A Retreat Is Not an Advance: Why We Retreat & What To Anticipate
A retreat is not an advance. For much of life we are on the advance as we anticipate, investigate, instigate, navigate what is ahead. A retreat is moving in mostly the opposite direction. A retreat is a time to recover, restore, redeem, renew what has been spent or lost in life. If you only live life on the advance, you will completely miss the perspective you glean by looking back on your life. Your retreat experience will give you gratitude for the past, clarity and strength for the present, and hope for the future.
For many people, life is navigated at a pace which may blur their being able to see clearly what is going on. Sometimes what is happening in your life is so close to you, you cannot make sense of it. It’s blocked. Only by retreat, by stepping back, can you find perspective and clarity. The psalmist calls this experience “being lifted up.” Or you may have passed through a period of suffering. It is very difficult to see clearly through pain and tears. We want to escape from suffering. And yet, there may be something important to redeem from what is otherwise only pain or loss. Something incredibly good may be claimed from what was undeniably bad. The significance of something lost on you is now found. Until an experience is remembered – until life is remembered – it’s not a complete experience, because life looks very different looking ahead than it does when you look back and see it from behind. What even may have seemed a black hole at the time may well prove to be a goldmine, in the fullness of time. A retreat is an invitation to get on good speaking terms with the whole of your life, for “the eyes of your heart to be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18).
A retreat is also a graceful time to look and listen deeply into life. Entering a monastic setting, you will come into a place of silence, sanctuary, and sustenance:
Silence, where you can be still and listen deeply to your life, where God is meeting you, leading you, healing you, nourishing you. The psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Sanctuary, where you feel safe, where you can let down your guard. Who you are, what you are, why it is you are the way you are, God knows and God loves. A retreat is often a breakthrough. Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German Dominican, said that “the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love”
Sustenance, where you are fed deeply. The psalmist speaks of our hungering and thirsting after God; Jesus speaks of his “food that will last.” Soul food. And yet, Jesus went to many dinner parties and also knew that people are hungry for real food. A retreat time will help assuage your hungers.
A retreat also affords time for a reckoning with life. Life is a gift, and it will make a world of difference to you if you live your life as a gift, rather than as a given. Take nothing for granted; rather, live your life in gratitude. A retreat will offer you space to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” to recollect how your life teems with blessing (Psalm 34:8).
I am not suggesting you should sugarcoat an experience of life that is bad; however I am saying that claiming gratitude for so much that is so good in your life will be a significant counterweight on the scale of your life. Gratitude will rebalance your life. The psalmist speaks of this as “the sacrifice of thanksgiving,” where you have the time and perspective to name, claim, and offer your gratitude to God for the wonder of life that God has shared with you. (The psalmist speaks of “the sacrifice of thanksgiving” in Psalm 50:14 & 24; 107:22; 116:15). Gratitude transforms life from the inside out. Make your retreat time a sacrifice of thanksgiving as you reckon with your life.
Will your retreat time be difficult? Maybe. The clarity gleaned in retreat may be comforting; the clarity may also be confronting, exposing you to a spiritual trial. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we acknowledge there may be an emptiness in retreat time that “may compel us to face the painful signs of our need for healing that it was easier to overlook during our usual routines. So our retreat times will be opportunities to strive against everything that would discourage us from radical dependence on the love of God” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”).
Will your retreat time change you? Yes and no. Much of what you leave behind at your home and work will still be waiting for you, unchanged, upon your return from retreat. However your retreat will help you garner perspective and strength to do some old things in new ways. Think of the captain of a ship going to sea. In the course of the journey, the captain will need to adjust the ship’s course multiple times. It’s not likely that the captain will make radical, 180° course adjustments; more typical is the adjustment of the course by a fraction of a degree. Those slight adjustments will make all the difference, and will ultimately bring the ship to different port of call. A retreat will be a significant help to get you on course (or back on course) in life. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we speak of this as “lifelong conversion.”
What should you bring with you on retreat? Bring with you your emptiness, your ache, whatever fills, overjoys, or breaks your heart. Bring your questions. Bring your desire. Bring your exhaustion and your need. God is already powerfully at work within you “to accomplish abundantly far more than all [you] can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Minimize whatever will likely prove distracting. Don’t bring a satchel of books or work projects. Consider taking a sabbatical from your electronic gadgetry: email, social media, mobile phone. Bring a notebook to log what is catching your heart’s attention. You may want to bring walking shoes or exercise clothing to enjoy movement and the beauty of God’s creation. You may want to bring something for gentle recreation in solitude: sewing, drawing, painting, photography.
God has already caught your attention. Take Jesus at his word that he is with you until the end: the end of your retreat, the end for which God has created you, the end of your life. Your retreat will be an answer to prayer, an answer to God’s prayer for you.
Br. Curtis Almquist