Sacred Solitude A spiritual retreat helps us seek God without distractions BY KRISTIN OSTENSEN, STAFF WRITER At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him (Mark 1:12-13).
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hat have I gotten myself into? It was July and I was embarking on a two-day solitary retreat at a refuge a few hours east of Toronto. Away from others at the retreat centre, I would be staying in a small cabin in the woods. No electricity. No running water. Just four walls and a Bible. The practice of going on a retreat is a spiritual discipline that usually combines several spiritual disciplines: fasting, prayer, solitude, meditation, study and silence. Those taking part in this practice often look to Jesus as an example. After he was baptized, the Gospels report that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, where he fasted and was tested (see Mark 1, Matthew 4, Luke 4). As Jesus overcame the temptations of Satan, his retreat provided the final preparation before he began his earthly ministry. A retreat can be described simply as setting aside time away from one’s normal life to encounter God. It follows in the monastic tradition of men and women who left everything behind to seek God in the desert or behind the monastery walls. It’s an ascetical practice of abstinence from worldly pleasures and comforts so that one can pursue God, unhindered by distractions. A solitary retreat provides a staggering contrast to normal life. There are no phones, no computers, no televisions, no friends or family. There is no escaping God, and there is no escaping yourself. What thoughts will fill your mind when you have nothing to distract it? On the advice of my spiritual director, I set up a schedule for the day composed primarily of alternating periods of Bible reading and prayer. I spent most of my time reading the Gospels and praying the Psalms. Going on a retreat can be a profound experience that deepens your faith but, as Jesus was tempted in the desert, retreatants may find that the experience also tests their faith. About halfway through my retreat, I hit a point of struggle. It was very hot that day and the cabin I was staying in had no air conditioning. I had been fasting and was hungry. I found some comfort knowing that Jesus had been hungry as well (see Matthew 4:2), but that did little to silence my grumbling stomach. My mind started to mutiny: What is the point of this anyway? Why did I sign up for this? It was at that moment that the discipline of being on a retreat became clear to me. I resisted the urge to turn on my phone and make contact with the outside world, and instead returned to my schedule. The next few hours were challenging, but around 8 p.m., I was blessed with an unexpected reprieve: it began to rain. I left my cabin and stood outside,
soaking in the cool downpour. My prayer at that moment was a simple one: thank you. A solitary retreat may seem radical to a society where connectedness is compulsive and “fear of missing out” is epidemic. But a retreat is a unique opportunity to seek God—and Jesus tells us that if we seek, we will find (see Matthew 7:7-8).
Making the Most of Your Retreat Decide what kind of retreat will work best for you. Will you embark on a solitary retreat or a small group retreat? Many retreat centres offer both options. Some centres have spiritual directors who can help guide you. Bring a Bible. Decide on a reading plan. Consider a Bible that has no commentary or additional notes. Allow the text to present itself to you as it is. Make a schedule. A schedule will help you stay disciplined and not lose your focus as the retreat progresses. Be sure to schedule some time for rest. Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts and prayers. Copy down passages of Scripture that speak to you and meditate on the words as you write them. Include physical activity. If you are in a natural setting, go for a walk. Allow God to speak to you through creation. Depending on your retreat centre, you may have an opportunity to help with cleaning or gardening. Salvationist • April 2014 • 29