Arthur Middleton deplores recent trends in the retreat industry

THE OTHER DAY I found myself browsing through Retreats 2000. The bold affirmation made in this journal is that there are provided in our Retreat Houses so many enigmatic variations on ‘retreats’ that nobody need be disappointed. There is something to meet everyone’s tastes and needs. This set me thinking about what a retreat is and what it is not. Here are my reflections.

The Aim of a Retreat

A retreat is the setting aside of a few days from our ordinary routine and the motive for doing this is to acknowledge God’s claim upon us and that its fulfilment is our true life. A retreat aims to deepen this sense of God’s claim, to give a soul a deepening awareness of God. The conductor’s aim is to help each retreatant to a realisation of God-in-Himself, that he is before and beyond all that we know, that he is eternal, holy and righteous, but also that he is loving, near and tender. So the conductor will also attempt to increase the realisation of God’s will for each retreatant, God’s will for me.

What makes a Retreat is the surrendering of ourselves wholly to the realisation of God for a few days. We put away all else in order to wait upon him. It is this, together with the method by which we are made ready and able to hold to the one aim, that constitutes a retreat. So the word ‘retreat’ ought to be reserved for what is described and should not be applied loosely to refer to any casual Christian gathering. A retreatant must understand that he goes with the one aim defined here, and with the confidence that he will find all the various helps that he needs.

There is a threefold involvement in a retreat, the retreatant, the conductor, and the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, not any technique of self-transcendence, which directs and overrules so as to give each retreatant the opportunity to find what he needs.

Withdrawal and Silence

A retreat is a deliberate choice to draw aside from our normal routine and interests, to wait on God until he speaks to us. Elijah heard God, not in the fire and thunder but in the silence of the still small voice. A retreat is basically withdrawal and silence while we wait for God to make himself known to us. Abraham, Jacob, St. Paul, remained alone and apart with God to discover his will. Christ and his disciples went into a desert place when they were seeking God’s will. This teaches us a further motive for retreat: that we owe it to God to withdraw at times in order to give him our undivided attention so as to serve him better.

Withdrawal and silence must be well used if the retreat is to be fruitful. In Word and Sacrament we focus and wait upon God because this is why we have come. We surrender ourselves in patience and trusting love, in devotion towards God. Gentle movements, a still tongue, a definite rhythm of thought guided by the routine of the day, help us to know his presence, and prepare our conscious and sub-conscious mind.

The Retreat Programme

It is not complete withdrawal into the relaxation mode because there is work to be done and this is given us by the routine of the day. Eucharist and liturgical prayer, address, and meditation on it, times of relaxation, stillness and contemplation, reading and quiet walks, is the retreat environment in which a further realisation of God as creator and sustainer is experienced. In unhurried attention to God, his glory, his goodness and mercy and will gradually become known. The retreat becomes a deliberate and sustained act of worship, more wholehearted and full than our lives usually give us time for. Sharing in the corporate worship of the Church supports, refreshes, and liberates the individual, feeds his subconscious mind, and disengages him from himself or herself. This attitude of worship leads us to the realisation of God. The routine only creates the conditions. When we face him in this act and attitude of worship we realise him. The nature of silence is more than just physical. Properly understood, it is a spiritual thing, the background of creation. We enter into it as a condition of our renewal. It was St. John of the Cross who wrote: “From all eternity, in silence, God speaks one Word, and that Word is his Son; and it is in silence that we must hear him.”

The Holy Spirit

Our meditations will be upon certain themes presented by the conductor in his addresses. His purpose is to help us to the realisation of God and to lead us into prayer. The meditations in retreat are consciously recognised as including a third, working through both Conductor and retreatant, the Holy Spirit. Our meditation therefore includes a willingness to understand and to be changed by the meditation.

Hearing God

Withdrawal, silence and meditation make up the form of our waiting upon God who makes himself heard in four ways; through prayer, hearing the Scriptures, the addresses or the hymns, and by God clearing obstacles to his grace. Prayer is an expression of our thoughts or love towards him, and may be hesitant. In praising God in Christ, we may be led into humility and penitence, and in that experience we remember his love and atonement. This prompts us to rise again in trust, confidence and thankfulness. Our prayer becomes a living experience in him, as God opens our eyes and ears by the hidden movements of his grace. We may start in one place and end up in another with a changed mind. God the Holy Spirit has brought us there in the silence of a still small voice. Maybe it is a direct word to us through his Son, in some text that is read that may be nothing new, but it hits us with a new force and meaning. A phrase in an address or the line of a hymn may be a direct hit from heaven. The truth is, it is. The addresses may bring us to penitence and a desire to confess a sin, the long time obstruction to grace in our hearts. Those words of Christ, The kingdom of God is at hand, Repent, and believe the Gospel, become real.

We may not realise that God has spoken or that we have heard and obeyed. We forget what we were, but we have been changed. Only later do we realise that the retreat was the turning point.

The Conductor’s Role

The Conductor’s role is to help the retreatant to a deeper realisation of God. The ordering of the worship, the addresses, the readings, aim to help the retreatant make use of the withdrawal, the silence, and the opportunities for meditation. The Conductor must be available for spiritual counsel and hearing confessions.

A programme was sent to the author of a Prayer Creation and Nature Retreat. It started with an introduction to geology and the next day a field trip to look at fossils on the beach. It included an hour standing in a forest while a forester gave a lecture, looking at slides of flowers and butterflies, and the retreatants being saturated with the conductors’ knowledge of the natural world with a few environmentally friendly saints thrown in.

The addresses are not primarily to instruct the retreatant on the Conductor’s hobbyhorse or specialities, and certainly are not to controvert. They are addressed to the heart rather than being pure speculation for the intellect alone. Devotional addresses instruct in the truths of the Christian faith in an incidental way while instructing in the art of self-knowledge and prayer more directly. Their distinguishing mark is the combining of an appeal to the will by leading into meditation, with the assisting of the development of the retreatant’s spiritual life by helping him to pray and see himself.

Their aim is to move the wills of the hearers. ‘God’s will for me’ has to be accepted by the will of each retreatant. The addresses make real such truths he already knows, the fundamental truths of the faith that may have been forgotten or prevented from fully motivating his life. Such Christian truths speak to the needs and desires of the retreatants and provide food for meditation. Through his own meditation upon them the retreatant ‘realises’ God, and in his own meditation afterwards he accepts with his will what God has revealed to him. So the conductor’s work is to provide the right material for meditation in an ordered manner, that his hearers may be led into prayer and towards a deepening response to the love of God.

Naturally, the conductor will present what will give retreatants a realisation of God-in-himself, in themes that speak of majesty, eternity, love and the nearness and holiness of God. A conductor must also present to them what will move them to see the bearing of the righteousness of God upon their lives, God’s will for them. In his or her bearing, as well as in the words spoken a declaration is being made to the retreatants about what it is to be in retreat, what it is to hear and obey the words, Be still, and know that I am God.

There are some worthwhile retreats provided in our Retreat Houses and these are advertised in Retreats 2000.


Nevertheless, it is important not to debase the word ‘retreat’ by applying it to other meetings that have other aims and methods. In the present climate this has begun to happen with the contemporary emphasis on the individual in his or her own search for a ‘spirituality’ (a modern word), that meets their apparent needs.

A flick through Retreats 2000 soon reveals lists of events wrongfully claiming the title ‘retreat’ and advising that as long as you know your need there is something for everyone. Circular dancing ‘retreats’ assumes the fixed programme to be inhibiting so everything is optional. The premise is that this is “their time”, for catching up on sleep or talking to another retreatant, or doing their own thing, that is seen not as ‘opting out’ but as integral to the ‘retreat’. Dancing around a candle and aromatic oils, an individual reading his poetry or prose, and when overheated, everyone retiring under a tree to play triangles, drums and tambourines. Worship is a time to experience something different from normal Sunday worship, so liturgies are DIY or culled from elsewhere rather than the Church. “All the participants were included in the liturgy, rather than having one leader and a passive congregation”, and prayers were hung on a growing vine which became the centrepiece around which they all danced until the end of the ‘retreat’.

There are workshops on Dreams, Creation Spirituality, Dance, Massage, Transition at Mid-Life. You can have Walking ‘Retreats’, a 12,000 mile service, an enneagram to link your personality type to the right kind of prayer, the spirituality of travel, and a catering ‘retreat’ in preparation for Christmas exploring tasty alternatives to the usual Christmas fare. You might like a ‘Quiet Day’ looking at birds, butterflies, plants and flowers, a day of Tai Chi or explore your mid-life journey, or learn Gendlin’s technique for integrating blocked feelings (must be pre-booked). You may need tools for continuing the Easter Experience or the Forgiving Experience or perhaps you need a Reiki day or Bio Energetics day when the body speaks its mind. You may prefer a Spirituality and Ageing Retreat, Meditation in the context of Psychosynthesis or Meditation and Massage, maybe just the massage. As yet there is no Meditation and Sauna, but there are all the Prayer and … ‘retreats’, with all those subjects and activities, including calligraphy, just like the Teach Yourself Books.

The Fundamental Error

So many of these so-called ‘retreats’ are a search for self-transcendence and the enlightenment this brings. Like the stressed-out businessman going into the firm’s ‘retreat’ all he wants to discover is how to cope with his stress. Falling in love with ‘spirituality’ rather than God is easy, especially when it is tailored to fit “my apparent needs”. A semicircle with the closed arc facing upwards illustrates what is happening. The individual is focussed on self and his apparent needs rather than God. ‘Spirituality’ then becomes a compartment of life and the search to find ways of linking it to our physical environment, rather than what integrates all life. Hence the concern with spiritual traditions and techniques that teach self-transcendence in the face of materialism and self-seeking, the most useful psychological practices and the most helpful beliefs. Whatever provides the most specific guidance will feature more than other spiritual traditions. It is a journey in how to develop, live and grow in a way of self-transcendence and enlightenment. ‘Walls’ that have hitherto inhibited the flowering of such enlightenment in education and conditioned attitudes towards one’s emotions must be demolished. Only then can spiritual enlightenment be nurtured by using techniques of meditation suited to our personality type, dream symbolism, visualisation and self-exploration that lead to enhancement and self-awareness as progress and pitfalls are monitored on the way.

A Grace

This way of enlightenment is more a scientology of self-actualisation, more a psychologism than a ‘spirituality’. Such techniques can increase one’s self-knowledge in a way that can be life enhancing, but like Jungian analysis it can only be ancillary to human and spiritual growth and not the heart of it. For Christians the end of human life is more than self-actualisation and is a grace not a technique. Centred in our redemption in Christ, human and spiritual growth is nothing less than a Christian’s participation in God’s triune life of self-giving love and humility that enables growth in self-control. A retreat is not the search for a technique of ‘spirituality’ to fit one’s needs, but a time for growth in the Christian or baptismal life. This is the fruit of living through Word and Sacrament in Christ with whom the Christian lives in the Father through the Holy Spirit. Here the opening of the semicircle faces upwards illustrating that the retreatant is focussed away from self and completely on God. It is only in God that the Christian discovers the real self and his real needs, and realises that the false self, the self we think we are and its apparent needs, does not exist. Here we open in receptivity and obedience, listening rather than giving, commanding or speaking. It is not a passive condition, but a consciousness; a realisation that our acts do not originate in ourselves but are drawn out and inspired by acts of God. Such inspiration will effect in us a radical change of heart and mind that brings new vision. Yet this will only happen in so far as we are willing to die in order that we might live. For the experience, in so far as nothing is blocking our response cleanses and awakens our adoration and love. Our consciousness is awakened and touched by a living Presence that is spontaneously shared. From this Presence is received an infusion of life that issues spontaneously in thoughts and acts rising from this change of feeling in this communion of prayer.

Be at peace with your own soul, enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend. (St. Isaac of Nineveh)

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon; Honorary Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham