Bella and the Spiritual Practice of Retreat

The first time Bella went on a personal day retreat, she went with a friend who wanted to add this practice to her life as well. They went up to a camp that graciously let them come at no cost. But that first time, the camp director had forgotten to put the heat on in the cabins and it was freezing! Thankfully, the main lodge was open…not that there was heat in there but there was a bathroom.

Being a very innovative soul, Bella rummaged around and found a couple of basins. Her thinking was that if she and her friend could only get their feet warm, the situation would greatly improve. Their joined prayer time to start off the day before each of them went into their alone time was with their feet in the basins filled with hot water. It was definitely worth a good laugh if nothing else.

It was late March but the snow and the wind howled even so. Bella dressed up warm and headed down the dirt road to talk to God about whether to take on a new role in her church. It was a messy situation – a role that had never been fulfilled by a woman and she had an intuition that if she said yes, she would be signing up for some difficult times. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to do it and it wasn’t that she wasn’t gifted to do it but she didn’t want the pioneering pains that are delegated to the first one in line.

She leaned against an old wood fence, looking out at an empty field with the snow stinging her cheeks and eyes. She had to yell at God in order to be able to hear herself. “Alright, if you want me to do it, I will. But you are going to have to make it happen because I just can’t see any way.” The storm on the outside continued but the storm on the inside laid down in peace. All was quiet within.

Every month after that time, Bella headed out on retreat – sometimes with her friend and sometimes alone. She always felt that as she drove away, she was leaving behind all her responsibilities, all the things people wanted from her and even what she wanted from herself. She was nobody’s wife, mother, sister, friend, grandmother or pastor. She was just Bella. She didn’t meet with Jesus over an agenda or a prayer list or any other expectation. She just wanted to be with Him - just to be. The freedom this brought her drew her every time.

The retreats were so restorative. She slept, walked, and sat by the water; at another retreat place she walked in the forest and engaged with a labyrinth, sang in gardens and cried on her knees with the scriptures open and blurry on the chair. These retreats always enabled her to go on and not lose who she was.

As the years went by, she learned about silent retreats and other contemplative ways. She tried overnight retreats and once – though she thought she would never make it – went on an eight-day silent retreat at an Ignatian Centre. So many times, hearing God in nature, in His Word, in her very centre drew her back to home base. She was strengthened to go on and not just go on but allow silence and solitude to help her turn from allowing others to tell her who she was…which is a sure-fire way of giving way too much power to others and thus get lost in the bottomless pit of people-pleasing.

Bella wasn’t in that pioneering role anymore but she was sad that the practice of retreat had fallen out of her life. She was determined to bring it back in.

Adele Calhoun writes:

Historically one way Christians persevered in the battle was to regularly retreat from the front lines of attack and spend solitary time with God. Times of retreat brought perspective to the mind while strengthening and nourishing the soul. Without retreat, followers of Jesus tired and became ineffective in the struggle. They needed to be alone with God and from others if they wanted to reengage the battle on different ground.

The tradition of retreating was still in good stead in the fifteenth century. At that time Europe had thirteen hundred Franciscan hermitages. But as the modern era has gained speed the habit of retreating has fallen out of the practice of many believers.

Rather than going on retreats that slow us down to listen and focus on God alone…we go on “retreats” filled with lectures, late nights, constant activity and interaction with all kinds of people. This sort of retreating is not a bad thing. It is simply not a retreat from the busyness and distractions of life. It is not time set apparat with God alone.

Retreating, in the traditional sense, is not about gaining more information. It is not going away to get things done. It is not a way to catch up on our reading or email. Retreats are ways we pull back from the battle and rest. We take naps and go to bed early. In the presence of the Holy One we enter into the silence and solitude and rest in God. Retreating gives us the energy it takes to build our relationship with God one on one. When we are rested, we listen better. When we are rested, we notice desires as well as what lies buried in our souls.

We may feel that nothing really big or noteworthy happened our retreat. The benefits of retreating often are not seen until we engage the battle again. Go away and trust God with what happens in your soul.

Some good resources to help you with retreat:

Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton

Invitation to Retreat by Ruth Haley Barton

On Retreat with Thomas Merton: A Seven-Day Spiritual Journey by Esther de Waal

Moment by Moment: A Retreat in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, SHCJ, and Eugene F. Merz, SJ

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