Retreats are times of renewal and refreshment, time to slow down and go deeper to connect with what is truly important to you in life; a time to listen inwardly.
Life these days can be a whirlwind of activity. We can become so caught up in our everyday 'doing' that pausing and reflecting, taking time just to 'be', can be a very deepening and centering experience, refreshing our weary stressed body, mind and soul. We can regain a sense of personal balance and integrity.
For those that follow a spiritual path, retreats are also times to relax, deepen our spiritual practice and to think about our lives and our relationship with God; time to be inwardly quiet and receptive to the Spirit.
Slowing down means you can start to notice movements within yourself that the noisiness and busyness of life can drown out - callings, yearnings, inner promptings, feelings... We may also start to notice the otherwise unnoticed around us. I remember well on one retreat, where I was working as a spiritual guide, a woman in her 50s telling me how that morning, as she ate her breakfast in silence, she had tasted toast for the first time. Have you truly experienced the taste of toast or does it slip you by each morning..?
Retreats can be anything from an afternoon to several weeks. Most involve silence. Within the Christian tradition there are a number of different types of retreat you can make:
With individually guided retreats you have a daily one-to-one meeting with a guide (usually a trained spiritual director) who will listen non-judgmentally to you, and help you to explore what you find going on inside you and in your prayer. They might suggest passages of scripture for you to read and reflect on, or exercises that may be helpful, tailored to your journey. The retreat is usually silent with set times of corporate worship you are welcome to join in with if you would like.
On themed retreats you will be part of a group sharing a particular kind of creative activity, such as painting, clay work, walking or body movement, and bringing this activity and your responses to it into your prayer.
Contemplative retreats are designed to enable people to become deeply still and silent, attentive to the spirit of God. They usually involve extended times in group contemplative prayer and meditation under the guidance of the leader, who may also give some teaching on the contemplative way of prayer and life, and methods of meditation. Contemplation has been defined as 'the awareness of God known and loved at the core of one's being.' (Clifton Wolters)
Private retreats are where a person spends time by themselves in solitude and silence, following their own pattern of prayer and reflection. They may also have access to a guide on a daily or intermittent basis to help them process whatever emerges in the space of the retreat. This style of retreat is for those used to extended periods of silence and solitude. If you are a beginner at retreats it is usually better to try something with support and a focus.
Most retreats are residential: you go and stay somewhere quiet and apart from your usual daily life, typically in a retreat house. Retreat houses provide a peaceful atmosphere and good accommodation at a modest price. Many are set within the countryside. Some are part of monastic communities where you live alongside them, joining in their rhythm of prayer and worship. Increasingly, there are also secular places to go for retreat.
If you feel you would like to experience a retreat, and are in the UK, a good place to start is The Retreat Association's 'Find a Retreat' page. They also publish an annual magazine called 'Retreats' which includes the names and addresses of over 200 retreat places in the UK.
Last summer I spent a month on retreat, in solitude and silence, at Retreat by the Dart in the beautiful countryside of South Devon. It was an extraordinary time of quietening into the deep centre of myself, touching and resting in that place of inner stillness where we are at peace with ourselves and the world around us; that place which, for me, is God as the very ground of our being.
That's not to say it was all easy going. I experienced times when I had to face something difficult and challenging within myself. One of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, who were early Christians in the 3rd - 4th century who took themselves to live in the desert areas around Sinai to draw closer to God, was 'Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you all you need to know.' My brief experience says it does... I grew to know myself, and to know God, better.
I also found myself growing deeper in connection with nature all around me, noticing more and more detail of all I saw, heard, touched, smelt, felt as I took slow walks through the glorious countryside. There can be something very soothing and healing about immersing ourselves in the heart of nature.
My daily pattern settled into the natural rhythms of the day - getting up with the dawn chorus of birdsong at sun rise and retiring as the sun set. I saw the different moods of the nearby river and listened to its wisdom, which seemed to say, 'Learn from me... Accept! Don't cling to the land.' A river has no choice where it flows, it simply accepts the direction of something beyond and greater than itself. It doesn't cling to familiar shores, but lets go and releases itself into new movements and patterns of flow.
It can be useful during any retreat to record thoughts, feelings, dreams, perceptions or insights, in prose or verse, or by creating images with paints or clay. Where I stayed there was a little prayer hut with art materials available which I found very helpful.
I have also been on individually guided retreats and many contemplative retreats. It is never wasted time. Retreats always help me be more in touch with my life's journey, take me back closer to my true self and centre me deeper into God. And, when I am thus renewed and refreshed, I can return to the daily demands of my life better able to love and serve those around me.
What type of retreat are you drawn to? Are you ready to experience the taste of toast...?
Photo credit: AllBackgrounds.com