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Urban Contemplative Retreat Guide

Photo by Ben Thé Man.

Most spiritual retreats are focused on withdrawing from your environment and from noise and distraction. In contrast, this is a retreat focused on allowing your surroundings and context to draw you into an awareness of God’s presence. We often don’t realize how easy it is to become unaware of our surroundings.  With a touch of our multi-function phones, we can tune out the people and places around us.

By recognizing God’s presence and being able to rest even in the context of the city, we gain valuable tools to experience God outside of the sanctuary and the prayer closet.  We not only pay attention to our hearts, but also to the context in which we find ourselves.  Plus by being aware of those around us during our contemplation, we become more aware of the “other”, the people who surround us but who are not “like us,” the people who we would rather ignore than notice or acknowledge God’s image within.

This guide has several sections. 1   You can do just one of them, or do several in one day, creating a longer space.  Here are a few general guidelines:

  • The ways that you will be     praying through this retreat are very simple, and at the same time they may     be a bit counter-intuitive. Not all the exercises may resonate with you,    but we encourage you to be open to trying each one. Think of them as     working out with prayer muscles you may not normally use.
  • Pace yourself, taking more or     less time with these exercises as appropriate.  If you are experiencing the retreat as a     group, try to do the exercises separately and gather at the end to debrief     at a designated area (like a good local restaurant).  Depending on your location, however, you     may feel safer traveling with one other person from your group during the     retreat.  Try to keep silence with     one another if you choose that option.
  • Choose an area of your city (or     a city you can visit) that you can reach by public transportation and then     walk around. Reading through the exercises might help you pick an     appropriate area. (For example, in Los Angeles, you might want to take the     Metro to Union Station and then walk to the nearby historic district where     L.A. had its beginning, and perhaps then walk to Chinatown and then     re-board the Metro from there.)  Be     sure to map out your route ahead of time, both to lessen anxiety and to     reduce distractions.  If you are     unfamiliar with the area, keep a map and cell phone with you!
  • Bring a journal and pen along     so you can record your thoughts and prayers throughout the experience.

1. METRO or BUS

Choose a bus or metro light-rail train line in your town or city and board it, heading toward your destination for the walking portion of the retreat.

Center. Let this ride be a silent trip.  Become aware of your surroundings—the noise and jostling of the train; the people riding and getting on and off; people and landscape outside the windows.  Become aware of your own thoughts and anxieties, your own distractions, and your own breathing.

Allow yourself to center down into the presence of Christ.

Imagine Jesus riding next to you on the train, sitting quietly as you center.  When you are ready, invite Christ to focus your eyes, ears, mind, and heart on what he would most want you to see, hear, think on, and feel today.

Read. As you ride, take some time with the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24:13-53, reading it over several times if you can.  Keep this story in mind throughout the day.

Something to think about: How does our context inform the way we read scripture?  In other words, how do we read texts—or how do they read us—differently when we are in different surroundings?  Specifically, how does your current context inform the way you read this passage in Luke, if at all?

Journal. Now and throughout the exercise, feel free to write down anything significant—an insight, a prayer, a word or image you want to remember.

2. THE GATES OF THE CITY

A bus station, major metro station, or other transportation hub

The Bible describes so many things happening “at the city gates” (see Proverbs 8:3, Judges 5:11, Isaiah 5:11). It is where the elders sit and make decisions for the people. It is where the market is, where the animals are kept, how the city was protected, and how people enter and leave the city. Obviously our cities aren’t built like biblical cities, with walls around them and literal gates to get in and out.  But cities still have something like gates.

Center. As you sit at the “city gates”, consider what God may be doing at this place at this particular time.  Just like someone could sit at the city gates in the Old Testament and get a feel for what was going on, find a place to sit and watch and pray. Who is coming? Who is going? Why?  You may or may not learn answers to those questions, but invite God to give you his vision for what’s happening in the city and at its gates.

Pray. Pray for whoever is directly in front of you.  Don’t talk with them or strike up a conversation, but try to observe people in a way that would inform your prayers for them, even though you don’t know them.

Something to think about. What is God doing in this city? How does time spent at the “city gates” inform your sense for what God is up to?  What is it like to “people-watch” with an agenda of discernment and prayer rather than amusement or critique?  How might your spiritual life be shaped by visiting here more often to pray?

3. PRAYER STEPS

Center. As you step onto the street and move by foot around this part of the city, begin to orient yourself to your surroundings.  Where are you?  How do you know?  What are you feeling?  Sit internally with these perceptions and feelings for a bit before you move on to prayer.

Pray. As you continue walking, begin to pray what’s been historically known as the Jesus Prayer, a simple line that you repeat over and over:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Or a shorter version if you prefer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Notice the rhythms of this prayer that develop as you pray it.  Walk your footsteps to the beat of the prayer or breathe in and out to this prayer.

Then, adapt it as a prayer for others. On the last beat, instead of saying “on me” replace “me” with “this neighborhood”, “that mother”, “this shop”, “that little boy”, whatever you see around you.

Something to think about: How does a prayerful awareness inform how you see the world around you?  How does this specific prayer guide your engagement with the city today?  How does it guide your own awareness of your need for God?

4. ROOTS

Locate a monument or historic site in the area, a place of significant history. For example, in Los Angeles, one could go to the historic beginning of Los Angeles, or walk to the site of the Azusa Street Revival in Little Tokyo. Think of it as a mini-pilgrimage. It is helpful if you do a web search ahead of time to learn something about the site.

Center. Take just a few minutes to stand at the spot commemorating this place and/or event.  Look around you.  What do you see?  How do you feel?  What do you wonder about the city and its people? Think how God was already present at the point of history that this site remembers.

Pray the Jesus Prayer over your city (see “Prayer Steps” exercise above), then follow it with your own prayers for the city and its people.

Something to think about: As you walk around, think about the roots of your own life and faith.  Where did you begin?  Where were your first spiritual roots?  How has the landscape of your life changed over time, much like the landscape of the city that keeps changing and transforming also?

5. SANCTUARY

There are unexpected sanctuaries all over the city, sometimes in places we least expect. Some are obvious—the chapel at the local hospital, the church that is open for prayer. But others can become sanctuaries as imagine ourselves as urban pilgrims, entering a sacred space as we walk. We might spend time at a mural, a memorial, a donut shop, an art museum, a park, a Laundromat.

Center. Look around.  What do you notice?  Who do you notice? Imagine Jesus coming to this place to “get away.”

Pray. Spend some time in the sanctuary.  You may continue your prayer and meditation from the other exercises above, or use this time to simply sit silently and still before the Lord.

Something to think about: Much has been written about finding silence in our noisy world. This often means we need to get away to a silent place.  Yet cities are filled with noise. Do we ignore the noise and look only for silence?

Or might we think about the discipline of noise?  What noises do you hear? How can these sounds draw you toward God, rather than being an intrusion on your prayer? If you hear a siren, this can serve as a call to prayer. The laughter of children can remind us of our need to be like children before God.

As we practice the discipline of silence, we even find that if we pay attention to the noise, that there is a center of silence within the noise. 2

6. DEBRIEF

Debrief this retreat experience by journaling (if you retreat alone) or talking with other retreat participants over lunch or coffee.  Before you leave the heart of the city, enjoy a bite to eat at a local café. Reflect on the various locations you have visited and ways you have prayed. How can our own contexts and places we live become places that cause us to be more attentive to God in us and around us?  Share ideas and reflections as you prepare to re-enter “home” and the inevitable noise that accompanies daily life, hopefully with refreshed perspective on encountering God there!

NOTE: For another free retreat guide, check out the Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 World resource!


  1. This guide has been adapted from a longer version by Kimberly Williams. The extended version is available from Kimberly by request at kimjwilliams@gmail.com. Kimberly is also available to lead guided urban retreats, particularly in the Los Angeles area.
  2. Kristin Smoot, “The Discipline of Noise,” PRISM magazine Jan/Feb 2001 (Evangelicals for Social Action), 18-19.
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is also the coauthor of Sticky Faith ​and Deep Justice Journeys. A native Kentucky youth pastor, Brad now lives in Southern California with his wife Missy and their three children.

...read more by Brad M. Griffin

Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Mission in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and serves on the Executive Committee for the Fuller Youth Institute. Jude and her husband John are elders with InnerCHANGE/CRM, a Christian Order Among the Poor. Jude has lived in the Westlake immigrant neighborhood in central Los Angeles for 20 years. The InnerCHANGE team in L.A. seeks to see God transform and raise up leaders for a new urban generation. Jude has a special interest in the integration of spirituality in the urban context.

...read more by Jude Tiersma Watson

Kimberly Williams

Kimberly Williams is the Executive Director of the Good Shepherd Volunteers, a Catholic volunteer program that supports recent college graduates to live in community, explore their faith, learn about simple living, and serve in social service agencies domestically and internationally. She has been involved with urban ministry for over twenty years in Newark, NJ, Oakland, CA, Los Angeles, CA, and Washington, DC. She has worked in the fields of addiction, homelessness, education, and volunteer support. Kimberly holds two masters degrees from Fuller Seminary. The concentration of her Masters of Theology degree was self-care for urban workers and her Masters in Intercultural Studies degree explored the connections between pastors and hip hop DJs. She is passionate about building bridges between communities, insightful conversations, puns, and good chocolate.

...read more by Kimberly Williams

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