Below is an article Judy Turner wrote for “Net Results”. Whether you are thinking about a retreat at Christview, or some other retreat center, this article may answer some of your questions and help you prepare for your retreat.
SPIRITUAL RETREATS: WHY, WHAT, WHEN, HOW?
Article by Judy Turner, printed in the Sept.-Oct. 2010 Issue of “Net Results”
When Jesus and his closest followers were so busy with ministry they did not even have time to eat, Jesus invited them to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) As his followers shared Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, he also invited them to share his rest. They had seen Jesus go away from the crowd to be alone with God, and must have observed how he returned from those times refreshed and strengthened. Jesus was inviting them to experience his pattern of engaging with people to connect them with God’s power to heal and restore, and then retreating from people to be alone with God. Let’s fast forward to our time, our lives as busy disciples of Jesus. How does his invitation to “come away and rest a while” sound to us? Are we tired, not only physically, but also feeling spiritually depleted? Does the opportunity to just stop for awhile and rest sound good? But perhaps the invitation sounds a little frightening. What would it be like to go to a quiet place, alone, to be with God?
The first time I went on spiritual retreat I was exhausted from the work of ministry. I had been serving as pastor of a church for only 3 years, but I was thinking I might have the shortest ministerial career in history! I was so burned out, I was thinking of a career change. A friend suggested a retreat center where I could go for a week. It sounded good, but also unknown. What would I do for a whole week? What books and stuff should I take? Somehow I suspected there would not be TV. Should I take music or something to listen to? Would they allow me to make any phone calls? And how could my family and the church possibly go on without me? Could I dare be “unproductive” for a whole week?
It was only my desperation that pushed me beyond the fear of the unknown to go on spiritual retreat. At first it was hard to slow down, to adjust to the quiet, to stop trying to manage and control everything and just “be” and receive from God. But after a couple of days of “detox” from constant noise and activity, I received the grace needed to get quiet and “unbusy.” I had no idea I would sleep as much as I did, but my body had the opportunity to rest- and took it! The long walks down country roads and just sitting on the porch and watching the sunset were surprisingly enjoyable. During that week I experienced God communicating with me: confronting clearly, forgiving readily, healing graciously, loving deeply. I felt a new freedom in opening my heart to God, and friendship with God deepened into intimacy. By the end of the week, I knew what the Psalmist was talking about in saying, “He restores my soul.” I discovered the blessing of spiritual retreat. Frequent times of retreat became not only a necessity for ongoing growth in Christ and survival in ministry, but a joy and delight.
I now have the privilege of offering a place of retreat, the Christview Ministries Center, where Christians can come apart to be alone with God. I have the joy of offering guidance for lay people and ministers who come to Christview for spiritual retreat. Often when people are considering a spiritual retreat, they have questions. These are some frequently asked questions and my response.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What defines a spiritual retreat?
There are three basic components of any spiritual retreat: Sabbath, silence, and solitude. Taking Sabbath time is stopping our usual daily patterns of working, shopping, entertaining ourselves, etc. During Sabbath time we choose to set aside anything we consider “work”, refraining from producing and managing anything, in order to rest and receive from God. Silence is choosing to be in an environment most conducive to communication with God, without noises that distract our attention from God, and refraining from talking with other people. Solitude is spending significant time alone with God. Groups of people can go apart together for spiritual retreat, but there need to be defined times when the individuals give each other the gift of silence, and each person communicates only with God.
What does a person do on spiritual retreat?
My basic suggestion for spiritual retreat is to begin with offering yourself to God. You have done your part in showing up. Now God has the agenda. Place in God’s hands the people and the responsibilities you have left behind. Express in prayer your needs and desires, your hopes, your ideas for this time of retreat. Ask for the grace of trusting that God has heard and will respond in the best way. Ask for the grace to be attentive to God and generous with God. Begin with a time of resting. Simply enjoy being where you are with God. Then pray with scripture for an hour or so. Then rest again. Continue alternating times of praying with scripture and rest. During “resting” times we are still open to God’s presence and communication with us, but we are letting our minds and bodies rest.
Praying with scripture is not the same as studying scripture. Praying with scripture is listening for how God is addressing us personally in a passage. A method I often suggest starts with reading a short passage aloud three times, noticing any word or phrase that seems to stand out. When this happens, stop and just stay with the word or phrase and see where your heart goes. Pay attention to your feelings and be honest. Talk to God about what things are coming up. When it seems that the conversation has concluded for the time being, thank God for what you’ve experienced. End the time by making a few notes about what happened during the prayer time.
Another method for praying with scripture is using our God-given gift of imagination to enter into a biblical story. Stories from the Gospels are particularly rich. Read the story, then close your eyes and let the story come alive in your mind’s eye. See the faces, see the colors, feel the press of the crowd, feel the dust on your feet, smell the marketplace, etc. Notice where you are in the story and which character you identify with. See yourself in the action of the story, let it unfold. Then gently come back to your place and time. Talk with God about what happened as you entered into the story. End the prayer time by jotting down a few notes about what happened.
It may not seem very “spiritual” to take a nap, but if you are falling asleep as you seek to pray, you may just need to go lie down and sleep. We are often not aware of how tired we are until we slow down. Resting is not only a necessity for our bodies, but it is also an act of trust in God. When we sleep, we are trusting God to run the world without our help. On retreat you can also rest your mind through activities like taking walks, riding a bike, rowing a boat, working puzzles, drawing, painting, creating something. It is important to continue the practices of solitude and silence and to have a sense of enjoying this restful activity in God’s presence.
What should I bring on spiritual retreat?
My suggestion is to bring as little as possible: comfortable clothing, a Bible, and a notebook or journal. I have made the mistake of taking a stack of books with me on spiritual retreat. As I read, I would find myself planning for the church, thinking about sermons. I slipped from Sabbath mode into work mode. At the end of the retreat I did not feel spiritually refreshed. I did not even succeed in “getting ahead” in my work. The guideline for music is whether listening to music helps awareness of and openness to God’s presence. One of the discoveries of retreat can be the joy of simplicity. Without a lot of the “stuff” we rely on to make our lives full, we discover true abundance.
What if someone needs to get in touch with me?
We tell our retreat guests at Christview that they can give their family and friends our number as an emergency contact. We invite them to turn off their cell phones during the retreat so they are not distracted from listening for God by talking with people, or pulled into work mode. But what they do with their cell phones is their choice.
What about meals?
Depending on the length of time and the setting, retreat may also include meals, taken either in community or individually. Meal times on retreat are an opportunity to continue in intentional communication with God. You can eat more slowly and with greater awareness of the taste and texture of food, thanking God for the gift of food. At a retreat center, the silence may continue, even when meals are taken in a dining room with other people. If you prepare your own meals on retreat, keep it simple and don’t spend a lot of time cooking. Fasting from food can be a way of focusing on hunger for God, identifying with those who lack food, or of offering intense intercession for others. Fasting can also be part of spiritual retreat, if you are invited by God to abstain from food for a time.
Is attending worship services part of spiritual retreat?
Depending on the length of time and the setting, spiritual retreat may include worship services. At the Christview Ministries Center, we sometimes have times of praying together, to which our retreat guests are invited. Some retreat centers are run by religious communities, which have set times each day for gathering together for prayer. Retreatants may be invited to join the members of the community for services. It does not interrupt the flow of solitude and silence to join others in worship, but it is usually best not to “visit” with others before or after the service, until the time of silence is concluded. The members of the community will probably not want to interfere with your time with the Lord.
How often should a person go on spiritual retreat?
A good pattern of spiritual health and growth involves weekly, monthly, and annual times for spiritual retreat. Think of setting aside at least 3 hours each week, at least 1 day each month (2 days back to back is even better!), and 5-7 days once a year for “going apart to be with God.” If we were making an analogy with retreat as food for our spirits, the weekly retreat would be a simple, basic meal. The monthly retreat would be a several course meal, and the annual retreat would be a feast!
What is the best place for spiritual retreat?
The obvious answer is a place dedicated to the ministry of offering retreats. But going away to a retreat center is not always possible, particularly for weekly retreat. Some people create a special place in their home for prayer. Arrangements may be made with a church for a quiet place to pray. A park may also be good place for several hours or even a day of retreat, since being in God’s creation is often a very good setting for prayer. A retreat center is recommended for the annual retreat of 5-7 days.
What about spiritual direction?
A spiritual director is a trusted Christian friend who reflects with you on what is coming up in your prayer and listens with you for God’s invitation for your growth in Christ. A spiritual director can help you discern whether you are hearing the voice of God and how to respond. A spiritual director can give suggestions for moving past obstacles in praying and encourage you through difficult times in your relationship with God. It can be very helpful to establish a relationship with someone who is called to this ministry and to meet with that person regularly. The accountability of regular meetings with a spiritual director helps with remaining faithful in prayer. Meeting with your spiritual director can be part of your monthly retreat. A spiritual director can suggest scripture passages and ways of praying during retreat.
THE BOTTOM LINE
By choosing to devote ourselves to the practices of Sabbath, solitude, silence, we do not follow a formula by which we can manipulate God. But we are placing ourselves where God can give us what we most need, at any given time, for abundant living in Christ. In making time for spiritual retreat, we are saying to God, “There is nobody and nothing more important than you.” God honors that desire and offers an intimacy we experience only as we intentionally seek God.
Going apart to be alone with God is a counter-cultural activity, even in church culture. But following Jesus by “coming away for a while to rest” can lead to many rich, life-changing experiences with the Lord. The way God meets us on retreat and ministers to us may even save our spiritual lives!