Last Saturday at the Archdeaconry Synod there was some discussion about the Archdeaconry retreat. Some said it was too expensive, some said it was at the wrong time for them and so on. These were all
practical matters that could be easily corrected. Then came a comment that went ‘The fact that it was a silent retreat put me off. That is why I didn’t go’. Another person said ‘Well that is the very reason I did go’.
I remember my first retreat. It was in 1980 when I was preparing to be ordained Deacon. I was anxious because I had never experienced the silence before. In the end I came away saying ‘I don’t care if I never said another word to any one ever again!’
A retreat is a way of limiting the ‘inputs’ that a person has for three about days. There is communal prayer and there are generally talks from the retreat conductor, but the rest of the time is free for the person making the retreat to do what they wish. Sometimes this is reading, sometimes this is sleeping or walking. There is silence. Generally the first day of a retreat for me is spent getting all the ‘noise’ out of my head. Then the second day is spent relaxing, and the third day, I am open so some new way of being in contact with myself in the company of God. The point of a retreat is to limit the inputs from other people, so that I can concentrate on the ‘inputs’ from God to me. The silence serves that purpose.
Have you noticed just how much talking there is in life! Conversation is a way of ‘locating’ ourselves in our social world. ‘Where am I up to with you?’ I can find out by the way that you speak to me (if at all) and the kinds of things that you share. Do I have a worry about my location in the social group to which I belong? I can share it with the group and receive some reassurance that I am ‘OK’.
A retreat is a way of stopping the
conversation with others, so that I can really listen to what my primary
relationship (the one I have with God) has to say to me. That is what the silence does: It allows that re-focussing for long enough for it to have some effect.
So I really like retreats. Now, I do not understand the person who says ‘I would not go because they are silent.’ Then I would have truly said ‘I have never done this before, I am scared of the silence.’ But that is a different matter from objecting to something on the grounds that there is no talking. What introduced me to the pleasure of retreats was the fact that someone said to me ‘This is what you are going to do’ and I did it. My experience is broadende, not because I choose it, but because I am obedint to the one who sends me. A full life needs both.
The other comment that came was ‘Well if I had a choice between spending 300.00 CHF on a retreat, and spending the same money on a parish weekend away, then I think I would rather encourage the people to go on the weekend away once a year than go on the retreat.’
This is a difficult thing. If there is only one lot of CHF 300.00 then a choice has to be made, and what is more
valuable has to be chosen over what is less valuable. A parish weekend away is a very good thing. It gives the people a chance to get to know one another, and to bond in ways that build up the body of Christ outside a Sunday
morning. It gives them a chance to hear some ‘input’ from a speaker so that life is slightly re-oriented’ by the content of what the speaker says, and our response to it. We are opened up to new material that perhaps we have not known about before. So
weekends away are good for some purposes, but they are not the same purposes that are served by ‘retreats’. It is a pity that limited resources make us choose between them. Different traditions in the Anglican Church
prefer different kinds of events, but if everyone just stays in their own ‘silo’ of tradition, the capacity we have to enrich one another by our diversity disappears.
In the realms of ‘talking’ there is another kind of ‘talk’ that is useful, and this is the kind that is not an ‘opinion’ but which comes as the result of an enquiry into the content of one’s soul, and the offering of that to another
person, or the speaking of it to God. This is the kind of retreat that we had with our candidates for Baptism Renewal over the weekend before Palm Sunday. Here the candidates were asked to say ‘What is true for me’. This is not a matter of saying ‘I think X,Y or Z’ but ‘I was here in my journey, and now I am somewhere else’, or ‘This is how I think god is speaking to me when I hear this
reading.’ Or ‘This is the part of my life that is touches when I hear this text.’ This kind of speaking is not the kind that serves to ‘locate’ me in relation to others, but the kind of speaking that tells the truth about my own soul. It’s like saying ‘Here I am God, this is what is where I am up to right now.’
The fact that some people have never had a silent retreat offered to them or been on a ‘weekend away’ or had the opportunity to learn how to inquire into and to deliver the truth of their souls is a shame, which ever one of these they have missed out on. There is so much pressure on us from other sources of ‘input’ that it is important for Christians regularly to re-orient ourselves on our main determinant: Our relationship with God in Jesus. Each different way of doing this, be it a retreat, a weekend away or a group where we say what we have heard is an important component of a whole suite of methods which serve to keep us ‘Turned to Christ’ as the baptism promises tell us.
We know a Buddhist nun who was going to come to visit us. She was not able to come to the wedding, because she was in the middle of a four year silent retreat. When Jesuits enter the order the first thing that the novices do is a 30 day retreat: the first of three that are required of
Jesuits. These people are committed to doing what is necessary to re-orient themselves on a new reality.Even the rule of St. Benedict for Monks was described as an ‘easy’ rule. Not every one is called to such
practices but I do think that the days have gone when being Christian was the same as being ‘Society at Prayer’. One of the things that will be a
witness to those about us will be the casual references to ‘going on a
parish weekend away’ or ‘going on retreat’ that are not so much a part of the normal life of ‘busy people’.
I think that everyone needs periods of regular silence, periods of ‘input from other sources’ and the capacity to ‘deliver the truth’ of their souls, apart from expressing an opinion.