Many of us make it a discipline to take an annual retreat of a few days. If we do, we will no doubt be greeted by folks on our return with the words ‘It must have been nice to get away from it all’, or sentiments in a similar vein.
But a retreat, properly understood has nothing to do with getting away from it all – rather if we do not engage in such practices, in truth we spend our lives running away from ‘it all’. In our busy lives we may think we are in the thick of it but, to use a sailing metaphor, in truth we are running before the wind. To go on a retreat is as it were to turn into the wind of reality, to drop anchor and experience that which we have been running before.
Our model for retreat, as in all things is Christ, and supremely his time in the wilderness, where he is sent by the Spirit to be tested. We may well think that our lives are test enough thank you, but for the Christian there is little if anything that befalls us in our lives that is not the common lot of all. Painful relationships, difficult financial circumstances, overwhelming work ‘obligations’, ill health – these are just part of the human condition and sweep us along. No, there is a far more profound testing which is called for, a testing which will, if we allow it be our healing – the testing of fire which is time in the wilderness.
In the wilderness we discover who we really are, and to our alarm discover that our greatest enemies do not lie outside us, ‘the trials of life’, but within. The deceit of our hearts, our desire to run from God (often disguised as ‘a healthy spiritual life’) The disciplines of solitude and fasting soon tear the veneer of ‘spiritual comfort’ from our lives. We readily see that for all the pain of relationships etc. we have mistaken the comforts of our physical life – other relationships, food and drink, warm houses, the endless distractions of the technological world in which we live – for the presence of the living God. When all these things are taken away, we face the testing of the devil, the challenge of Job’s wife ‘to curse God and die’.
When we ‘retreat’ from the ‘day to day reality’ of our lives, the Reality of our lives is exposed. We realise that we have confused the gods of this age, for the God of all consolation. And there in the wilderness with nothing but God, we are confronted by our own spiritual poverty, by a ‘spiritual life’ which is an illusion. We realise that the God who is a consuming Fire is to us a stranger, that we are ‘kindlers of fire’, constructing a comfortable god in our own image – a pale imitation of ourselves.
Lent offers us the gracious opportunity of a 40 day retreat. Through disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving – disciplines of letting go of our illusions – a door is held open. A doorway which leads us from Illusion to Reality, from Death to Life, from a life we have made for ourselves to Life in all its fullness.
May God in his infinite love and mercy give us Grace to drop anchor and face into the wind . . .