Chaplain’s Letter: Retreating from the World

This months Chaplain’s Letter is written by the Rev David Phillips, Utrecht Chaplain

Summer is upon us once again and with the fair weather we turn our minds to holidays! The word “holidays” comes from “holy days”, which was, in an earlier age, a reason for taking time off from work, on days other than the Sunday Sabbath.  Or in the past, in Europe, there were more extended “holi-days” for those who chose to go on pilgrimages to holy sites. Taking time off nowadays is more often associated with travel for sightseeing or some physical exercise or rest – all of which are great gifts – and in the breaking from the normal routine, we can allow more opportunity than usual for rest, renewal and the hearing of God’s voice.

One could also give some time more intentionally for a spiritual retreat.  Here are three reasons to go on a monastic retreat: for personal growth; for refreshment in the stillness; and to hear God’s voice.  St Augustine wrote beautifully about why in retreating from theworld we might draw closer to God.

I have learned to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new!  I have learned to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you.  The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight.  You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet scent. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you.

You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace. [Confessions, Bk X Ch 27]

Augustine understood the call of Jesus, who says, the kingdom of God is within you. [St Luke 17:20-21] Jesus has promised to come and dwell in us. [e.g. St John 14:15-23] And the way to seek God is to turn away from being absorbed in the external world, to a movement within, and then to the One who is above us.

When we retreat from the world into a time of silence, it can be disconcerting at first. There may be something we are avoiding or afraid to face in our own soul. We might find ourselves distracted continually, our mind racing. Often when I’ve gone on retreat, at the start, for the first couple of days I wonder why I’ve come, and part of me wants to leave, I feel a real inner rebellion. But staying a little longer this feeling soon leaves as a deep rest and refreshment comes upon the soul and the imagination is reopened to new possibilities.

Monastic retreats are great because monks are guided by the Rule of St Benedict: Chapter 53 states, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” Imagine, you are welcomed as if you are Jesus himself! I have experienced this kind of hospitality from monks in many monasteries. As a priest it is especially refreshing to enter into the daily rhythm of prayer and daily Holy Communion led by others. Their prayers are such a spiritual boost, one begins to feel lifted on eagles’ wings. You can join in as much or as little as you want of their daily prayer life – usually I join in less at the start (getting caught up on sleep!) and more at the end of the retreat. Also, all of the meals are taken care of – you just appear and are fed! You have a private room with a bed and desk and usually access to a library if you want. Often the monasteries have grounds around it and are often in the countryside where you can take longer walks. I like to have one or two books to read between the times of prayer, walking, eating, being still. There are plenty of monasteries and convents close by in the Netherlands and Belgium or you can go further afield for worship in other languages – you normally need to call ahead of time to reserve a place.

In the stillness and silence we have greater opportunity to turn inward, to be recollected. God shows us our inner motivations, sometimes we discover the need for repentance from some of these and we can seek his grace and resolve to follow him more closely. We can bring before God a question that is on our heart, seeking to discern his will, and then rest content while we await an answer from him, should he desire to make something clearer. The retreat from the world prepares us to return to the world and to God’s service with heart, mind and body renewed.

Here are some Bible verses on the call to be still, to move within to know oneself and God, to enter into God’s rest, if you want further reflection:

Psalms 4:4, 46:10;

Proverbs 8:34, 9:1; John 10:9; Luke 11:52;

Acts 1:8-14; 1 Cor 6:19; Eph 4:22-24; Heb 4:1-11.

In the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield in the North of England, they have quotations on some of the walls of the halls of the guest house. Here’s a quotation from a Quaker, William Penn, that describes something we might find easier to do in our daily lives, if we have taken more extensive time to experience God’s presence within us on a spiritual retreat from the world.

In the rush and noise of life, as you have intervals, step within yourselves and be still. Wait upon God and feel his good presence; this will carry you through your day’s business.

In the love of Christ,