There’s one for Clarity; one for Hope; one for Gratitude and Wisdom and Forgive.

I took my journal and started along the path. Each station has a raised platform with a chair set back in the woods several yards. At each, I took a seat and started to write a reflection and a short prayer on each spiritual principle.

The first one was Serenity. The first thing that came to mind was the beginning of this familiar prayer that I have prayed daily for years: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

My first instinct was to write about how bad I am at serenity, to berate myself for trying frantically to change the things I cannot change and forfeiting the serenity I ask for so often.

But I realized that this could easily become a negative pattern, one that might follow me the whole way down the prayer path. Wisdom? I may be smart, but I am definitely not wise. Gratitude? I take so much for granted. Stillness? With my aching back, fidgety limbs, and anxious mind, that is something at which I am simply terrible.

I did not want to pray my way through all of my shortcomings. There is a time and place for that, but self-flagellation tends to be my default, followed by self-justification: “I’ve been working on being more grateful…sort of…”

So I took a step back and asked instead what each concept meant to me. Serenity: the calm surface of a lake or pond teeming with activity but devoid of the frantic flailing with which I do often muddy the waters. Wisdom: discernment, intentionality, the vision needed to see beyond oneself. Gratitude: the thing that does not erase but accompanies pain so that it need not be endured alone.

This got me out of my head and reminded me of something that is so important and so easily forgotten: spirituality is not something you are good or bad at. These principles are not achievement levels in the video game of enlightenment; they are points of connection to beauty and truth that we never perfect but continually practice.

The statement, “I am bad at Stillness” may be true, but that isn’t the point. Taking time to be still is crucial for us to remember that our value does not come from what we do or accomplish. Assigning “good” or “bad” to any spiritual practice relegates it to our to-do list and saps it of its transformational power.

It’s not about me. It’s about making space for the “still, small voice” that Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19 (which I have tattooed behind my ear). It’s about being reminded that the world will continue to turn without my help or busy-ness* or worrying.

* This autocorrected to “busy-mess.” I kind of love that. Hence the blog title.

Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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1 Comment

  1. I thank God for the timeliness of your post, Sarah, in the middle of my “timely-mess.” 🙂 Sounds like we come from the same default “places.” Think I’ll go get some stillness on and reset… Shalom to you!

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