One of the elements of my job that I most enjoy is facilitating retreats, especially for leadership teams or groups of Christian leaders. I’ve attended many gathering that were called retreats. If there is no space for rest, reflection, or prayer in the schedule, but rather meeting after exciting meeting of teaching, singing, practical ideas and such, I’d much prefer these be called conferences. A retreat that is packed full of meetings doesn’t feel like I’ve retreated at all. It doesn’t feel much like Jesus’ own rhythm of frequently withdrawing to solitary places to prayer (Lk 5:16).
Friedrich von Hügel, in a letter to a niece, mentioned a retreat he had sent one of his spiritual directees to that had not been quite the retreat he had hoped for him:
“I had built great hopes of rare help for him from a Jesuit Retreat which I suggested his making for now about a year. At last he went and made one, the other day. But the priest who gave him the Retreat, an American, though a very good man, rather turned it into a series of theological speculations or discussions than that he kept it, and made it, into directly practical instructions in prayer, meditation, training of the conscience, discovery and reformation of personal faults, etc.–which is, of course, the direct object and function of a Retreat. I do not think those four full days have damaged my man, but they fed just his speculative bent, which I hoped would be starved, and have starved his devotional needs and chances, which I hoped would be fed.” (von Hügel, Baron Friedrich. Letters to a Niece. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1928, p. 117-18.)
Von Hügel grieves a retreat that was more theological speculation and human interaction than simple instruction in prayer and protected space to practice. There is such a difference between a retreat where the focus is on a gifted speaker and much content, and one where there is a bit of instruction of a much more practical and practicable nature with plenty of space to try it on.
I’ve attended too many retreats with too many gatherings and not enough solitude. A retreat needs open space and unhurried time built into the schedule. Teaching needs to have a light touch. There needs to be time for the retreatant to listen well to God.
We are often afraid of open space and unhurried time. We’re afraid we’ll be wasting the time of those who come. But what people need most is time and space to encounter the God Who loves them more than they’ve ever begun to imagine. This is why our EPC practice (Extended Personal Communion with God) continues to be a key element of any retreat or leadership consulting process we design.
As you design your next gathering, meeting or weekend, why not try carving out some space for solitude and reflection. The people will benefit immensely from time to process the great content you are providing.