Trevor Miller writes a brief explanation:
In its simplest form ‘Retreat’, means ‘to withdraw, to drawback.’ Throughout the ages, the Christian tradition has understood Retreat to be an important part of spiritual formation. That is, time consciously set aside for God, a change of focus, a deliberate act of stepping outside of normal routine by withdrawing (not running away) from the noise and pressures; the immediate and insistent claims of our social, domestic and workaday responsibilities in order to be in a quiet place where all our senses are open and ready to listen to God. Evelyn Underhill spoke of this as ‘loitering with intent.’ ‘Going equipped’ would be a more modern phrase meaning the same.
Retreat is all about Prayer
Not in terms of petition or intercession, but prayer understood as developing a sacramental awareness of God in all of life. The goal of our retreat is to be as fully present as we can be to God, ourselves, and the moment – not elsewhere, so that in ‘keeping company with God’ we take the opportunity to give quality time to re-collect, re-member, re-examine – that which is important and central, so like ‘humpty-dumpty’, we can be ‘put back together again’.
It is a recognition of the need to be with myself for a time to think, pray and reflect on ‘who I am, what I am, where I am’ in relation to God, self, others, world. People go on retreat to seek God through time apart which is why its important to provide a context and framework for retreat – solitude, stillness, time for prayer and reflection, time for God, time to stop, and time to talk and share, things that are not always possible in the demands of normal everyday life.
Retreat is all about Pilgrimage
As followers of Jesus we are all part of an ongoing faith journey from ‘captivity to freedom’, which takes place in the ‘landscape of the heart’. Retreat is pilgrimage because it is ‘the symbolic acting out of an inner journey’. We begin to take stock of our lives and look for that which really counts. This often requires that we take steps to leave the pressures and demands behind for a time and ‘return to the heart’.
Hence retreat is a journey to the centre of the spiritual world of our own inner life, and as such we need to beware & be aware that retreat is not always a nice place to be, as it often exposes our hearts. To stop, to withdraw from the pace of life, allows those things we suppress to come to the surface. So, to truly open our hearts to God often means that we discover what Thomas Merton called ‘the inner contradictions’ and ‘chaotic forces’ that are happening all around us/within us. Retreat can bring us face to face with the ‘in between place’ of our old comfort zones and the huge changes of a ‘nothing makes sense’ new age culture in an increasingly post modern world. It is not a fun place to be. Think, for example, of Israel in the desert, Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the belly of the whale, John the Baptist in prison, the three Mary’s tending the tomb, and you get the idea.
We can see, with this understanding, that retreat is not an escape from reality but a very real engagement with reality and often about facing the truth about one’s self. So, in taking a retreat we must bear in mind that God is at work, and that the inner journey stuff is not always pretty. We can also see that the purpose of retreat is to dispel illusion, set aside distraction and begin to penetrate the superficiality that deadens sensitivity to God. It is the opposite of a ‘spiritual ostrich’ attitude of burying your head in the sand.
Retreat is all about Perspective
This is the greatest benefit of retreat as it gives fresh ways of seeing; opens new possibilities, enabling ‘familiarity to no longer breed contempt’. Perspective gives the ability to see a situation objectively, stepping back to gain a bigger view like seeing a circus parade from an upstairs window rather than through a hole in the fence at ground level. It is to see things as others do; and especially as God sees it!
This is our principal aim in going on retreat – to stop, listen, reflect, pray, share so that we see with new eyes, think with new minds, so that even though we have to go back into the very same situations, the same set of circumstances, the same roles, responsibilities and relationships that we left behind to come to the place of retreat, we do so having changed inside.
Retreat helps us get everything back in place, not a distorted view that is overblown or grotesquely out of synch (think of fairground mirrors) but a true reflection of what is. Thomas Merton said, ‘Where you are is where you belong, this is it’ and an acknowledgement of this gives the only platform for real growth as it’s not the fantasy of the ‘if only’ nor the fiction of ‘what if’ but the fact of ‘this is me, this is where I’m at’, this is where I begin the rest of my life.
It is therefore strategic retreat, withdrawing in order to advance. The whole purpose of prayer, pilgrimage and perspective in retreat is to bring renewed hope for the everyday comings and goings of life as it is for us. This can happen because renewed perspective brings us to a place where true priorities are reordered, a sense of direction is renewed and a right kind of action is resolved.
To quote Henri Nouwen we ‘can be preoccupied with being occupied.’ To be too busy, on the go all the time not only brings exhaustion without, but also a fragmentation within. This results in a disconnection, (with self, family, church, God) leading to compartmentalisation, resulting in ‘a vague discontent where our lives stagnate in a resigned acceptance’ preventing us from actively seeking new discoveries of God. Retreat helps us dispel this murkiness of discontent by looking honestly at ourselves in relation to God. In this we need to be gentle with ourselves & others, as sometimes tired and battle scarred, we simply need the healing of space to be, to rest and be restored. To be aware of this is to seek out Jesus so as to rediscover his grace.
The bottom line is this – God is worthy of our time – all else is a bonus. It’s not about success, achievement or anything else other than being open to God, the God of surprises and those moments of serendipity. The measure of what you sow in diligence and discipline will be the measure of what you reap from your days of retreat. Expect to know self better. Expect to be more aware of a sacramental world; to be content with God alone; to be changed from the inside out. But above all remember the principal purpose is to seek God for himself as the ‘one thing necessary’ so as to learn to ‘love him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’.
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