Have you ever been on a retreat? In my previous post on Elijah’s depression in the desert, I talked about the value I find in retreats – formal and informal – as ways of refreshing mind, body, and spirit, before returning to the world once more. Your retreat might be a formal retreat in a place designed for the purpose; or it might be a few days with a friend. It might follow a programme of reflection and worship; or it might be some time doing nothing at all. One thing all retreats have in common is that they are a time out, a time away from our normal lives, a time to recover, and perhaps to discover more about ourselves, and our faith.
All kinds of retreat are, I think, good for the soul, and good for mental wellbeing, but in this post, I want to talk specifically about spiritual retreats. During these retreats, the aim is to come closer to God, to hear what he says to us, to deepen our relationship and renew our calling. While retreats as such are not mentioned in the Bible, they draw their inspiration from the wilderness experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. These were times of preparation and times of encounter with God. They were not always easy times, but they were necessary to mould people into who God wanted them to be.
Walk with me as I show you the four different kinds of retreat I have experienced:
“This is the resting-place, let the weary rest…
this is the place of repose”
(from Isaiah 28:12)
On a number of occasions I have been on an individual retreat, mostly to the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield. The Community is an Anglican monastic order in Yorkshire, with an attached theological college. Retreatants generally stay in a building which is rather like a student halls of residence – plain and simple rooms with a washbasin, shared washing/toilet facilities, a small kitchen on every floor with tea and coffee, in a building which also has common rooms. Meals are taken with the brothers, sometimes in silence, and sometimes not, and a bell rings for each of the services. The services follow a pattern of pre-breakfast Mattins, the Midday Office followed by Mass, Evensong and then Compline. Retreatants are free to go to any, all, or none of the services, as they choose. There is also a library, an art room, a small shop, and large grounds. The community’s church is stark and beautiful – all white marble. The liturgy is sung (slowly) and there are side chapels available for private prayer.
I loved my retreats at Mirfield! Following the pattern of prayer and worship was wonderful, and the slow stillness of the place was a balm to my soul. Portions of each day are silent, and nothing is done in a rush, which gave me ample time to contemplate, to pray, and to think. One thing I would highly recommend is their “First Time Retreat” – I was quite nervous about going on retreat for the first time, and in fact chose Mirfield because it had a retreat for newbies! I met other people – some of whom I’m still in contact with! – and was able to become familiar with both retreats and a monastery in an easy way. I would definitely recommend that to anyone contemplating going on a retreat for the first time and feeling a little unsure! Being part of a community, even when we weren’t speaking, was lovely, and I didn’t feel lonely or isolated – just peaceful.
As well as individual retreats, I’ve been on one group retreat with people from my church. This was quite different to Mirfield, for we went for a week to stay on the Scottish island of Iona.
Aside from being a bit of a pain in the bum to get to, Iona is a great place. The Iona Community (with whom we were staying) was founded in the 1930s by George MacLeod. He brought unemployed craftsmen and ministerial students over from the mainland and rebuilt the crumbling Abbey on the island, which is where I stayed. We were sharing rooms, which was fine because I knew the other people, and, aside from my own group, I got to know the other retreatants, who were from all around the world. We shared meals together, and chores, and there were optional activities. There were two services a day in the Abbey church using a modern liturgy, and the church was available at any time for prayer. The scenery was beautiful, as was the reconstructed Abbey. It was particularly wonderful to meet people from so many places – the Iona Community is ecumenical, and worldwide and to experience contemporary liturgies with a ‘Celtic’ flavour.
I enjoyed Iona, partly because it is very different from my normal worship. I enjoyed wandering around the landscape, seeing the people I knew, and the people I didn’t, and the experience of just ‘being’, encircled by the regular worship and prayer.
People have different needs when they come on retreat, and for some, their time of reflection, of being away from the world with God is enhanced by learning. Lots of retreats provide talks for the retreatants to listen to and think about, on varied subjects and themes. Typically, participants will listen to the talk, and then go away to think, perhaps do an activity, or read a book that is recommended. Other retreats involve working through tasks to draw the retreatant closer to God, with the help of a spiritual director. Often these take the form of the Ignatian “Spiritual Exercises”, which were originally designed to be used over a thirty-day retreat. Others take a more free form, with a spiritual director encouraging the retreatant to delve deeper into an area of their spirituality. There are also retreats specifically on using creative arts in prayer and worship (I fancy trying one of these, but haven’t had the opportunity yet!)
I have been to a couple of preached retreats, with interesting talks and guided meditations on topics like ‘God in the world around us’. They can be useful, and interesting if there is something that particularly appeals or something that you would particularly like to focus on.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.”
I have been on only one silent retreat so far. I will pass on the warning I was given, that silent retreats can be difficult, because they draw you inward to reflect upon yourself, and your relationship with God. That can be fruitful, or it can bring to the surface memories and thoughts you may be unprepared for. Alternatively, it can do what it did for me – I slept. All over the place – in the library, the art room, the church, a shed outside…I didn’t even feel particularly tired! When I spoke to one of the brothers at Mirfield, he said that was quite common, as were tears, joyfulness – a whole range of human emotion. For my part, I know that I draw my energy from my interactions with others, so, deprived of those interactions, I slept. It was very refreshing! I certainly appreciate periods of silence, and I do plan to go on another silent retreat at some time, and hopefully not sleep throughout it!
I gain a great deal from being on retreat, of whatever type. It is a time away from my ordinary life, a time to concentrate on prayer and worship, either alone or with others. It is a retreat from the world, for a time, a time of refreshment before heading out into the world again. I would recommend it to all, and going on retreat is now one of my tools to keep me mentally well, although it doesn’t need to be for long, or a formal retreat. The Psalm I remember most when on retreat is the Psalm 23:
The Lord is my pace-setter, I shall not rush;
he makes me withdraw from my busy-ness.
He leads me beside the waters of rest;
and restores my soul.
He guides my steps in the right way
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for you are close beside me;
guiding me and guarding me,
I am secure in you.
You prepare refreshment and renewal
in the midst of all my activity;
you revive my weary head,
and fill my cup to the brim.
Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me
all the days of my life;
and your house shall be my home