My experience last week was so rich, I still want to encourage people to take spiritual retreats, myself included. In the past, there have been some retreat-style experiences for me, but they were in groups and at other people's initiative. Here I want to share some of the things that helped this be a success in case any of these ideas could also help you prepare for a time out.
Firstly, sniff out an opportunity. If you struggle to continue the journey of knowing yourself and relish the thought of journeying forward with God and experiencing a fresh wave of release in your identity and purpose, then this should help you get sniffing, and, if a believer, praying for it too.
Secondly, when an opportunity arises - ask for advice on a good place and environment to go to (or maybe you know somewhere already). I have always been inspired by mountains (more so than the sea), because there is still something of a mountain-runner inside of me that just can't contain how incredibly beautiful these landscapes are when moving through them and interacting with them. I initially thought of camping, but the friend I consulted dissuaded me from that option. It's good to be comfortable but not in the lap of luxury either. I found a place on airbnb for 15 euro per night (I was particularly blessed here because the owners were away on holiday so I actually had full access to the living room, kitchen and garden too).
Thirdly, anticipate the departure. For a week or so I could sense my spirit within me slowly poise with anticipation about encounter. Some Christians talk about retreat as a time to meet with God. It is certainly that, but it is also about more fully becoming who you are, in order for meeting with Him to be a success. He has no problem with integrity. You, however, might do, and to be fully present for that encounter he will help you prepare and also experience it during. As someone who is at times obsessed by theology, I became aware that I would have to attempt to do as little of that as possible during the retreat to enhance the encounter experience. I warned my family to expect little contact during this time, and set up an automatic response email.
Fourthly, prepare practically for departure. It should be minimal. At one point, thinking that a personal retreat should be close to my previous group experiences, I thought I should prepare an organised programme, with timings etc. That is not necessary. This was my kit list more or less:
- My physical Bible
- My guitar and some worship music
- My knees
- Some verses to colour in and my kids' colouring pens
- An audiobook to listen to in the car on the way there. I had a credit on www.Audible.com, and spent it on God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself. It's pretty good; I may critique it at some point in the blog, but is more theological than I had been hoping.
- A gospel movie (2014 Gospel of John) and some worship music
- My readiness to be silent
- My trainers/walking shoes
- A journal and pen (essential)
- Candles, candle-holders and matches
- Some basic food for the time (shopping is a distraction)
- A great prayer book (semi-essential!). I have had a book for many years that I re-discovered on my shelves by James Houston, a Scottish Christian writer (I think). Man, I thought it was excellent:
Fifthly, enjoy! My advice would be to punctuate activities with pauses, prayers, etc. all the way along. Examine the inner thoughts and worries, the evil inside of you (or "evil" if you are not a believer), the pride, the competitivity, destructive temperament or ideas, recognise them as they begrudgingly submit to your authority of identifying themselves, own them, take full responsibility for them. I did this, and then tried writing the word "sorry" to God really slowly. Try to imagine the perfect Christ-like you. It is too vague for a Christian to simply pray or strive to be "christlike". What would you be like in a perfectly christlike way? For that, I think we need to pray, having taken responsibility for who we are for receiving God's great love and grace in our hearts.
I can also say I really took my time entering into the day, only when I felt fully rested did I get up. One day I thought I was rested started to get ready and realised my eyes felt heavy, so I went back to bed! It's all part of cultivating the inner-listening process.
There were a couple of discouraging moments. On one day I got more distracted and even a bit bored while trying to colour a verse, I also sent some SMS messages and had a little too much contact with the outside world. What helped here was the prayer book especially, the one by Houston. He brought me back to the deeper level quickly. Another thing is to be listening for when it is time (weather permitting) to go outside, to change environments. This works the other way too - after a walk, start longing to go back indoors (lodgings or a café) at the right time. I had some great moments actually just sat in the middle of nowhere with the journal.
One of the things I really appreciated in the prayer book was accepting to become a pilgrim. There is nothing magic about a retreat. You don't come back transformed into the all-new-you, but there can be breakthroughs and a shift in thinking as you embrace being on a journey, as clichéd as that has become, it needs to be a reality in all our lives.
I still have a sixth and a seventh point, concerning prayer for others and coming home, but I'll save those two for a separate post.