And Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. – Mark 6:31
I once went on retreat by accident. It was early September just before I was to start my second year of grad school. Instead of spending the summer break getting some much-needed rest, I accepted an opportunity to earn money by working full-time at my regularly part-time job. Because of my years of experience with the company, I became the “go-to girl” for covering other people’s vacations. At one point, I was actually doing 5 different jobs simultaneously! To get through this intense time, I clung to God. I prayed, usually out loud, on my drive to work and all the way home again. I was grateful for God’s sustaining power and for the additional income. But by summer’s end, I was even more exhausted than I had imagined I’d be.
So, on the last weekend before school started, I decided to get away by myself. I found a beautiful campground near the ocean that had tent-cabins with electricity and beds. I packed my hiking boots, grabbed some food to cook over the fire and took off. It was the beginning of the off-season, so I practically had the place to myself. My soul reveled in the quiet.
I thought that I might spend some time in prayer, but I soon realized that I was too spent to do even that. I burst out, saying to Jesus, “I just can’t talk to you anymore! And can you not talk to me either? I just need a break!” And that’s exactly what we did. I spent the rest of the weekend sitting, walking, sleeping, eating, biking, reading, and swimming, all with a strong sense of the Lord’s presence, but without any overt communication between us. I didn’t make any requests of God, didn’t reflect on my spiritual life, nor did I thank or praise him. God didn’t give me any particular insights, either about himself or my life. I never cracked open my Bible. I didn’t read anything spiritually stretching; just a novel for pleasure. I just did my thing, and Jesus stayed near me the whole time, silently and lovingly. When the weekend was over, I returned to my life—to working, to seminary, and to communicating openly with God again—but now I felt refreshed and rejuvenated.
Even after the weekend was over, I didn’t realize that I had been on a retreat! It wasn’t until one of my professors reminded me about the spiritual retreat requirement we had to complete every semester that I wondered if I had done just that. I spoke with her about it, and she approved my weekend get-away as fulfilling the requirements. To this day, I remember that weekend as one of my sweetest experiences with God.
At that point in my life, I was already pretty well versed in spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. How had it not occurred to me that what I had experienced was a form of retreat? I think the answer comes from our sometimes unconscious definitions and assumptions of what it means to “go on retreat.” For me, I thought that being on a spiritual retreat meant that I needed to spend focused time specifically learning about God or intentionally engaging in spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, Scripture reading, and journaling . It never occurred to me that just spending time away with God doing “nothing” was still a very valid and effective experience of retreat. (And, it turns out that I had practiced some spiritual disciplines on my accidental retreat—specifically, silence, solitude, and Sabbath rest—but I hadn’t intentionally set out to do so. I just fell into it!)
Take a moment and consider for yourself: what assumptions might you have about going on retreat? What elements do you think have to be included in order for it to “count” as a spiritual retreat? What activities might you consider to be “out of bounds” or too out of the ordinary to be “spiritual?” Prayerfully considering your answers to these questions might reveal boundaries that could be keeping you from powerful retreat experiences that you’ve never before considered.
After my accidental retreat, I decided I need to adjust my definition for a spiritual retreat. When I looked at Scripture, I found that Jesus offers us the perfect example of what it means to go on retreat. Each of the Gospel writers report that Jesus would often go away by himself to pray (Matthew 14:13 & 23, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, John 6:15, etc.). Translations often use the verb withdraw to describe how Jesus’ would leave his disciples and the crowds. The dictionary definition of the word retreat is “the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.” Moving out of the regular flow of one’s life, relationships and responsibilities is clearly an essential aspect of a retreat.
The other fundamental component from Jesus’ times away is that he spent them with the Father. Therefore, on a spiritual retreat, one’s relationship with God must be primary. We don’t have a lot more information about what Jesus did during his retreats with the Father other than pray. We know that during his temptation in the wilderness, he fasted and seemed to have been meditating on Deuteronomy 8 (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). But otherwise, we only know that Jesus withdrew to be with the Father. These are now my two indispensable components for defining a spiritual retreat. Any other specifics seem to be open for discernment and creativity.
My ideas about going on retreat were only clarified when I was asked to help a class of college freshmen prepare for an assigned eight-hour spiritual retreat. I asked the students, “If you could spend a day with someone who loved you more than anyone else in the world—and you loved them back—what would you do?” I would then fill up the white board writing down their suggestions, which ranged from the active—play games, go shopping, surf, see a movie—to the quiet—hang out, have a meal, just talk, do nothing together. There was almost no end to the things they could imagine doing with this special person.
But when I next asked them what they would do if they had a day alone to spend with God, the answers were much more restricted, less creative, and typically “religious”: read the Bible, pray, memorize Scripture, fast, journal, study a spiritual book, etc.
I then asked them what the difference was between spending time with a loved one and spending time with God. The question helped to highlight their assumptions of what it meant to be “spiritual.” After some discussion, they eventually concluded that the only difference was that they could physically see, hear and touch their loved one. God, instead, was Spirit.
So acknowledging that in our relationship with God we have to relate to one another a little differently than with a physical person, I asked the students to help me list how God does communicates with them in relationship. Suddenly, the board would fill up again with ideas: through Scripture, in prayer, through nature, through beauty, in worship, through music, through circumstances, in dreams, through other people, through art and creativity, in a still small voice.
Finally, with this perspective shift, I asked them to reconsider, if that’s how God communicates with us, and God loves us more than anyone else in the world, then how might they choose to spend a day with God? The students’ eyes sparkled as their minds connected the dots. “You mean I could go surfing with God?” Sure. “God and I could just hang out?” Why not? “I could have a meal with God?” Isn’t that what Communion is all about? If a spiritual retreat is essentially withdrawing from the normal relationships and responsibilities of your life to spend time in your relationship with God, then there is practically no limit to the number of things you could do together.
It’s been several years since I spoke to those students. Since then, God has led me to minister to others by leading what some people might call unusual and creative retreat experiences. I help people to connect more deeply to God and each other through playful improvisational games and exercises combined with quiet reflection. I call my offerings Pray Thru Play. Why can’t play be a part of our relationships with God?
My offerings aren’t the only ones that are “outside the box.” I know of wonderful creative retreat offerings that involve cooking, nature walks, art projects, photography, music, dancing, writing, even blowing bubbles! I know people who go on retreat to experience and express particular emotions with God, such as grief, anger, joy, frustration or gratitude. I know of others who go on a retreat to focus on the relationship of their physical bodies to their relationship with God. Still others take a hobby that they appreciate or want to explore—like scrapbooking, knitting or woodworking—and build a retreat around that. The key is that each retreat engages these activities in order to help deepen one’s relationship with God.
Now, in all my talk of “unusual” retreat offerings, my intention is not to downplay more traditional retreats in anyway. I still highly value retreats that focus on silence, solitude, fasting, traditional forms of prayer, teaching, and Scripture meditation. Rather, my desire is to open us up to the many possibilities of how we could go on retreat with God.
So, now, I ask you… if you could spend time away with God, who loves you more than anyone in the world, what would you do together?
May God lead your thoughts and plans as you consider how God is inviting you into a deeper relationship with him.