Despite or because of our money-rich, time-poor culture, people continue to escape their regular lives to go on a retreat. Searching for peace, renewal and balance Catherine Larner reports on new approaches to an ancient tradition.
In our fast-paced society increasing numbers of people want to take time out to pause, reflect and regain a sense of balance. Christians, spiritual seekers and even people of no faith appreciate the value of time out to be alone, to rest and to ponder, away from the demands of their usual frantic lifestyle. Opportunities to escape are becoming more varied and creative in response to this trend. Health farms and day spas are now commonplace and offer spiritual and emotional therapies as well as facials and manicures. Monastic institutions of all persuasions are opening their doors to guests, and growing numbers of historic houses, former pubs and suburban gardens offer quiet days for contemplation. ‘Going on retreat... keeps me sane,’ wrote Robin Baird-Smith in an article in The Times recently. He attended a retreat at Aylesford Priory in Kent where the course leader declared: ‘All of you busy people in the modern world are much more tired than you realise. One of the purposes of coming on retreat is to rest.’ Seeking a spiritual experience Dave Gardner, the vicar of a thriving evangelical church in Woodbridge, Suffolk, agrees and organises parish quiet days at Advent and Lent to encourage his congregation to take time out. "Busy committed Christians are affected just as much by the 24/7 culture," he says, "and the traditional concept of 'retreat' is one way of rediscovering the God who made us to be 'human beings' first rather than 'human doings'." Non-believers also enter a retreat to have a spiritual experience of some sort. "Increasingly many people in society are interested in spirituality and finding a 'sacred space' in which they can explore the deeper issues in life," says Gardner. "People feel that retreats offer something that church doesn't offer," says Peter Middlemiss, chair of the Retreats Association. "They are keen to visit somewhere that is affiliated to our Association rather than join a denominational grouping; they don't feel that is where they are coming from. The retreat provides a starting point and gives people the opportunity to explore." "There are quite a lot of people who feel they don't fit into mainstream church but who feel at home in the retreat movement," agrees Lindsay Spendlove, who runs a retreat centre which operates from a former village pub. This means that individuals of all levels of belief are prepared to visit monasteries or what are often considered austere and strict religious institutions, as well as less theological establishments, when they go on retreat, particularly if they are going for just a day. Day trippers "People aren't coming from the tradition of retreats, so they don't always know how to get the most from them," says Middlemiss, who thinks it's best if you have at least one day when you are not travelling to or from the retreat centre, to allow yourself time to disengage from your daily life. "The whole business of going away is still popular but fitting it in is the problem. Just taking a day away is a good place to start." Organisers of the day retreats hope that by sampling what is on offer, and through listening and experiencing God in quiet and solitude for themselves, the attendees will be encouraged to pursue longer retreats. "A day limits what you can do," says Middlemiss. "Some people come because they want to talk about their concerns, other people come specifically to be quiet. The skill of the leader of the day is to acknowledge these differences and negotiate to ensure that everyone feels their needs are being met." There are a huge variety of locations offering retreats, and the number is remaining constant, according to the Retreats Association which lists 200 houses in its Retreats Journal. "Just as houses close down, so new ones open,” says Middlemiss, “but the trend does seem to be for smaller houses these days, which lend themselves to day retreats rather than overnight stays." Most retreat-goers are attracted by the prospect of time to renew their spirit, to be refreshed, and the hope that they will gain a new perspective on their everyday life. A retreat gives the time window for uninterrupted meditation. There is usually quiet, sometimes silence, often in humble surroundings with simple refreshments. In these surroundings our senses can be reawakened, helping us to see the beauty of modest tastes and taking pleasure in the sights and sounds of nature. Without the demands of deadlines, relationships, and the Internet, we can give ourselves time to reflect on our joys, sorrows and fears. We can listen to God in prayer, in reading and through Scripture. Themed retreats For those who are new to retreat, days which offer a guide or theme are probably best. “The subject provides a starting point, a common experience,” says Middlemiss. And there are plenty of themed retreats to choose from such as massage, ageing, walking, nature, photography, music and singing. Some retreat houses offer days for teenagers, for those who are artistic or for people with a literary interest. Another option are Quiet Gardens; a network of private homeowners open up their gardens for prayer, silence, reflection and appreciation of natural beauty. In the United States a publisher of materials for church leaders is releasing resources this summer for a ‘chocolate-themed retreat’ for women. It is being promoted as "a place where women relax, laugh and reflect on their friendship with Jesus - and enjoy meeting other women of all ages," while eating chocolate! That's as unconventional an image of 'church' as you can get, and while some people might dismiss it as light-weight or trivial, others might consider it a good opportunity to develop friendship with people on the fringes of the Christian faith. Indeed, while retreats are often best attended alone, they do also provide a means of introducing friends to spiritual matters outside of the conventional church building or trappings of faith which some find off-putting. Attendance at retreats does still generally reflect the profile of the churchgoing population - the average age is still quite high and the majority are women. "I wish I knew how to effectively organise a retreat for men as few attend the open Quiet Days that we hold" admits Rev Gardner. "One suggestion is to hold a specific Men's Day Retreat as my experience is that some men prefer this. John Eldredge who wrote 'Wild at Heart' organises men's retreats in the USA and they are very popular." Businessman Shannon Wood attended his first day retreat with members of his church recently and found it challenging. "I am not good at sitting down and being quiet," he says. "For the first half of the day it was fine, but then we had lunch in silence and I thought I wouldn't survive! "I had never thought of retreat before as something to do. I had the perception that it's something monks do! I guard my time quite jealously so giving up a whole day of my weekend was tough. However, I felt led by God to be more contemplative and not so dependent on hearing him speak through other people,” says Wood. "I think the idea of being quiet is quite a difficult thing for men yet we live quite lonely lives these days, particularly when you reach an age when you have a family. There is camaraderie at work but then we don't hang out together a lot. I think, given the opportunity, men do want to talk about what is going on with them and be able to pray and support each other. Perhaps men's groups are the best place for this, if you have the right group of men they then feel free to be real with each other." Catherine Larner is a freelance journalist.