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Principles of Retreat

An article by Trevor Miller outlining some basic lessons of Retreat.

Retreat reminds us that in order to be alive to God and stay alive to God on the inner journey of faith, we need to continually embrace the vulnerability of being teachable.

Learner1It’s no coincidence that ‘disciple’ lit. means learner. We all have ‘L plates’ on when it comes to the spiritual life, but some have been learning longer than others and can pass on their wisdom learned in the school of life (where the school colours are often black and blue). Prov 19:27 ‘My child, when you stop learning, you will soon forget what you already know’. In other words, it’s only as we’re open to fresh understanding in our walk with God, always learning, always applying what we learn to life as it is for us, that we are taught how to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’. This is what retreat is all about!

It’s a discipline of discipleship, part of our learning to follow Jesus, and as GK Chesterton remarked, ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing … badly.’ To be teachable means we are willing to learn from our mistakes because we’ve learned as Thomas Merton puts it, that ‘the only mistake that remains a mistake is one from which we do not learn.’ It is a case of keeping on keeping on.

A good example of the disciples learning this important lesson from Jesus can be seen in Mark 1:14-39. These verses portray Jesus in the midst of a busy and demanding schedule. After his baptism and the call of the 1st disciples, v14-20 we see him actively performing his mighty works and causing amazement by the authority of his teaching–

– In the synagogue v21-28 = casting out demons

– In the home v 29-31 = healing Peter’s mother in law

– In the street v 32-34 = healing/casting out demons into the evening.

However, it’s only as we come to v35-39 that we realize the secret of his stamina and spiritual strength. Not only did he understand the need to prioritise, he lived it out; he chose to make time to listen to the Father’s heart, & as a consequence was able to follow God’s agenda rather than the demands, pressures and expectations of others. In seeking to understand retreat, this spiritual principle is crucial because it’s so easy to be taken in by the myth of ‘spiritual busyness’ just as the disciples were here in Mark 1.


Note the stark contrast between the attitude of Jesus and that of the disciples. They were focused on a very subtle but nonetheless false agenda, the needs of others and the seeming urgency of the present circumstances. And, of course there’s a fine line here, requiring genuine discernment because they are very important issues that will take up a huge part of our time and resources. BUT the point is, to be always busy, always full of activity is to be out of balance and spiritually unhealthy! They saw the crowds lining up for ministry & healing and in effect said ‘where is he? He should be here’ and such was their impatient anxiety that we read in v36 that they ‘went to look for him.’ And where was Jesus? He was seeking God’s direction – in search of solitude, taking time out with the Father, seeking to restore his soul in retreat mode.

Note, when they found him, there was an implied rebuke, v37 ‘everyone is looking for you’ They were saying to Jesus, don’t you walking_with_Godrealise there’s such great need, the crowds are enormous, they want you and you’re here?! Alone?! Praying?! Going on retreat! Don’t you realise this popularity may not last long, so what are you doing stuck in the middle of nowhere, you should be in the thick of things, getting down to the real work. The response of Jesus must have astounded them. Just when the crowds were growing, popularity high, he says v38 ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ Incredible? No, for retreat reveals God’s priorities, which may well differ from the well-intentioned expectations of others.

We must cultivate a resistance to simply being motivated by the next opportunity and the need to achieve and be successful for this is not the Christian’s primary motivation. It is to be obedient to the revealed purpose of God which may or may not include success and popularity. In Mark 6:31 Jesus seeing that ‘so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. So they went away by themselves to a solitary place.’ In a society of great stress it is true that ‘If we don’t come apart we will come apart!’ The American Indians fully understood this, as for instance, after a long trip down river, they rested for 2 days to ‘allow their spirit to catch up with their bodies’.

Anyone who drives frequently on motorways will have seen a very important sign ‘Tiredness can kill, take a break’. This is so true of the spiritual life, which is why we too need to make time for the solitary place, as Jesus did, because we all need input as well as output. To receive as well as give; to understand the necessity of both Ebb and Flow, being & doing! It is remembering that God’s name is I AM not I do!


WHAT IS RETREAT?

Retreat, lit. means ‘to withdraw, to drawback.’ 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 & 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.

1] Retreat is all about Prayer. Not in terms of petition, intercession but a sacramental awareness of God in all of life. Prayer as ‘dropping in to what is there’ and so ‘being there’ for God, not elsewhere, is the goal for our retreat. 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’.

stillness1It 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 thro’ 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, time to talk and share – not always possible in the demands of normal everyday life.

2] Retreat is all about Pilgrimage. As believers 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 & ‘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 and 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 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.

Thus retreat is not an escape from reality but a very real engagement with reality – facing the truth about one self. So sharing in a ostrichretreat we must bear in mind a] that God is at work and inner journey stuff is not always pretty. b] 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. So finally,

3] 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.

reflectionRetreat 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’. 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.

In summary, 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 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.

Bottom line – 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’.