Refresh Your Faith
By Jane Rubietta
The walls of winter closed in on me, squeezing the breath from my soul and the light from my heart. Any love that might have filtered down at Christmas had long since disappeared into the tundra. I scraped—and scrapped—my way through the icy grip of a frozen holiday season and trudged into January, but the internal bleakness turned dark as night. From the deep caverns one thought surfaced: Run away. And then, run to God for personal retreat.
In God’s fun timing, our daughter left me the keys to her apartment in Chicago, and I hopped a train through slush and sludge. As my daily world receded, my perspective changed. I could begin to hear my heart’s cry, examine my longings, and turn toward God’s arms again.
A Personal Retreat: What It Is—and Is Not
A personal retreat is an escape into the calm loving embrace of God. It is a flight from the front lines of battle to the medic station, where we leave the gun-slinging to someone else—and holster our weapons for a time. A personal retreat is a safe place where we can distance ourselves from all our activities, responsibilities, and relationships, and in that detachment find God’s perspective.
In personal retreat, whether a cozy afternoon in the living room, a sit-in on a park bench, or an overnight getaway, we separate from the situations, roles, and behavior that form or reinforce our self-esteem—or lack of self-esteem. The personal retreat is both antithesis and antidote to the constant clamoring noise of our inner and outer world. In the solitude and stillness of retreat, we no longer need to earn our keep or make people happy. Nothing matters in this safe place except the state of our own body and soul.
The point of retreat is not to check off a bunch of to-dos. It is not to set new goals, although I read one esteemed scholar recommending just that. It is not to work on overdue tasks or catch up on correspondence or run errands.
The point of retreat is to meet with God. To love God, to be loved by God, to rest in that love, and to be restored to love well in our daily lives. The Psalmist says, in Ps. 119:114 (Message), “You're my place of quiet retreat; I wait for your Word to renew me.” In personal retreat, our focus shifts away from the undones, the poorly dones, already dones, wish-I-hadn’t-dones. On retreat, we make eye contact with Jesus once again. Without that critical eye contact, “fixing our eyes on Jesus,” we cannot continue to “run the race with endurance” (Heb. 12:1-2, NAS).
In her book, A Generous Presence, Rochelle Melander writes, “And this rest—this letting go of being in charge and really resting can fill us up again... Our mind, body, and spirit need time off to strengthen itself for the next shift of working as well. Runners who do not take the time out for their body to adapt, run the risk of injury. Those of us who do not let our minds and spirits rest risk the injury of our souls. Truly, rest is healing.”[i]
Jesus on Retreat
During our first pastorate, I watched with longing and, honestly, a great deal of envy as my husband packed the orange college backpack for his regular personal retreat. I wanted someone to magically deliver me, in the throes of parenting, to show up at my door offering childcare and housekeeping while I whistled off toward the horizon.
After several morose months, I recognized the pattern Jesus established. In the midst of heavy ministry, inquisitions from detractors, enraged synagogue leaders, and brilliant never-seen-before miracles, He took his need to connect deeply with God all the more seriously: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16).
Retreat seemed to help Jesus hear God’s directives, as well: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them” (Lk. 6:12-13).
After John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod, the Scriptures say, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matt. 14:13). It would appear that Christ needed separation in order to grieve, and focus on God’s purpose and calling.
Jesus also gave permission: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mk. 6:31). While I was waiting for human beings to set things in motion, Jesus had already done so, and was waiting for me to take those first steps into a deeper relationship.
Jesus balanced work and withdrawal, solitude and service, engagement and disengagement. Part of the secret to his focus, his power, his wisdom, comes from intense time with His Father. And if He needed that time away, alone with God, how much more do we?
Whether you’re hoping for an afternoon of solitude, an overnight, or a longer stretch of time, consider where you best hear God. Roughing it in a slim bunk in a cold cabin may render you deaf! My destination varies depending on my needs. If physical rest is your primary spiritual need, the room may be more important than the grounds around it. Or maybe a church pew would be perfect. During one season, my primary question was, “Do you have a bathtub?”
Maybe you simply need a blanket, rations, and a lawn chair. Ask yourself, “What does my soul long for? My body? My creative self? Where might I best hear God?” Maybe your answer is, “In nature.” What about a friend with a cabin you could borrow, or a colleague’s sunroom, or someone’s finished basement? Consider state parks, monasteries, convents, and retreat houses. As long as you are alone, and don’t have to be hospitable. You can do that with the rest of your life; this time is for your soul, alone.
Wherever you retreat, inquire about amenities. Do you need basics like coffee or bedding? And don’t forget to ask about daily bread.
Think through your comfort needs, unless you crave a Desert Fathers’ and Mothers’ type experience. Which may be exactly the paring down you seek to escape all the strictures and structures of life and work and get down to who you really are, ready to really listen.
Tools for Retreat
People often ask, “What would I do alone for all that time?” “Nothing” is not a comforting response for people who do do do. Many spiritual disciplines apply to the personal retreat. Silence, worship, thoughtful reading of Scripture, meditation, journaling. Maybe you’ll ask God to highlight a text for you to hold fast during your time, inviting the Holy Spirit to bring the Word home to your heart and life.
Ask, “What do I need from God?” Is it rest? Or love? Or direction, or simply refilling, or a quickening in your soul through Scripture? Your answer helps determine what will nurture your soul and engage with God.
I bring a hymnal, a journal, a meaty reading from a classic writer, my Bible. I tend to overload my book bag, and ultimately overlook the main point of retreat. This is no place to attempt to over-achieve.
Maybe your highest goal for retreat is to sleep without an alarm. Didn’t Jesus say, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28, NAS)?
As the time draws near to return, I start leaving a timeless place and measuring: only 24 more hours. Twelve. Six. One. I dread withdrawing from this “lonely place”. When I begin to return, I feel a little like the shuttle on “Apollo 13,” with a re-entry slot as thick as an envelope. The chances of successfully slipping through that niche are smaller than the chance of my winning a triathlon (which is zero, if you’re interested). Emerging from solitude may be a culture shock; re-engaging in relationships like trying to hug people while wearing a straight jacket or a space suit.
Toward the end of the retreat, I turn my prayer focus toward my loved ones and my profession. I consciously lower my expectations of my family, the state of home, laundry or refrigerator. I ask God for an extra measure of love to pour out, and to hold my heart near to His so that I am more continually reminded of His presence, His joy, His delight in me. I try to cement what God has conveyed to me through the silence and solitude, where He challenged, loved, rebuked. What is the “takeaway,” condensed to one sentence?
Ultimately, when we slip away to a quiet place, we can rest in God’s love. And women who are loved, become loving. Which is just what our families and friends need.
Why Not Retreat?
A host of thoughts and fears accompany retreat, even for veteran retreat-goers. Creating that much space in the schedule to experience God’s presence may seem self-indulgent, at least to others. Don’t be surprised if you start to think:
- I don’t or shouldn’t need a personal retreat
- No one else does this/needs this!
- I don’t deserve it
- I need to be needed
- My family—or work—needs me—or what if they get along fine without me? I can’t handle that!
- I don’t have childcare
- I can’t afford to go anyplace
- Logistics are too complex
- I can’t take the time
- I don’t know what I’d do with myself all day long
- I’m afraid to be alone
- I might not like myself when I’m alone
- I might not hear God—the mountain might not shake and smoke, the bush might not burn
- Or the bush might just burn—I might hear God and not like what God has to say to me!
I promise you, you will never regret taking the time away for a retreat for yourself. It will not only benefit you and your relationship with God, but all the other relationships in your life as well.
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