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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"Invitation to Retreat" (Ruth Haley Barton)

TITLE: Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God (Transforming Resources Set)
AUTHOR: Ruth Haley Barton
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018, (144 pages).

Many of us know the importance of going away on a retreat. Many don't know what to do with it. In fact, going away for a vacation may very well a busy and stressful time. Leisure time is not a retreat. Entertainment options are not necessarily the right ingredients for rest. Taking a summer break cannot be equated to a retreat. Until we learn to deal with the inner restlessness in each of us, we will continue to be addicted to the twin buddies of busyness and exhaustion. Everywhere we go, people are either busy doing something or take pride in being busy. At the end of the day, they get tired which affects everything else. In a culture infatuated with a 24/7 always available mindset, we become enslaved to external stimulants like the ping on our cell-phones or social media prompts. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to escape from the spinning world of problems and non-stop challenges. Even on leisure Sundays or vacation days, we don't really know what to do with our time, save for more activities that feed the restless soul in us. Dallas Willard says it well about setting a time intentionally to retreat from our usual stuff: "If you don't come apart for a while, you will come apart after a while." Retreat leader and popular speaker Ruth Haley Barton invites us to a time away from our everyday activities to go to a quiet place to discover ourselves and to experience God. This spiritual guide helps us not only to plan for a retreat, it offers us what to do and what not to do during a retreat. If we don't address the restlessness in each of us, any activity, including a retreat, may become another occasion for work and busyness. Quoting Emilie Griffin, a retreat is essentially a "generous commitment to our friendship with God." Beautifully put. Yes! A retreat is not something that we do for God or something we plan to do in the Name of Jesus. It is about that personal time with God and seeking to know more of the One we want to serve. A retreat is about doing something different from what we are used to do. It is about making that space with God and enjoying it. It means being generous with our time with God, and not just a pittance number of minutes we deem "devotional time." A retreat is very much counter-cultural. Barton highlights several Rs for us to get a fuller picture.

  • Rest from our usual work
  • Renewal of purpose
  • Relinquish things that we hold on too dearly in life
  • Rhythms to be aware of
  • Replenishing our spent selves
  • Recognizing and Responding to God's Presence
  • Recalibrating ourselves
  • Reengaging with God,
  • and so on...
What is really helpful is how the author points out the sources of our exhaustion. We often work ourselves to death, addicted to the "shoulds and woulds" of our restlessness. We find it hard to receive help from others or to ask for help. We go beyond who we really are, projecting an artificiality that we like but not our authenticity. We carry unhealed wounds and lack boundaries. Barton helps us respond meaningfully to each symptom through questions, reflections, and wise thoughts. 

Even the book itself comprises several interludes in between chapters. There is a progression in the 3-part retreat framework. The first part is to establish a rhythm of retreat. We are creatures of movement. Going on a retreat is to find that rhythm, our rhythms. In fact, it is about designing an alternative rhythm that we can truly find ourselves restful. Whether it is fixed hours of prayer or community times; celebrating the Eucharist or seeing a spiritual director at stated times, we recognize that we need a way to keep the main thing the main thing. We need to find our priorities. We need to locate our center. Barton skillfully shows us the possible emotions that can appear. Emotions such as recognizing how tired or how broken we are. In creating time for God and with God, we discover our need for the Divine God. We are also advised not to overplan our retreat. Sometimes, it is better to simply sleep whatever we can and to pray. Fixed hour prayers form a core part of a spiritual retreat. This is because it helps us transcends beyond our own limitations. It increases our discernment. We learn from Jesus to let go. We are also reminded not to be deceived by "false-self patterns" primarily through our tendency to let our roles and titles define our identity. A good retreat exercise would be to learn to see our primary identity and calling in Christ alone.

Part Two of the book goes into the specifics of creating space for God. After all, that is precisely what a spiritual retreat ought to be. It is not humanistic retreat but a time and space specifically set aside to commune with God. we use silence to discern the movements of God. We learn to see God in the ordinary. We learn the art of not letting chaos and busyness cloud our priorities. We discover more of the love of God and that it is fine to let go and let God. Through a process of recalibration and renewing our spiritual freedom, we enter into that sacred time of rest and contentment in God. It would be a shame if all the rest and contentment vanishes the moment we return to the world. Part Three helps us to maintain that earnestly discovered rhythms and recalibrated spirituality. We remember the purpose of retreat: "to become more deeply grounded in God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives, and to return to the life God has given us with renewed strength, vitality, and clarity about how we are called to be in God for the world."

My Thoughts
First, a retreat is very much about Invitations. We cannot force it into ourselves. It is about willing hearts and open hands. Willing to give up our regular activities in order to move into a different set of rhythms. Invitation leaves it up to us to decide whether we want to go for a retreat at all. Jesus who said to us in Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." It is an invitation to go to God who promises to give us respite from the world and rest in Him alone. It is important not to turn a retreat into another busy set of spiritual activities. That would defeat the purpose of a retreat altogether. I have seen many ministry peers doing exactly that, not knowing the different between a retreat, a camp, or a conference. That is why people burn out quite easily and quickly. This invitation is also something we can do on our own. We can invite ourselves to a retreat.

Second, everything needs an Interlude, even a retreat period. Interludes help us space out of various stages in ways to help us see the big picture. Like the gaps that we see on bridges, which expands or contract according to the hot or cold weather, we need to give space for ourselves to adapt to changing spiritual climate in us. If not, we could buckle under pressure. We may become frozen into inaction. I like the use of poems, prayers, and short verses to help pace ourselves in between phases. This not only slows us down, especially fast readers, it also encourages us to develop a pattern of contemplation and reflection.

Finally, for all the suggested methods in the book, we need to establish our own retreat rhythms. Barton's book is an introduction to what we could do. However, a true retreat is something that is most meaningful between God and us. There is a time in which we have community sessions. There is a time for group prayers and set period of togetherness. In a personal retreat, we need to discover what works best for us, and in the process discover ourselves and our calling in God. This book is a must have for anyone contemplating a personal retreat or planning one for others.

Ruth Haley Barton is spiritual director and popular teacher of spiritual formation and author of numerous books on spirituality. She is also adjunct professor of Spiritual Transformation at Northern Seminary.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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