Once the province of mystics and monks, spiritual retreats have become common practice in mainstream Christian churches. However, in some cases, mystics might have a tough time recognizing what passes for a retreat today.
I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat a few years ago that turned out to be a cleverly disguised excuse for a girls’ night out at a local resort, complete with organized shopping excursions and an exhaustive schedule. Yes, the women did dip into their Bibles, but only after they dipped into the Jacuzzi, wine glasses in hand. There was no silence, very little prayer, no solitude, and no rest! I returned home exhausted and confused.
“Isn’t a retreat supposed to be restful?” I wondered. “What is the purpose of going on a retreat anyway?” So I did a little research.
A retreat is defined as “an intentional time set aside to just be with God. A retreat takes place in a specific location, for a limited amount of time, with a specific intention (usually prayer).”
Jesus was an expert at going on retreats. Read through the gospels and you will often find him leaving his companions and going off somewhere to pray (Mark 1:35), trekking into the wilderness for an extended time (Matthew 4:1-2), or going up a mountain to be alone with God (Matthew 14:23, Luke 9:28, John 6:15).
Jesus took the disciples with him sometimes, perhaps to teach them the importance of taking retreats. We can learn from their example, and with this in mind, I have chosen one particular Scripture passage to examine:
Then, because so many people were coming and going that [the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.”
—Mark 6:31-32, NIV
From this passage alone we can learn everything we need to know about going on retreats.
The disciples were extremely busy in ministry, so busy that they didn’t even take lunch breaks. Have you ever been so busy you forgot to eat? Being overworked and overscheduled is stressful. When you’re busy, your adrenalin levels are high, and that can take a toll on your body. If you aren’t taking care of even your basic needs (like eating!), that’s a sign that a retreat is in order.
Jesus suggested that the disciples go to “a quiet place.” The disciples needed a change of scenery, where the noise level was low. They had been ministering to crowds of people in villages near Galilee. Between the crowds of people, the calls of merchants and livestock, it was pretty noisy. In our world, noise is everywhere! Just try to find one minute of silence in your home, your car, or your office. Between the 24-hour news on TV, constant music and chatter on the radio, and the noise of local traffic, silence is very difficult to come by. However, silence is important. God says, “Listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom” (Job 33:33, NIV). There is a holiness in stillness and silence. God doesn’t like to compete with noise for our attention, and we can generally hear God’s voice only in silence.
Like us, Jesus and his disciples needed rest. We are human beings, not human doings. Our bodies naturally require periods of rest. No matter how much we fight it, we can’t get around the fact that our bodies need eight hours of sleep in order to be functional during the other sixteen. That was the original intention behind the concept of Sabbath—work six days then rest for one. We simply cannot keep going without resting at some point.
Jesus knew that the disciples needed to set their minds on prayer, so they went away from their ministry context. There are two things to consider here. The first is that it’s vital to go someplace outside of your normal environment in order to retreat properly. It isn’t helpful to try and retreat at the office, in your own home, or in the sanctuary of your church. I know that if I tried to retreat at home, I would be tempted to finish writing an article or answering my email, while I am supposed to be praying and resting. You have to intentionally remove yourself from your everyday surroundings in order to focus on God.
Jesus also knew his disciples needed to be someplace they could hear from God, so he sent them to “a solitary place.” Being able to hear God’s whisper requires spending time outdoors, in a natural environment–on a mountain, by the sea, or in the desert. After all, God created the natural world, so it’s likely that we will experience God in nature. (By the same token, God did not create multi-story concrete parking garages, and people rarely encounter God there.) Jesus went out to the countryside to experience God’s presence in a way that reoriented his perspective. On his retreats, Jesus experienced the splendor of creation and the majesty of God. Nature can reorient your perspective and remind you just how amazing God is.
You may also notice that the disciples went on their retreat together. There were 12 disciples and Jesus–a nice small group. While it is preferable that you retreat by yourself, it is also occasionally nice to have a small group of companions to rest and pray with. But it must be a small group. There is nothing quiet or restful about a group so large it can fill a stadium.
Jesus and his disciples often went off by themselves so they could pray, rest, and get refreshed. Retreats fueled their ministry! When Jesus said, “I am the way” (John 14:6) maybe he implied more than we realize. Maybe his way is better. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the things that Jesus did. Jesus retreated. Enough said.
Rev. Susan Hetrick is the Executive Director of The Oasis Renewal Center in southeastern Arizona, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament (RCA), and an award-winning author and artist. Susan and her husband David live in Sonoita, Arizona and have four young adult children. For more information about retreats, visit: www.OasisRenew.com