A spiritual retreat doesn’t have to cost money or take lots of time, says Gemma Simmonds. Whether we have busy jobs, children or responsibilities that we just can’t get away from, God is with us in our every day, just waiting to meet with us
For a long time, spiritual retreats have largely been thought of as the preserve of ‘professional’ holy people like clergy, monks and nuns. But thankfully, in recent years, they have become much more mainstream for ordinary Christians of all denominations.
Their rise in popularity may have something to do with our increasingly uneasy awareness that the pace of modern life has become damagingly toxic. The number of people dying from stress-related and addictive illnesses is going up. As people become increasingly uprooted from their families and communities of origin, we find ourselves suffering from endemic loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness claims that there are 9 million lonely people in the UK, and its impact on our health is shocking. Loneliness increases our risk of early death by 26 per cent; it’s as bad for us as being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is associated with an increased risk of depression, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as cognitive decline and dementia. We may have more prosperity than previous generations, but it has not brought us peace.
In response, a whole industry has sprung up, dedicated to fighting back against modern ills. Magazines are full of wellness advice from athletes, TV personalities and lifestyle gurus. Many of us are seeking to live more simply, more healthily and more calmly.
Against this backdrop, interest in spiritual retreats is on the rise. But not everyone has the time, or money, to go away somewhere else, even for just a few days. We may have family commitments or work demands to juggle. A retreat may seem like an impossible indulgence, or far too intense. But DIY retreats are a real possibility, whether that’s setting one or more days aside or building shorter retreat practices into our busy lives.
INTIMACY WITH GOD
Retreats are, first and foremost, about developing a habit of intimacy with God. In the Bible, God describes Moses as being “completely at home in my house” (Numbers 12:7, TLB) and that’s where a retreat aims to lead us.
My friend Sally* had recently become a mum. In her earlier life, she had a steady habit of prayer, but the arrival of her baby had thrown everything up in the air. “I just can’t pray anymore,” she said. “I’m so dog tired most of the time, and then I just settle down and the baby starts to cry. I can’t take him to church, he’s too restless, I wish I could have a mini retreat, but that’s a non-starter…” Our conversation revealed that she did enjoy nursing her baby. “What about that as a form of meditation?” I asked. Sally was astonished: “But that’s not prayer!” she protested. I suggested she just sit with her baby and enter as deeply as she could into the whole experience, feeling the bodily sensations, looking at her baby, being in the moment as completely as possible. Maybe she could imagine she was Mary, nursing her baby son, treasuring in her heart all the things she had heard said about him. Maybe she could talk to him, tell him all the things that she hoped for, was worried about, felt in that experience. Or maybe she just wanted to enjoy the present moment.
An 18th-Century French spiritual writer spoke about “the sacrament of the present moment”. One definition of a sacrament is “a sign which makes real what it signifies”. Praying with our whole body, getting deeply in touch with God-with-us in the here and now is a great way of allowing God to become powerfully present to us in our concrete reality. Sally overcame her hesitancy and tried it. I notice she doesn’t talk so much about not being able to pray these days.
Praying with our whole body, and entering deeply into the here and now, is just one retreat practice that we can embed into our daily life. It can take us more fully and vividly into God’s presence. It doesn’t have to be at home; I’ve known people who go running with God or dog-walking with God. When it’s warm enough, I often go wild swimming with God, as well as with ducks and swans and the occasional kingfisher. That can be a full immersion experience of the God who doesn’t so much whisper as positively yell at us from the heart of nature. We become acutely aware of God in creation; God humming and singing, whistling and flying all around us. Sitting and running our hands over a cat’s fur, listening with every fibre of our being to a piece of music, or savouring the sound of a poem can be the lead into spending time in the sacrament of the present moment, becoming aware of God’s gift within our reality.
A retreat is fundamentally a vote of confidence in our own capacity to hear and respond to the God who dwells within us. A retreat in daily life means finding God not only on the mountaintops but also in the marketplace. When we create space and quiet for God to get a word in edgeways amid the internal and external noise of our lives, we can experience closer encounters with God that help us to make more life-giving choices for ourselves. We are the ones who need to choose to make time for this relationship – God is there all the time, waiting for us and hoping that we will engage with him. The human soul is like a musical instrument which, if kept well-tuned, can make glorious music at the mere touch of God’s hand. When we take time to pay attention to what is going on within and around us, we discover a potential to become fully alive to God in the here and now.
HOPES AND DREAMS
One good way to begin a DIY retreat is by asking yourself what it is you hope for; what you are seeking. In John’s Gospel, Jesus notices that two of John’s disciples are following him. He asks them: “What are you looking for?” They in turn ask: “Where are you staying?” He replies: “Come and see” (John 1:19-38, NCV). The key question behind any retreat has to be: “Where do I find God? Where should I look?” The answer is always: “Come and see.” John’s disciples begin to see when they spend time with Jesus. In the Gospels, people repeatedly end up wanting to see Jesus, wanting to know who he is, entering into conversation with him – willingly or unwillingly. What we see, time and time again, is an encounter that leads to change. There is no standard outcome to it; it depends on where we start from when we allow that gospel encounter to become our own, through the use of our own imagination or senses.
THE HUMAN SOUL IS LIKE A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WHICH, IF KEPT WELL TUNED, CAN MAKE GLORIOUS MUSIC AT THE MERE TOUCH OF GOD’S HAND
Steve worked in the middle of a busy city. He wanted to pray more but “had no time”. He worked near a major art gallery, where there were some fine religious paintings, so I suggested that he try imaginative contemplation, getting right into a gospel scene by imagining himself into it with the help of one of the paintings. At first, he was reluctant: “I’ve got no imagination,” he said. But he gave it a try and came back full of the experience: “I went in my lunch hour and just sat for a while in front of a painting of Jesus calling Matthew. It was all a bit noisy and busy at first, but I settled down to give the picture a proper look and found myself drawn in by the expressions on their faces, their eyes and hands. Matthew was pointing at himself as if to say: ‘Who, me?’ I know that feeling. I often feel unworthy. My business involves me making decisions I’m not always proud of. What does it mean for someone like me to follow Jesus?” Steve found that the feelings and thoughts aroused by the story stayed with him throughout the day and became part of his nightly reflections as he prepared to go to sleep. Even in his unconscious mind they were working away, drawing him closer to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Many very good and generous people live in a semi-permanent state of hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
If part of a retreat consists of asking God: “Where are you?”, then God also appears to be asking us the same question – not because God doesn’t know the answer but because we need to ask that question of ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, who hid from God when they realised they were naked, good people can have an ambivalent attitude towards getting up close and personal with him. They go on a retreat saying that they want to deepen their relationship with God, but often run away and hide at the first hint that God may be interested in reciprocating. We human beings are instinctively born able to tune in to wherever God can be found. But the story of the Garden of Eden warns us that there is something within us that may shy away from the thought of a close encounter with God. Perhaps a negative self-image makes us fear to be known as we truly are, so we hide. But God is not fooled by the many masks that we wear and the disguises that we adopt. God doesn’t love us despite our sinfulness, still less on condition that we are healed from it before we dare come into his presence. God loves us precisely because of our sinfulness and understands it better than we do ourselves.
HUNGRY FOR MORE
In his bestselling book, God of Surprises (DLT), author Gerard W Hughes claims: “The facts are kind, and God is in the facts.” There is nothing about our life that can’t be redeemed by God’s loving wisdom and providence. Some years ago, I accompanied Sue, a recovering alcoholic, through a month’s retreat. She was one of the wisest and most humble people I had ever met, full of compassionate honesty about her devastating past history. Like many recovering alcoholics, she often used the acronyms of which Alcoholics Anonymous are fond. One of these is HALT, which stands for: “Never let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.” It is under these conditions that addictive habits become most insistent, as our need for comfort kicks in. Many very good and generous people live in a semi-permanent state of hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness. The hunger may stem from meals skipped when too busy or perhaps from lack of nourishment of the soul, through art, music, silence or simple time off. Taking time and space to attend to our own needs and inner life, even amid urgent pastoral or family needs, can make a huge difference to the impact we have on others. I can’t promise that one retreat will transform your life – such transformation is a lifetime’s work and needs our daily attention as well as occasional times of exclusive focus. However those times of exclusive focus can allow us space to reboot our ‘inner programme’.
For a DIY retreat at home, it’s important to distance yourself from whatever clamours for your attention (I don’t mean children, who are in a special category of their own). Switch off your computer. Turn your phone to silent. If possible, spend this time away from wherever you habitually work. Decor helps, and a candle or some gentle music can be an aid to prayer, but this doesn’t require a home makeover session. The important factor is the time, whether indoors or outside on a walk or sitting on a park bench. We have the capacity for close encounter with Jesus. All we need is the desire to make it happen and a little time and space. He will do the rest.
*all names have been changed