A Guide for Home Retreat
Todd Pickett, Dean of Spiritual Development
Biola University © 2020
Part I: In A Time of Quarantine
There is a sense that we are all now on retreat. If retreat begins with a withdrawal from the velocity and frantic mobility of modern life, then this ‘sheltering in place’ is a kind of retreat, if only a forced one. We have withdrawn into smaller spaces, a fast for now from our freedom to move about for commerce or experience. If we travel now, we do so through the portals of our screens, a thin substitute, we now realize, for ‘real life.’ For those of us who sometimes went to monasteries to taste a little of monastic stabilitas — the vow to resist one’s wanderlust and commit to the good of one place and community — the monastery has now come to us — in homes that have turned into hermitages.
Of course, for many of us — the lucky ones — work has come home with us as well, and many of us now sit before screens all day, careful when we rise not to trip over the tangles of cords and cables like foliage at our feet. For others, this is not work as usual within honeycombs of cubicles or offices but more like working on the raised wooden platform of a jungle gym — our children scurrying up through the plastic red tunnel, stepping over our laptops, only to scream down the slide on the other side.
Perhaps ever more, then, we need to carve out some space for quiet and for solitude, which is never really solitude, for God is always there. That indeed is the point of ‘solitude.’ For those living with families, there is no question of taking a morning or an afternoon. A whole day on retreat is a fantasy. For others, these might be more possible. But if we understand retreat as a spiritual discipline — a regular training in making space for God — then we might find a regular place for it in our lives now. After all, we were not meant to be spiritual camels, guzzling living water only once in a great while.
If we understand retreat in a time such as this not as something heavy and heroic, but as a regular return, a rhythm, an unfolding habit, a training (Jesus called such a gentle yoke, Matt. 11:30) we will find that fragments of what we experience at these times return to us at other times, unbidden, like the sweet relief of a cool breeze breaking the heavy heat of a day.
So, what might a mini-home retreat look like? What would it require from us?
Creating a nest.
A right, biblical understanding of time means not so much that we spend it, but that we inhabit it. We crawl into it and into whatever that time holds for us. The space of any given time makes all the difference to our experience of it. In creating mini-retreat times, it is important to take this metaphor literally, to create a space, or what I’m calling a nest, for a home retreat.
This might be a chair in the corner of a room, a patio, a balcony, some far part of the yard, a place in the neighborhood, a parked car, a community pool (if still open), an attic or basement — all these could all work. I have even used a closet. If you want to climb a tree in which to make your nest, do so, but take care. A walk will also do nicely, in which case the metaphor breaks down (now you are flying).
Preparing the nest.
Places have meaning because the things there have meaning. So, it is good to populate your nest with things meaningful to you. This is more possible when the nest is on your property. These things might include a short stack of favorite books, some greenery, a warm blanket, pictures, fragrances, a basket with some items you can hold or pass the time with, a comfortable sweatshirt or pullover, a speaker or headphones for music, and of course, a Bible, among other things. If your nest is elsewhere (an open park or promontory), then these nest-accessories can be ready to go in a retreat backpack. Also, don’t disregard the natural sounds of a place you’ve chosen: a fountain or flowing water, birdsong, and distant sounds of children playing, can be natural parts of your nest if they are a regular part of this place. If yours is a walking or bike riding ‘nest,’ you’ll have to travel light, but a cross in your pocket, a memory verse card, or some earbuds might travel well. There is nothing magical or sentimental about all this. We are creatures with bodies who take in reality (including God) tangibly. The things of this world are to be received, redeemed and enjoyed to point us to God who is present here among us.
Decide on a focus.
We want to enter this time with some gentle intentionality, even if that is to prepare ourselves to let God take us where he wishes us to go. If we are mindful that a retreat is simply a making space for God, to open to his Spirit and enjoy his presence, then a world of possibilities opens up before us. Something carried out before God, with a conscious presence of him, is spending time with him on retreat. A silent retreat, a beauty retreat, an intercession retreat, a creativity retreat, a Scripture meditation retreat, a lament retreat, a contemplative prayer retreat, a praise and worship retreat, a vocation retreat, and a rest retreat are all possible focuses. I will explain more about these and how you might find a focus next.
Part II: Designing a Time
The suggestions below for designing a retreat are only partial. The Holy Spirit works with us each distinctly, taking the raw material of our circumstances, our personalities, our backgrounds, our capacities, our traditions, our time, and our environments to direct us how to retreat before him. “Before God” is an important phrase, for such a practice does not always require something recognizably ‘religious’ — a body bent in prayer or in Scripture study (though sometimes it will). Rather, in practices of retreat (or Sabbath) we practice doing all things in the presence of God, before him. And it is in this meadow in the forest of our schedule, in which we intentionally practice the presence of God, that is at the heart of retreat. Such a being before or with God might simply be a gentle awareness, God appearing alternately in the background and foreground of our consciousness, like the child intent on her play but relaxed or warmed by the gaze of the parent. One can both be still and know that he is God, as well as be playful and know that he is God. Play is indeed something that is a fruit of knowing God is God.
Below are some possible directions for retreat, with hopes that they will stimulate other possibilities. They can be practiced in 30 minutes, an hour, or longer. Most can be done sitting or moving. One can practice the same one over time to see how it deepens or expands one’s capacity to be with God, or one can alternate, careful however not to rely too much on the thinner pleasure of novelty or constant change.
Here are some directions:
A Silent Retreat
A good dose of silence is usually a part of most retreats, for it is in the absence of sound, speech, media and even the written words of others (books) that we can hear the needs of our hearts and the voice of God more clearly. In such a retreat time, we forego all unnecessary speech and sounds in order to open ourselves more completely to the presence of God and, often, to the internal noise of our hearts and minds that God may want to bring to the surface for examination and healing.
A Scripture Meditation/Memorization Retreat
This speaks for itself, though is not to be confused with study (see ‘study retreat’ further down). Memorization and meditation are a chewing on Scripture, a dialogue with God about a passage that one has been drawn, either because it speaks life or is confusing. The practice of Lectio Divina (see appendix further below) is an example of one technique of Scripture meditation.
A No-Plan Retreat
The temptation is often to over-determine our retreats, to arrive with agendas, expectations to meet, books to read, and outcomes to achieve. Often helpful for beginning a larger block of time with God, this approach seeks to open to God’s agenda for the time as this may unfold more spontaneously. In this, before God, we watch to see where our heart and mind goes, a practice that is safe as long as we do so before God, observing what exists in our hearts and minds that we might take it to God.
A Do-Nothing Retreat
While we are always doing something on retreat, this retreat experiments with simply opening to the presence and love of God. It does not primarily look for a work to be done but a person to spend time with. It is a retreat that seeks to follow the command to ‘be still and know that I am God.’ This can be quite difficult, and one will have to discern what to do with inevitable distractions. But if one can enter in, it can be liberating.
A Study Retreat
Sometimes, burying ourselves in books and study can be a subtle way we avoid face to face time with God, so to speak, while still giving us a sense of being spiritual. However, there may be times when God is calling us indeed to set aside a block of time to study an issue relevant to our relationship with him. If so, it should still be done prayerfully, allowing plenty of time to discuss with him the implications of what we’re learning.
A Disinterested Learning Retreat
God has created a rich and interesting world and given us the capacity to enjoy this learning. In a disinterested retreat, we may seek to learn something for the sheer joy of learning, especially if it leads to joy and gratitude with God’s created world, including nature and people. A biography, a botanical guide, poetry, history — all of these can lead us to gratitude and conversation before God. The key point here is that we are not trying to justify ourselves by learning something ‘useful’ (although there may be applications) but to enjoy God through what he has made and how he has made us.
A Creativity Retreat
Devoting a retreat to making something can be a kind of contemplative play. As we have compared ourselves negatively to the artistic “genius” of others growing up, we have lost the truth that we were designed to create. Technology has trained us to take the easy way out, doing all the creating for us. A creativity retreat is another example, however, of a kind of disinterested retreat, where we echo and glorify our maker by enjoying our own creative capacities. Knitting a cap, sketching an object, designing a garden, making a new meal, playing an instrument — these are all examples of what can be done on a creativity retreat.
An Intercessory Retreat
On this retreat, we dedicate blocks of time to pray for others. Rather than running through a long list quickly, we allow ourselves to linger over the needs of another. If we’ve run through our requests for them in 20 seconds, we then wait on the Lord, holding the person up in our imagination, letting the Spirit suggest other prayers for them. Perhaps such intercession turns to gratitude for the person, and then onto some invitation for us to participate in the very things we have prayed for by helping them in some way if that is within our power.
A Praise or Thanksgiving Retreat
Thanksgiving and praise are commanded throughout Scripture. We were made for these practices and the social sciences are now catching up to these truths as an important part of human well-being. Thanksgiving can be ‘horizontal’ — moving across the landscape of our life and thanking God for each good thing we enjoy — or ‘vertical,’ starting with one thing for which we are grateful, and drilling down to every good thing that led to that (e.g. thankful for music > my guitar > my guitar teachers > my parent’s encouragement > their musical backgrounds, etc.) Of course, praise and thanksgiving psalms are good templates for praising God and thanking him for who he is, what he’s done and what he will do.
A Contemplative Prayer Retreat
This is a retreat that opens to our “Mary,” she who “chose what is better” (Luke 10:42), calling us to new modalities of Christian prayer, such as ‘centering prayer,’ a practice developed from the command to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
A Lament or Retreat
Fully one-third of the psalms are lament psalms, which suggests that we ourselves sometimes have a need to grieve and struggle in God’s presence. Here again, the psalms (e.g. 22, 77, 88) are good templates for this kind of prayer and may inspire us to write our own lament psalms.
A Rest Retreat
We are embodied people, and sometimes we just need to rest. This rest might not be just physical but also emotional, giving ourselves the permission to enjoy God’s sovereignty while we rest in it.
A Vocation Retreat
This may be less a matter of seeking a career and more a matter of reflecting on who we are called to be and what we are called to do as believers. Such a retreat can re-center us in God’s larger purposes for us.
There are many other possibilities here. To consider some, look at Adele Calhoun’s The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, whose focus on spiritual disciplines can be easily adapted for what we are calling mini-retreats.
Part III: What to Expect
Sometimes people are discouraged from spiritual practices like retreat either because they feel unnatural at first or because they experience them in ways that are confusing. Here’s a short guide on how to understand what you may experience during these times.
- Remember, the Scriptures are full of figures who found God in sought or forced retreats, times of intended or unintended solitude or retreat. For example:
- Jacob in the stillness of the night wrestling with the angel (Gen. 32)
- Joseph’s growing discernment of dreams while in prison (Gen. 39)
- Moses on the mountain in Mt. Sinai (Exod. 22)
- John the Baptist’s 30 years in the wilderness (Luke 1)
- Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4)
- Saul’s Arabian retreat (Acts 9)
- John’s revelations on Patmos (Rev. 1)
Your time today may or may not come with “spiritual feelings” (sometimes called ‘consolation’). Don’t pressure yourself to have a spiritual experience. God is always there, no matter your feelings. We need to resist measuring the presence and work of God just by spiritual pleasures.
Having said that, your feelings can be a good place to start in your time with God.
While feelings are not reliable guides by which to measure the presence of God, they can tell us what is in our heart, what our concerns are, and where the Spirit may want to work.
This time may or may not be restful. Sometimes we will be aware of our restlessness. Our compulsions to be productive or tackle our to-do list may get up and march around in our minds.
Try to lay these distractions aside. If that is not easily done, then perhaps God wants you to discuss these struggles with him. It may not be a ‘quiet’ time but a noisy one as you talk to God about some of the stuff in your heart. That’s OK and probably important.
Sometimes you will be more aware of yourself than of God. That can be OK, too, for prayer should result in a ‘double-knowledge’ — knowledge of God and ourselves.
If this is the case, go with it, but bring yourself to God. This is not just self-absorption. What may he be showing you about yourself? What truth of yourself or of God may the Spirit want to speak into you?
Try to avoid spending the whole time in an effort to fix yourself. God may indeed grant you insights into how to grow or tackle sin. However, sometimes our tendencies to want to fix ourselves reveals our desire to become good so we can escape our feelings of weakness, our need for God, and our reliance on Christ’s righteousness. God may be calling you to dwell more on forgiveness, Christ’s atonement, and our need for him rather than visions of our own future goodness.
This may or may not be a time to get ‘messages’ from God about the future. Discernment about life choices often comes over time, through rhythms of listening to God, becoming accustomed to his voice, and wisdom in our situations. This may not be a time to find some security by devising plans, but rather to open to God’s provisions for you where you are at now.
What is this time for?
- To be with God, whether in our confusion, restlessness, sadness, joy, gratitude, rest, etc.
- To live in the truths of yourself and of him.
- To take what he offers us this day, seeking what his loving work may be in your life.
Remember this is a relationship, and prayer is often a conversation. Like any conversation or relationship, we won’t always know where it is going, but we can trust that he will take us where we need to go.
Questions for Learning from Retreat:
How did you spend this time with God? How did you experience it yourself and him? (Bored? Relaxed? Restless? At peace? Different things at different moments?).
Based on your time today, to what may the Spirit be inviting you? To explore a truth more deeply? To pursue a spiritual discipline more consistently? To seek the help of others? To repent of some vice? To receive prayer? To seek greater understanding of something? Do you feel a longing, calling or invitation to spend more regular time with the Lord? What might that look like for you?
Finally, what have you learned today or recently about spending time with God? What stands out to you that might be a takeaway for spending intentional time with God in the future?
Appendix: Lectio Divina
For a Scripture meditation practice or retreat
Lectio Divina: “Divine Reading”
Attending, Reflecting, Responding and Being with God
Lectio Divina was training in Paul's admonition to "Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your heart to God" (Col. 3:16) which was coupled with Paul's command to "be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" (Eph. 5:18–20).
Lectio Divina, meaning simply ‘divine reading,’ is one way of reading that allows the word of Christ to “dwell in you richly.” Find a place where you can be left alone for an hour (though this can be done for any length of time you have). Select a passage — maybe a section or paragraph (2–12 verses or so). It might be one you have been drawn to lately, something you have heard preached in church or taught in class, or simply the passage of the day from a devotional or lectionary. (You should do some study of the passage in advance or just some reading in a reliable commentary — although the lectio time itself is not meant to be ‘Bible study’.) You might just begin by centering yourself with a short prayer — “Lord, I present myself to you,” or “Jesus Christ, have mercy [healing] on me.” Then begin:
“Our spiritual life will be no deeper than our capacity to pay attention.”
— David G. Benner, Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Read the passage aloud several times. In doing so, you are allowing it to begin to dwell in you richly, opening to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may have something in it for you today. You may find yourself beginning to notice a sentence, phrase or even a word. Pay attention to that possibility as you continue to reread.
To ponder the Scripture is simply to reflect and talk with God about it.
Take the word, phrase, or sentence that has caught your attention and begin to chew it, to ruminate on it with the Holy Spirit. Talk to God about it. How is it touching your life? How is God’s Spirit touching your Spirit? Why is it significant to you, in particular, on this day? How is it interacting with your hopes or desires? What might you be resisting? Is it life-giving or heavy? What is it bringing to the surface in you? What does it speak to you about God, yourself, or reality? To what is God inviting you? Talk to him about it. Listen for his responses, too.
Our reading has fallen short if attending and pondering never leads to response.
As you have begun, perhaps, to understand something about this sentence, word or phrase and its significance for you, allow the Holy Spirit to begin to form a prayer in you based upon that. This might develop out of your pondering with God. In the end, your prayer might just be a single sentence, using the very word or phrase itself. It could be a prayer of thanksgiving, lament, desire, frustration, praise, or whatever. When you have received it, feel free to pray it repeatedly to God. This could be something portable for you, something you will carry throughout the day.
“What you seek in reading a love letter is not simply words or information but [being] with your beloved.”
Now just sit and open to the presence of God, receiving whatever he offers about himself or yourself (don’t try to generate some feeling). Remember, if ‘nothing’ is happening, he is still there. He is in the room. He is in you. Sit in his presence. You might finish your time offering again the prayer you were given in (3) above or simply by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.