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St George’s Cathedral

Why We Must Retreat

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The Revd Ian Crooks, Interim Director, Centre for Spirituality, St George’s Cathedral

I have the evangelical scholar and my former Regional Bishop, Paul Barnett, to thank for introducing me to the writings of Eugene Peterson, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College. His Under the Unpredictable Plant I found to be a very helpful and timely reminder of the depth of evangelical spiritualty which has universal wisdom and relevance.

But it was a sentence from The Unnecessary Pastor, co-authored with Marva Dawn, which leapt out at me as so descriptive of my life and I believe of the Church as a whole. A conference he led was “filled with men and women seeking to strip away the cultural plaque and get on with biblical ministry. It reminded me of something St Benedict said in the sixth Century: “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way”.

Living in and with day-to-day ministry, whether we are lay or ordained, our lives filled with words, noise and activity, tends to blur perspective, distort motives and seduce us with less than gospel imperatives or guidelines. Gradually and often imperceptibly, we are caught up with ways of ‘being’, or acting, thinking, even praying which are counterfeit, appearing as though everything is fine, that we are doing good, achieving results etc, etc, but in reality just skimming over the surface of life, seduced by the comfort and the clichés of Christian faith and the security and complacency of middle class living and avoiding that which is most important – the health of our inner life, the marks of Christian Mission and the call to compassionate living. The build up of plaque is preventing/insulating us from living fully, which means living well – with balance and integrity, open to the truth about ourselves and of the world and others around us. We become very adept at blunting the sharp edge of the gospel with pragmatism.

Flitting from one thing, one task (or one relationship) to the next, with hardly time to catch one’s breath, is not the way to live. And often, it takes time out, a weekend (or longer) away from our normal responsibilities to bring home to us just how frantic and shallow or distracted our lives have become. However, for some of us, it will take a serious tragedy or setback to pull us up.

Every year I need to visit my dentist, the person skilled at detecting and correcting decay in my teeth, even though I may think all is well – and I am often surprised by what he uncovers. How much more should I and you, step away from job, family, parish or whatever to connect with someone skilled at the spiritual level of being, to help us regain (or grow in) health in the things of the spirit.

This is the great benefit of including in our yearly schedules time away for a retreat. Retreats are not for navel-gazing, they are for re-centering, re-newing, re-directing our lives into a greater, deeper harmony with God, the source of life and love. And we’ll discover, when we stop ‘doing’ that God’s agenda, God’s timetable is very different from ours. It might be that what we think is “the Lord’s work” may turn out to be our own driven needs and desires.

I am clear what I want of the clergy. I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment, challenge my ideas about status, about money, and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.

I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare, to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness. I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who can face the emptiness and possible depression which often attack people when they do not keep the surface of their minds occupied. I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, and I want them to be people who have faced the problems of prayer.

I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty, and from whom I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art.

Whilst Monica Furlong is writing about clergy, it is equally applicable to everyone, whether we are up to our eye-balls in the life of the Church or of our chosen profession or occupation, or trying to balance work, family, parish or recreational responsibilities.

In a retreat, says Evelyn Underhill “we come to be with God, God first and God alone. Far from being escapism, it has been said that a retreat is possibly the most apostolic thing an apostle can do. It is to take our lead from Jesus who frequently went away from the town, or up into the hills to be alone with God, free from normal responsibilities in order to allow a greater clarity and purpose to emerge. St Paul did the same, disappearing into solitude or up to three years (Galatians 1:7) before fully engaging in the mission to the gentiles.

We owe it to ourselves, to our people, to our families (if we still live with them) or to our vocation however it is expressed, to regularly retreat so that we can give God some space to fill.

An original version of this article first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican

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