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Spiritual Retreats

Lesley Ayers

If you ever held any doubts about the way our church language can alienate us from people 'out there' try this one. A group is sitting around the table during a coffee break at work. You are going on leave the next week and are asked what you are going to do. You reply "I am going on retreat and I'll see a spiritual director every day". Pow! In their minds you are immediately labeled 'religious' and set apart from 'normal' people. And they all want to have the same kind of holiday? Yeah right . . . .

A time of retreat can change the whole direction of our lives. At the very least it can give us more awareness about what is important in God's eyes.

But when, in fact, I talk about wanting just to take some time out from the busyness, about going somewhere I can shed the many hats I wear, so that in the end it is down to just me and God . . . . now that touches chords in people. In some I see a longing, perhaps wistfulness, a searching. Even in our secular society what I am talking about is now acceptable.

So please, please, if anyone can come up with some user-friendly alternative for 'retreat' and 'spiritual director' that can be used in the workplace I would be most grateful!

ven within the wider church family the terms can evoke stereotypes of a super-religious, ascetic and suspect activity. There can be the connotation of defeat with the army retreating before the enemy, surely a sign of weakness that people who have 'got it all together' don't need.

So what is a retreat in Christian terms? A broad definition is 'time away from the pressures of everyday life'. It is a time specifically set aside to focus on being with God, and hearing God.

Within that broad definition is infinite variety. This is not a 'one size fits all' situation. Retreats can vary from a few hours to several weeks and even months. They can be silent, or include conversation and times of companionship, as well as reflection. They can be individual, or experienced in groups. Some are residential, others not.

In some, but not all, meals are provided. Settings can be rural, inner city, some by the sea — how about a wilderness retreat? Retreats can be times of nurture and care, or times of wrestling with important issues. This variety provides great choice according to the circumstances, temperament and needs of the individual.

hy do I think retreats are so helpful? Why not?

Jesus is our model and he had retreat time as part of his rhythm of life. If we think we are too busy we should take a look at Jesus' work schedule! Retreat time can sometimes change the whole direction of our lives. At the very least it can give us more awareness about what is important in God's eyes. I sense that God has a longing to meet with us in such times.

My first retreat came about 18 years ago. In a casually picked up secular magazine I read an entertaining yet poignant article, describing someone's experience of a weekend's silent retreat. As I read it, I knew in the depths of my soul that this was what I needed.

So I headed off, just for a weekend, to a community called Futuna (sadly no longer in existence). I went leaving a mother dying after a long struggle with cancer, three young children, and a husband stressed with work pressures. I carried with me the physical discomforts of early pregnancy.

My memories are of bread freshly baked by one of the brothers, which overrode my nausea with its goodness; of gentle music, of Scripture and poetry readings, of strolls in the garden and of the sense of space from being with God.

When I returned home nothing had changed, my mother still died, and, some months later, a small sleep-resistant baby was born; yet everything had changed. My soul had been restored and I had the strength to see through the things to come. I think this sums up for me what happens: nothing changes, yet everything changes.

oday there is a great variety of retreats available. How can we choose which type of retreat is right for us? Over the years I realise that my choices have often been quite pragmatic.

I have chosen mainly silent retreats as good balance to my very people-intense work, while friends of mine, whose life allows much time for solitude, have preferred more companionship on their retreats. Some venues have been determined by where our children have been currently living (so I can fit in a visit to them too), or by ease of public transport.

I have experienced hospitality from a cross-section of the Christian community, among them Sisters of Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Marist, Anglican, and individuals providing retreats through Spiritual Growth Ministries. Time and again there has been a particular word of challenge or compassion from the director that has made a huge difference to my life. I have frequently felt humbled by the serving attitude and care of those who hosted me.

My retreats have varied from reflective tramping on Tongariro — where the change of perspective expanded my soul after three years of hard study — to inner city experiences, which have had their own special quality.

I include in my list a handcraft retreat in a peaceful country valley. That one was secular (but someone forgot to tell God!). The six people there encompassed two decades in age and four denominations. We spent time in laughter and gratitude talking about our life journey and how God is central to us.

For me no two experiences on retreat have been the same. We should hardly expect otherwise, considering our relationship to God is a living thing.

etreat time is now an essential part of my life. My family knows that if I have my time away it benefits everyone, as I am much nicer when I come home!

Although retreats may be nurturing, don't get the idea that they are always comfortable places to be, particularly the silent retreats. There can be an initial time of being very restless and unsettled. This is why I often opt for public transport to get me to my destination (thank you Flybuys and Intercity!).

This can provide a good transition from everyday life to retreat life. Recently I found that in the two hours on public transport there was time to shed the hats of wife, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbour and chaplain.

When I finally got off the bus in Wellington it was just 'me' left — a naked and vulnerable place to be. I had great empathy with Adam and Eve looking for somewhere to hide in the trees of the garden!1 I also became acutely aware how much our busy roles can provide a comfortable buffer between us and God.

Paul Hawker in his book Soul Survivor; A Spiritual Quest Through 40 days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude2 describes his retreat time in the Tararuas. This successful documentary filmmaker, with a great family and many friends, listened to the mid-life urging of the soul. His time on the mountain involved stripping away the layers of life, as he'd known it, being honest with himself, being still and listening to God's voice. Through it all came the development of an intimate relationship with God.

Psalm 131 in its simplicity sums up the retreat experience for me:

My heart is not proud, O Lord,

My eyes are not haughty.

I do not concern myself with great matters

Or things too wonderful for me.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul;

Like a weaned child with its mother,

Like a weaned child is my soul

Within me.

O Israel put your hope in the Lord

Both now and forevermore.3

hen all the hats are removed there is not much space for personal pride. Things that have loomed with such importance in daily life shrink in the perspective of eternity. In the nurturing space comes the time of contentment, of knowing God's character. I face life as I return home with renewed hope and trust. The end result can best be described by the word 'resolve'. I head back to 'where the action is' with clarity of purpose.

Central to everything is the gift of retreat — knowing, amazingly, that when everything else is stripped away, I am a precious child of God.

How do you find out about retreats?

• Ask at church, ask friends, watch out for advertisements in Reality and other Christian publications.

• Check out your local Public Library for a copy of Sanctuaries: Spiritual and Health Retreats in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific by Barbara Hasslacher (2000). Sift through this to find the Christian ones.

• Contact Spiritual Growth Ministries. This is a network drawing on diverse Christian traditions which provides spiritual resources throughout New Zealand. It is sponsored by the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

How much will it cost?

Costs vary. Retreat centres, especially the Catholic ones, appear to be highly subsidised with their charges often being as little as $35-$40 a night, or koha (donation). This figure includes all meals. Where Christian retreats are concerned there is often a willingness to look at people's financial circumstances and accept as payment a koha that is manageable for them.