Well, I’ve just returned from this year’s retreat, and am still in recovery! What a mind-blowing experience! My journal from the four days covers fifteen pages, so I’ll post snippets from it here over the next week or so, as I can snatch a few minutes from my other tasks. This first post is just an outline of how I prepared for the retreat, to provide some context for what follows:
There were two primary motivations for the retreat. They aren’t really completely separate, and I found it hard to keep them distinct from each other in my mind as they feed into each other. The first motivation was simply to be with God; to renew my relationship with him and allow him to speak into my life. The second motivation was to enjoy a Sabbath; a time of obedience, of focus on God, of celebrating his gifts, of rest and renewal, of trusting that He can care for me and my responsibilities even if I don’t do anything about them for a week.
To achieve these aims I took myself to a cabin on a rocky coast, without contact with anyone else from Monday evening to Saturday morning (I did have a brief conversation Friday evening with my hostess, who came to offer me a ride back into town the next morning). The central idea is to eliminate as far as possible all the distractions of activity and leave me open (vulnerable?) to the presence of God – and my own self. This is never, however, a simple denial of material reality, as though we can’t experience both God and the concrete world of creation together. Biblical faith has always strongly affirmed the goodness of the material world and God’s self expression in and through it. So I wasn’t trying to reject ‘life’ in order to find something ‘spiritual’ but rather I needed to simplify things as far as possible, to slow down and quiet myself, and to reduce the number of elements available to me as defences against myself and God.
So I took my bible, some reading material, some drawing materials, enough warm clothes(!) and bedding, and some food. The food was debatable. I try to go into these times open to what God wants, so try to prepare for a number of eventualities. On the one hand, I had become very aware during last year’s retreat (and on previous retreats) how, in the great gaps of emptiness created by the lack of activities and tasks, I had tended to use food for its comfort value; a means of giving myself pleasant feelings, stimulating and distracting me. Also I had used the food to provide structure to the day – I’d hang out for midday and tea-time. I’d find myself thinking forward to the next meal, beginning to plan it and anticipate it, and so lose my focus on the present, and the openness to God that I was trying to cultivate. Food, and the enjoyment of it, is an important part of our life with God – He invites us to the feast of his kingdom, calls us to communion with him through bread and wine, and we are to be thankful for the goodness of food. Nevertheless, I decided that I would probably fast for this retreat; partly to deal with the problem of distraction that had emerged on previous retreats, and partly as an experiment. I’d never previously fasted for more than a couple of days. I wondered what four days would be like? Because I was unsure if this was the right thing to do, I also took along enough food for three simple meals a day, meals that could be prepared and eaten without undue thought; simple, plain, repetitive. Thus I could fast or I could eat as I chose.
The reading and drawing materials were also debatable, but both had proved themselves very valuable in previous retreats. The books were all of some value in providing and provoking spiritual reflection. They filled the place of a ‘spiritual director’ such as one might meet with on such a retreat – only I could close these books at will and choose to ignore them should I wish. The drawing materials last year had provided a means by which God had focused me on his voice in creation; teaching me to ‘see’. The danger of these, of course, was that they were potentially more potent distractions than food could ever be. I could only eat so much a day, but I could read forever. I had to be disciplined in my use of them.
The bible, God’s revelation to me, was absolutely necessary as the compliment to creation. In the one I felt the hand of God, in the other I heard His voice.
On previous retreats I had planned some tasks; some physical labour to do and some study to complete. This time I deliberately planned neither. I was fasting from work in order to be open to God. It was a sabbath. It was God’s time. I wondered what he would do with it? I wondered if he would show up? I wondered if I would recognise him if he did, and I wondered how I would cope with the emptiness until then?