Many of us find it very difficult to ‘be still and know that I am God’. But it’s worth persevering – learning the tools to retreat well can have a profound effect upon our spiritual lives

It was on the third afternoon of my honeymoon that I first discovered my husband’s love of solitude. I knew that he was a godly and focused kind of individual, who could wile away many an hour in prayer and quiet retreat; but his decision to take himself off for an afternoon – away from the dream-like, sun-drenched shores of the Maldives and very desirable company of his beautiful new bride – to soak in undisturbed time with God, was deeply alarming.

For me, to seek such aloneness would have signalled a serious problem. I’m not averse to solitude, but as an extrovert, time with others is always more appealing. On my honeymoon at least, nothing short of an intense early marital crisis would have persuaded me to spend an entire afternoon away from Pete with only my Bible for company.

I was even more alarmed on his return. He seemed happy and at peace. Not a man in wretched turmoil, woefully regretting the events of the previous week, as I had been quietly preparing myself for back in our hotel room. Not at all. Instead, he had an invigorated spring in his step, a fresh spark in his eye and was buzzing with thoughts and ideas that he couldn’t wait to share.

Since that unsettling day, I have learnt to be pleased when Pete spends time alone. Part discipline and part natural inclination, he ensures that the pattern of his life involves regular periods of solitude and time focused solely on meeting with God, whether it’s in monasteries, rambling country houses, or a nearby deserted church yard. And I am learning (slowly) that this pattern is something worth paying attention to.

It’s common to think of retreats as solely for those called to the Church, a monastic order, or those of an exceptionally holy disposition.

For most ordinary pilgrims, time with God outside of the normal routine might seem impractical, difficult to achieve, unnecessary, intimidating or all of the above.

My hunch, though, is that these are good indicators that we should try it. So why else might retreat be beneficial or important?

i) Jesus modelled it

‘Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”’ (Mark 6:31)

Without wanting to make glib biblical references, it is worth noting that throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus spending solitary time with God the Father. Even at the most fraught times of his ministry, he lived with an inner peace, cultivated by his long stretches of time apart with God. He inaugurated his ministry by spending 40 days alone in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). Before he chose the 12, he spent the entire night alone in the desert hills (Luke 6:12). The examples could go on, but perhaps this is enough to show that the seeking out of solitary places was a regular practice for Jesus. Everything we read about Jesus’ public life was the overflow of his private times alone with his Father. It was essential for him.

ii) Time to regain perspective

‘Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.’ Hans Margolius

Very often, time out of a world that’s non-stop is the only way of facing up to issues that are beneath the surface. Otherwise, we tend to only deal with the things that are immediate and urgent. Barry Kissell, associate rector at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in London, has been going on retreat most Thursdays for the last 28 years. ‘In my times away, my heart was being developed,’ he says. ‘The heart is where God looks and out of the heart come the good things and the bad things. I became more receptive to the Spirit and to what God was saying. It transformed the ministry that I was in, and the majority of that was to do with my heart being put in order. Initially it was a discipline, and over time, it became a joy.’

Pete always appears so much lighter after time away to reflect. He says it’s because when he’s had space he can boil stress down to one or two specific issues. ‘It becomes much more simple,’ he says. ‘I’ve had the time to understand why I felt cross about this or that or acknowledge that “this person hurt me more than I realised”, or “I felt out of control when that happened”, and so on.’ Precious time gives us space to regain perspectives, listen to ourselves, and to God on the most important issues in our life.

iii) Time to grow with God

‘Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon him in yourself.’ Teresa of Avila.

We have forgotten the art of stillness. It’s not just the fault of 24-hour news and the Internet, but they have certainly made it more difficult to find empty space. Philip Yancey calls it ‘the background noise of modern life’ and finds it ‘insufferable’.

It’s a familiar story. ‘Many of us can feel like we are in a jungle, simply trying to survive,’ says Jamie Treadwell, an urban monk with the Sword of the Spirit community. ‘Time pressures, demands from relationships, family, work (or loss of work), shopping, traffic…all this stuff grows and grows and seems to smother us.’

A side effect of this ‘noise’ is that we are increasingly uncomfortable with time alone. It’s too unfamiliar, too lonely. We’re not used to just being with ourselves and with God, and we’re fearful of what we might discover.

Retreats provide a ‘sacred space’ in the midst of the jungle of busy lives; a time to see the big view, to quiet the inside, rediscover your own voice, and the voice of God. The more we do it, the more we learn its value. As Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, puts it: ‘While loneliness is inner emptiness, solitude is inner fulfilment.’

These times of quiet in a noisy world might provide the space to rest with God and even hear from God, but there is a deeper, lasting work that can also take place in us given the opportunity – growing with God.

‘Retreats are essential for growth in the spiritual life,’ says Treadwell, ‘and it’s essential that our spiritual life continues to grow. There’s no “holding pattern” in spiritual life. Either we’re growing or it’s dying.’

Deciding on a retreat for you

You might have read this far and feel motivated to go on a retreat, but have no idea where to start. Start by blocking out some time – try for a day, three times a year. Then consider the following factors as you decide what to do with it.

i) Your churchmanship

Soaking in a different Christian tradition or context can be very refreshing. Belonging as I do to an informal charismatic evangelical church, I have not always found a very structured style or liturgy terribly easy to connect with. Accompanying my husband to spend time at monasteries, I have found my mind frequently wandering during chanted mass…wondering what the nuns chat about in their rooms after hours, or whether they might enjoy watching a showing of Sister Act in the West End.

Pete encourages me that despite my diverted attention, it’s still a good experience. He finds it poignant because it gives him an insight into other Christians’ understanding and expectation of God. ‘Often when I’m exposed to a different tradition, it causes me to ask questions afresh: do I really believe the liturgy that I’m reading out? How is my understanding of God different or shared with this community?’

So don’t be afraid to choose something which doesn’t reflect your churchmanship – sometimes a change will help you discover God in a new way.

ii) Your personality

Being an ‘extrovert’ or an ‘introvert’ is not about how loud or quiet you are at parties, but rather where you draw your energy from. An extrovert will feel ‘charged’ from spending time with others, whereas an introvert is more likely to feel refreshed and energised from time alone. For this reason, a solitary retreat might work well for introverts, but be a living nightmare for an extrovert, who might fare better in a group.

Whatever your natural inclination, there are all sorts of options available. Organised retreats have a structure or guide who you can meet with to discuss what you’re doing. If you think you’d thrive from some outward stimulation, many centres offer preached retreats.

Group retreats can be really helpful if you’re doing a longer retreat for the first time – it’s still possible to cultivate solitude alongside other people. Rev Penelope Swithinbank, a member of the clergy team at St James’ Muswell Hill, attended a ten-day silent group retreat last autumn. ‘There’s a sense in which you’re all doing it together,’ she says. ‘When it got tough, you realise that you can’t really give up, because no one else has yet! We had all of our meals together, in silence, but with music in the background. Initially, it felt so strange, and almost rude to be sitting next to people, and not making the effort to make conversation with them, but it became wonderfully refreshing and releasing in the end.’

iii) Your lifestyle

Recognise the difference between building a day-to-day life rhythm of spending time with God, and carving out time away from your usual routines in retreat.

Jamie Treadwell has worked with a number of individuals to help them create ‘sacred space’ in their busy life, such as a businesswoman taking a 15 minute mini-retreat walk at lunch once a week, and a CEO of a mid-size business buying a prayer bench for his house, and schedules in two 30-minute ‘sacred space’ sessions for prayer and reflection each week.

‘I emphasis these short regular patterns of retreat in our daily life because they are essential for keeping back the jungle,’ he explains. ‘The longer, more substantial retreats are crucial, but the impact of them will be largely lost if we don’t also find a pattern of life in which we can sustain and nurture our growth. On their own, it’s like taking a day once a year to clean up our garden. It’s wonderful at the time, but a few months later we wonder why the weeds have taken over the place.’

Nonetheless, recognise that your lifestyle will affect what is realistic for you, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t live up to John Stott’s alleged hour a day, day a week and week a year of retreat. If you’re a mother with a young family, for example, you may need to find ways of making the most of what you’ve got; Susannah Wesley had 19 children. When she needed some time to pray, she put her apron over her head as a sign that she was not to be disturbed.

iv) Your level of experience

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of taking time alone then find someone who can accompany you along the way for the first steps. Arrange to do it in bite-size pieces. Spend a morning instead of a weekend. Go for a prayer walk with a friend, but agree ahead of time that you won’t talk together until the end.

When you’re there

Be assured that there really are no hard and fast rules, or simple steps to unlocking powerful times of retreat. There are about as many suggested structures for retreat times as there are places to go. Just recognise that God wants to speak with you. It’s not something to fear.

Keep coming back to why you’re there in the first place: to spend time with God. The temptation can be to use it as a time to get work, emails or phone calls done and work through your ‘to do’ list because you suddenly have time. Be flexible with your structure, but ensure that the base line is prioritising time with God.

Richard Foster puts it this way: ‘It is of the utmost importance that we do not lose sight of our major work on retreat. It can be said in one word – PRAYER. We enter the terrifying silences to listen to God, to experience communion. This purpose needs to be kept before us because, at first, time thus spent will seem so useless, so wasted. We will soon be severely tempted to make ‘good use of our time’ by reading many books or writing many pages. What we must clearly understand and underscore is that our real task on retreat is to create a space in our lives where God can reach us. Once that space has been created we wait quietly, expectantly, for the work from this point on belongs to God.’

Don’t be alarmed if it’s not easy at first. Silence and stillness are not always comfortable. Nor is desiring more of God. In fact, Brother John, a monk at Turvey Abbey in Bedfordshire, says that this desire for greater depth will inevitably involve suffering. ‘Inherently, when we come to Christ, we are not as we should be, and we will be taught how to change,’ he says. ‘Retreating and seeking God in solitude is not a way of making one feel better – it’s not another form of therapy, or a self-help guide. As I’ve pursued a monastic lifestyle, there has been significant struggle and suffering involved, but there is a deep peace that passes all understanding, and a sense of living life fully.’

Unless this is a discipline you are very practised in, most of us find that our concentration span is worryingly small. Sitting alone for a morning waiting for God to speak may feel counter-productive. Retreat doesn’t need to mean hours of pure contemplation – even the prayer can be active. ‘I often knit or walk and pray at the same time,’ says Jenny Baker, founder of the Sophia network. ‘It can be very difficult to just do nothing and pray.’

Breaking up the day into shorter chunks can be helpful: divide a day into 90 minute slots, with the freedom to go for a walk or make a cup of tea at the beginning and end of those times. Spend one section reading and studying a book of the Bible, another praying and journaling, another reading, listening to a worship CD or writing a letter to a friend. Fill one of the slots with something you really enjoy doing – walking, cycling, going for a meal, or a cream tea.

For as long as our society advocates immediacy, it will always live with the curse of superficiality. Our faith is different. It calls for those prepared to go the long distance, content to seeing little obvious growth in some seasons, and charged by the joy of knowing fruit in the long-term. Like a sportsman expects to train and work hard if he wants to see future results, to a degree we will ‘get out’ of our faith what we have invested. To last the distance requires depth. Retreats are, of course, just one way of cultivating that depth in our spiritual lives and relationship with God. But over time, that which might start as an uncomfortable discipline will grow into a great blessing.

In the three years since my honeymoon, life has moved on a little for Pete and me. As time’s demands only seem to increase, I am learning to treasure more highly my times alone with God. Meanwhile my husband has grown admirably in balancing his desire for space, with my love of time with him!

We all know people who have made it a priority to persistently spend time in prayer. They have an indefinable quality, a peace, a spark in the eye which tells a story of a life spent communing with God. It may seem costly, but investing in this time yourself will reap rewards. While much of life can feel complicated, time with God must remain straightforward; for knowing him is simply what we were made for.