Earlier this month I wrote about spiritual health and maintaining it over time. Today I’d like to apply that to something specific: how do retreats or conferences help and hinder our spiritual health and growth?
Going on a religious retreat often intensifies the usual ingredients for a healthy spiritual life. Those three ingredients I originally wrote about are regular worship, moderated free time, and godly company. Each of those are usually present at a retreat. Oftentimes there’s daily worship, or even multiple times of worship each day. Free time varies, depending on the type of retreat or conference it is. If it’s a busy conference or training-oriented retreat, then there’s very little free time to waste. If it’s a more quiet retreat, the free/personal time is usually somewhat directed, or at least certain activities are prepared or planned or provided. And, of course, there tends to be a lot of godly company at retreats. So there are a lot of strong positive features about retreats.
But it isn’t all roses; challenges come with such experiences too. This is where we address the second post I mentioned at the beginning. In that article I pointed out that we must worship God with all our mind and heart and strength. In the excitement of a retreat or conference setting we can get really hyped up – worshiping God with our heart easily takes the fore. This isn’t a bad thing until you go home. As with most fun events, there’s a bit of a let-down afterward. So the challenge with retreats and conferences is maintaining your disciplined worship of God in the midst of the retreat. If you let your heart take over your worship life, the gear change when you force your brain back into action after the retreat will be jarring and difficult. You might even stall your spiritual life for a moment while you get back on track. This, obviously, is not a fun or beneficial thing.
So how does one avoid that happening? As I already hinted, you’ve got to keep your mind, your spiritual disciplines, engaged throughout the retreat. That way when your heart soars in excitement, your mind is still active alongside it such that if/when the excitement goes away, you don’t lose so much momentum. And, even better, your spiritual disciplines may “store up” some of the emotional energy from the retreat enabling you to revisit some of that excitement in the “ordinary” everyday spiritual disciplines after the fact.
Let’s put this into a concrete example. I recently went on a clergy retreat (well, kind of more like a conference, really) for three days. I got to hang out with a group of pastors – lay people, deacons, priests, and two bishops – and talk about all sorts of cool stuff, hear some helpful training and informational talks, get caught up on news from the Church around the continent and the world, and so forth. We had a Eucharist service one evening and renewed our ordination vows; it was a great time. But built in to that retreat/conference was the basic staple diet of Anglican spirituality: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. We all continued that spiritual discipline together each morning and evening that we were together, and often even included Noonday and Compline. That’s the best thing a retreat can do: support everyone’s spiritual disciplines as a part of the overall plan so that the heart and mind don’t get disconnected in the course of the event.
Sadly, few churches have any common spiritual disciplines among its members, so such a healthily-balanced retreat would be practically impossible to make unless its Anglican. (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox also have traditions of common prayer akin to the Anglican Daily Office, but I don’t know how widespread or well-known they are.) So the best that can be done is for the retreat to have downtime allowing people to carry out their individual spiritual disciplines on their own. A time for everyone to “fill in the blank.” The Anglicans can go and pray the Office, others can go and do their “quiet times,” whatever that entails. It would be better to enable people to pursue their spiritual disciplines in community with one another, but that’s only possible if they have the same disciplines to begin with, and that’s an issue that can only be dealt with by the churches, not the retreat-planners.
So next time you’re on a retreat or at a Christian conference, be sure to bring your Bible and other book(s) that you might be reading or using for your private devotions. And be sure to keep up with those devotions even in the midst of the fun and excitement of the event. It’s good for your spiritual health, it’s good for keeping your brain active, and it’ll enrich those devotions after the retreat is done. God bless.