A Word About Retreats
It seems like today more and more Christians are going away for a “retreat“. They are taking a day or even a weekend to get away, sometimes in groups and other times individually. Now if you are not familiar with the concept of retreats you may very well be asking yourself; ‘what is a retreat?’ or thinking to yourself; ‘aren’t people who go on these so called retreats merely trying to glorify, spiritualize and/or rationalize their need for a vacation by calling it a retreat so they can feel better about it?’ These are excellent questions and ones I hope to answer at least in part for you.
Regarding to the first question: What is a retreat? Well, you might as well ask me, ‘what is a tree?’, for like trees, retreats come in all shapes and sizes and produce a wide variety of fruit, depending on the kind of retreat/tree you are speaking of.
So I am going to describe one type of retreat, but before I do I want to make it clear what I am NOT talking about when I use the word retreat. I am not talking about the type of gathering where everyone sits in chairs facing the front (usually in women only or men only venues) and listens to someone talk at them about something they need to put into their life, or to stop doing something that they are doing, or how to do something better. These types of gatherings tend to be overly organized, those attending are herded from one thing to the next, and sometimes smaller ‘breakout groups‘ are offered where even more instruction is given. At night you usually find yourself sleeping in a large room with a number of others who all seem to be experts at snoring long and loud (I am not only taking about the men here). When you get home you are often more tired than when you arrived and may feel a little more guilty or shame-filled than when you left. These gatherings are not known for their emphasis on individual time alone, time to be still and know God.
When I talk about retreats I am referring to what I call contemplative/reflective or spiritual retreats. The contemplative, reflective, spiritual retreat can involve a group of people or one individual. It can be facilitated by another (who is not the teacher or leader but a guide and host) or self-directed (where the individual prayerfully comes up with the structure and direction for the time away, or seeks guidance from another to help them do so). What makes a retreat contemplative, reflective, or spiritual is not who or how many attend but rather the purpose, goal and structure of the retreat. These contemplative, reflective, spiritual retreats have a wide open structure and their purpose and goal is centered around coming before God, being present and open to God, and trusting God to guide and lead the group/individual during this time. There is ample time given to be still and be present to God. There is time to rest, read, walk, pray, play, and ponder; in short, to present oneself to God as a holy and living sacrifice as we are encouraged to do in Romans 12:1. This kind of retreat is a Sabbath of sorts, a time to rest, to be replenished but also challenged and invited by God into new areas of growth and discovery. There are two companions that I believe are critical in helping to make a retreat into a contemplative, reflective or spiritual retreat. These two companions are silence and solitude. The elements of silence (seeking to escape the external noise so one can become aware of the internal voice of God and other voices that may take us away from God) and solitude (being away from others and the distractions that hinder a person’s ability to be in tune to the still small voice of God) help transform a time away into something contemplative, reflective, spiritual and transforming. Some say regarding these types of retreats that they slow us down enough to be caught by God and in turn hear from God. They give us space and permission to cease striving and to cease trying to prove ourselves or earn something from others and instead be present to the God who loves us, roots for us, and is always there for us.
A contemplative, reflective, spiritual and life-giving retreat has little to do with the place a person chooses to go and more to do with the attitude and desires brought with a person to the retreat. Silence and solitude serve as excellent vehicles for paying attention to God.
This brings us to the second question: Aren’t those who go on these so called retreats merely trying to glorify, spiritualize and/or rationalize their vacation by calling it a retreat?
This is entirely possible, especially as taking spiritual retreats becomes more popular. One could choose to take a so called contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat so people would think them to be spiritual or they could call their vacation a retreat for the same reason. We cannot know what is going in another’s heart. We can though, if we feel led by God to take time for a contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat, purpose to embark on a retreat with the goal of coming before God, being present and open to God, and trusting God to guide and lead the time away.
Now you may be thinking a contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat sounds awesome (and you would be right) but where does this idea come from? Does it have any Biblical basis? I am not someone who needs a chapter and verse for everything I do as a Christian but when it comes to contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreats, let me assure you that the Biblical evidence is overwhelming. The idea of the importance of getting away and being with God (what we call a retreat) is woven into the fabric of creation and given the name ‘Sabbath’. The Sabbath was a time to cease striving and know God, a time to turn from the works of one’s hands and be still and experience God. And if that was not enough, Jesus was one who would slip away to be with God (what we call a retreat). We see Jesus taking time away from the others to be with God throughout the gospels.
Mark 6:46 After leaving them, He went up on a mountainside to pray.
Luke 4:42 At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for Him and when they came to where He was, they tried to keep Him from leaving them.
Luke 6:12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if Jesus, who had limited time on earth to complete his mission, made it a priority to get away and be alone with God, who am I to think that taking a retreat is not something worth doing or that I don’t need to make taking a contemplative, reflective, and spiritual retreat part of the ongoing rhythm of my life.
So are you convinced? And better yet, are you ready to take a retreat? If your answer is yes, there are some easy ways to begin to experience these contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreats. One way is to visit www.b-ing.org and click on Upcoming Events. There you will find a host of contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreats in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. These can give you a taste of this type of retreat and also help you see how you could design your own private contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat. Another way to begin is to pick a morning or afternoon for a mini-retreat, choose a quiet and somewhat distraction-free place, and purpose to be present and open to God, not trying to make something happen but merely offering the time and yourself to God as a gift to God. Remember to include time of silent listening and reflection. Take a Bible (bringing a translation that you are not so familiar with can be helpful), some paper, and writing instruments. Having markers, colored pencils and/or watercolors can give more freedom during your writing times. I find using colors to write words or just using colors to capture something that has arisen within can be very powerful. You could choose a favorite passage to spend the time pondering, praying through and sitting in. It is good to start small and build. Beginning with a personal day retreat can be overwhelming. You can also begin by having an individual mini retreat in your own home, but it can be difficult as you will need to turn off phones, make sure you won’t be disturbed, and choose a room that is inviting and distraction free, but it can be done. Eventually you might want to spend a day at a retreat center. These are great because they are set up for people to take retreats. The grounds are usually quite beautiful, they often provide lunch, and they lend themselves to being a place to relax and be with God in silence, solitude and reflection.
Finally, I want to share with you a word of caution before you gleefully embark on your first contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat. Be advised that when ones pulls away to be with God, embracing the practices of silence and solitude, one can become aware very quickly of feelings of loneliness, unhealthy attachments, fear, negative voices of shame and condemnation, or areas of brokenness or past hurts that need healing. A contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat is not necessarily a time of warm fuzzies. It can be a heart wrenching time of deep honesty with oneself and God, but also a time when great healing and transformation can begin to take place. These contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreats are not for the faint of heart but for those who seriously want to participate and cooperate with the working of the Spirit of God in their lives. So if you choose to go on a contemplative, reflective and spiritual retreat, whether with a group or individually, purpose to be open and honest with God and yourself and trust God to lead and direct your time. When one goes on such a retreat one never knows what God will be leading and guiding them to look at and explore, for sometimes the invitation is “rest in my love”, to cease striving and just be. All we know is that by choosing to retreat we have honored God and presented ourselves before God and whether we feel it or not, something within us will have changed as a result, for no one comes into the presence of the living God being open and honest and leaves unchanged.
I do hope what has been written above will encourage you to go on a retreat. You can see I am a big fan of retreats. I have been attending and designing retreats for over 25 years. As I have been involved in retreats I have personally witnessed retreats as a catalyst for change and transformation in hundreds of peoples’ lives. I have seen God use the retreat format to help those who intend to connect with God, expand their sense of who God is, be internally open to the truth of God’s presence, love, and grace, and begin to allow God to be God and to authentically begin to be the unique one-of-a-kind creations God created them to be. As a result they began to discover and embrace a richness of the person of God and themselves that was not previously known. They began to discover the divine music within.
Now, I’m not saying that a retreat is some kind of magical and transformational chamber of divine transformation that radically changes all who enter it. What I am saying is that in my experience in my own life and the lives of others, going on a retreat provides the opportunity for God to do what God does best and that is to make Godself known and to change us from the inside out. A retreat may not be a mind blowing, life altering event in your experience but it will be a place where you can experience God and self in new and more spacious ways.
I have been doing this long enough to come to believe that one who attends a retreat, truly opens themselves up to God, and is willing to step out of their personal and theological comforts will experience transformational change, change not necessarily in a dramatic fashion but oftentimes in a more subtle, simple yet no less profound way.
Now you can stop reading and go plan your contemplative, reflective, spiritual retreat.