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JULY 14, 2009 12:02PM

The Purpose and Value of Retreat

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Quince Bloom in Window by JRobin Whitley ©2009
Quince Bloom in Window by JRobin Whitley ©2009


"If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial.If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked.If you want to become full,let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up."   Tao Te Ching

Retreat is a word used in many ways this day and time. The word can be used to speak of retreating from battle, retreating from the enemy, but also in the business world the word has entered the vernacular for another way of planning meetings and/or looking at problem solving in a different way. All religions have examples of great spiritual leaders going away for a time from the secular to focus on the spiritual and while their vocabulary was different than ours, the goal was the same, to get a different perspective on life and on one's chosen path. This "act of retiring or withdrawing one's self," is the equivalent of stepping back from a painting to look at it with new eyes. In retreat, one steps back or steps away from the ordinary in order to see the path anew.

While a modern retreat does not require that you give up all of your possessions, a proper retreat will require that you are willing to give up a bit of time, your electronics and your attachment to unrealistic expectations.These tasks are harder than at first appearance since the modern world has become dependent upon Blackberries, not as fruit for the breakfast table, but as a constant communication tool. Bombarded with sound, the modern woman is unaccustomed to the sound of silence and her own spirit whispering to her. Focused on tasks of obtaining and acquiring the modern man is ill at ease with the simple task of sitting still. Yet, each of these tasks that sound easy, and are yet hard, are important ways that each person can reconnect with the spirit that gives life and that gives direction on a path that is often hard to discern in life.

The three most important ingredients for a spiritual retreat are: (1) a time set aside and guarded to retreat with no interruptions; (2) a safe, quiet place to pray/contemplate/reflect; (3) a spiritual guide to offer a voice, a human presence that sees you where you are. While the world requires a certain business and busy-ness from each person, the importance of taking time to pray or meditate cannot be stressed enough. The time away from the everyday or the problematic can give a better way of looking at the reality of a situation or event and can give the retreatant clarity in order to make decisions that are proactive and compassionate rather than reactive and fear based. Spiritual growth depends upon communication between each person and her higher power or his sacred good. The harried lives of the technological world often displaces true communication that can only be found when one sets aside a time and a place to listen as well as communicate. For that communication to be effective, a safe place freed from daily life is important. A safe place slows the pace, calls the spirit to attention. Without a spiritual director (a.k.a. as guide/guru/mentor) these times away can descend into egoism or unhealthy thought patterns. The presence of a trusted spiritual guide assures that when your thinking becomes distorted, unrealistic or chaotic, the spiritual director can give you questions or insights that will lead you back to the true path or to questions leading the retreatant to a higher path.

The other aspect of the spiritual retreat is that it empowers each person to live daily in the real world. A retreat is not a way of escape from the realities and challenges of life, but a momentary time away to seek a path of discernment; to find meaning and guidance to live the every day life more fully. Thomas Merton, a famous Trappist monk, states:

A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.

Merton in this statement does not mean that each person must become a Trappist monk in order to live a life full of spirit. Indeed, the spiritual masters have shown time and again that the strength of spirituality does not come from running away from the reality of the world, but learning to master life in such a way that the sacred and the secular are in balance. A life in a monastery or convent is simply a microcosm of the world outside.

The true challenge in the spiritual life is learning to master one's own self in relation to Spirit and the neighbor. Each person is called to a gifted life and while some are called to the life of a monastery or convent, many are also called to be teacher, engineers, librarians or truck drivers. What matters most is learning to listen to life in such a way that Spirit guides and instructs. A retreat is a place to connect or reconnect with the spirit that guides each person in daily living as gift. The retreat empowers the retreatant to remember her purpose in life. The retreat calls the retreatant to a path he thought was lost as a child. The retreat can be a way of renewal when the path is hard, to refresh the Spirit and renew commitment to a path. Each person is a gift to this world through the sacred gift of Spirit. The purpose of retreat is to take time to remember who you are and whose you are.

The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be. Don't let them put you in that position.
Leo Buscaglia



In the earliest history of retreat for spiritual growth, the monastery played a vital part as the place for spiritual retreat and always presumed that the retreat would be led by a monk or a nun as spiritual director or spiritual consultant/friend.  In the U.S. the main places for spiritual retreat have been the monasteries and convents of the Catholic and Episcopal churches. While many convents and monasteries are dwindling, there are new retreat centers that focus on spiritual renewal that have begun to see the importance of maintaining spiritual growth as a vital part of each person's journey. Each week, we will begin to focus on retreat centers in and around the Charlotte area for you to consider on your spiritual path.

The Oratory is located in Rock Hill, SC just south of Charlotte. The Oratory offers space for group retreats, a day retreat or a longer personal retreat if so desired. From North Charlotte the drive would take an hour and a half and from South Charlotte, the drive is at least 30 minutes. You are encouraged to drive the speed limit or slower to begin a slowing of the pace as you enter retreat.


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"A retreat is a place to connect or reconnect with the spirit that guides each person in daily living as gift."

Your piece on retreat is like a min-retreat in itself. Thanks -- I needed that.
You posted this just in time for I am taking two weeks off at the end of July and first of August. No phones, no computer, no television.... just me, meditation and whatever happens.
I don't know if you need the guide part.
One of the best experiences I ever had was as a Scout, when they left us in the woods with no human contact for 60 hours.
That was a good mental exercise, but you are very right that unplugging totally is good for you for sure in this hyper-wired world.
"The other aspect of the spiritual retreat is that it empowers each person to live daily in the real world. A retreat is not a way of escape from the realities and challenges of life, but a momentary time away to seek a path of discernment; to find meaning and guidance to live the every day life more fully."
A key point, indeed. The retreat (meditation, contemplation) can focus us and keep us centered so we're better able to handle the buffeting of the day's winds.

Good job, Robin!
Lovely photo! Where I live is very much like a retreat, with trees to sit under & quiet places to escape, but still, I get busy & think of all I need to get done & FORGET to take the time to "retreat." I appreciate each & every reminder of how important it is to nurture the spiritual, not just the material. I am not good at giving ANYTHING up, much less "everything," & instead circle myself with the past, with projects, with people -- and feel guilty if I take any time away from what I SHOULD be doing. Now if I can just put into practice what I read...
What a beautiful post. "Simplify, simplify." (H.D. Thoreau)
"learning to listen to life in such a way that Spirit guides and instructs"

the image is lovely ... it talks to me
in a way this experience for me disrupted life enough for it to have turned into a kind of retreat, unplanned, forced, but retreat nevertheless: I had to stop to introspect, examine what I valued, why, to reconsider, reorient to the whispers of the inner being
The image say so much - thank you for this post sincerely.

Rolling was kind enough to tell us about this beautiful post. Retreat/relaxation is something I’m very poor at practicing. Michael and I have a todo list that would literally take years to complete, so every vacation we’ve taken has been a working one (we’re about to celebrate our seventeen-year anniversary, and we still haven’t gone on a honeymoon! But that’s mainly because we prefer just working on our creative projects at home.).

Your piece reminded me of Norvene Vest’s No Moment Too Small: Rhythms of Silence, Prayer, and Holy Reading. Norvene is of the Benedictine tradition and talks about how to incorporate contemplation into everday tasks. Finding the sacred in the ordinary is a topic dear to my heart, as you can see from this essay I wrote on the word “ordinary” about twelve years ago.

Thanks again for this reminder to savor those moments of solitude wherever we can find them.

—Melissa (also of metaness)