Updated: Feb 1
Retreats are for everybody – for ordinary people at any time in our lives, giving us the chance to step aside from life for a while, to rest and become refreshed in a nurturing and peaceful environment.
The meaning of a spiritual retreat can be different for different religious communities. Spiritual retreats are an integral part of many Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Sufi (Islamic) communities.
Retreats are popular in Christian churches, and were established in today's form by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), in his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius was later to be made patron saint of spiritual retreats by Pope Pius XI in 1922. Many Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians partake in and organize spiritual retreats each year.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, meditative retreats are seen by some as an intimate way of deepening powers of concentration and insight.
Meditative retreats are an important practice in Sufism, the mystical path of Islam. The Sufi teacher Ibn Arabi's book Journey to the Lord of Power (Risālat al-Anwār)
is a guide to the inner journey that was published over 700 years ago.
What is a retreat?
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 it’s 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.
Types of retreats
There are many styles of retreat. Some are firmly linked with a particular religious denomination or form of worship, and many others, even run at the same retreat houses, will be more ecumenical in approach. There are organised and themed retreats, as well as places to go as a private retreatant with as much or little structure as you want. Many retreats focus predominantly on prayer, meditation and contemplation, with input and guidance from a minister or trained spiritual director, and with periods – or the whole retreat – conducted in silence. Again, others will feature gentle pursuits, such as art, walking, poetry study, stick-making, photography, needlework – to name but a few – to help in the contemplative process. There is no pressure to take part in any activity.
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’.
Is a retreat for you?
A retreat might be just what you need if you answer yes to any of these questions.
· long for some quiet “me/God” time?
· want to spend a weekend to develop your interests?
· wish to know more about prayer?
· need some time for reflection away from the daily hustle, bustle of work or family?
· want to deepen your spiritual life?
Contact us to find out about our retreat offerings!