Let me just say this first: I’ve never been on a Retreat that I didn’t enjoy. I’ve not been on that many, but none were bad. So as I step into voice of criticism and caution, please understand I’m not simply reacting to negative personal experience. I wrote about the ups and downs of retreats a few months ago, but this will go in a slightly different direction than that blog post.
That having been said, what’s so great about retreats? Sometimes it seems like half the communication I see coming out from various churches is “Come to our __ retreat for ___!” The first blank can usually be filled in with a season and the second blank with a gender. It’s not like everyone’s going a on a retreat every month or something, but the attention and press time they’re given often makes it sound like they’re the best thing a local church has to offer. And that’s where it begins to rub me the wrong way, though I’ll get back to that.
First of all we’ve got to ask ourselves: what are they supposed to be retreats from Presumably from the busy and hectic lives that we lead. We all need a break from the day-in-day-out cycle of work, school, clubs, meetings, sports, music practices, and all the other activities families and individuals invest in over the course of a week. So, naturally, most retreats take place during the week, right? That way you’d get some time away from those worldly duties and activities and get some good ole’ Sabbath rest! Hmm, oops, actually most of the ones I’ve seen start on Friday evenings and last until Sunday afternoon. Weekend retreats, then become not breaks from the busy cycle of the working life, but a weekend getaway which all too easily adds to one’s stressy schedule rather than reducing it. Instead of getting a break from work, we get a break from whatever weekend/sabbath rest we might have gotten, and a break from going to church on Sunday. Something is fundamentally wrong about that.
But let’s cut these retreat-planners some slack – it’s really hard to get people to stop going to work and take a couple days off, let alone spend a whole week of vacation time on a spiritual retreat instead of family time. From that perspective, a weekend retreat makes some sense. But still, why Sundays? Isn’t church supposed to be part of our sabbath rest from the patterns of life in this world? Although the answer is yes in theory, the underlying truth is that the dominant school of spirituality among Christians in America is revivalist.
Revivalism is a subsection of Protestantism, typefied by the first and second “Great Awakenings” in American history, wherein preachers called hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people to repentance and faith in Christ. Revivalism is the Protestant crusade, marching into battle to defeat the spiritual forces of darkness and win souls for Christ. The preaching was (at its best) biblical, but moreso it was emotional and urgent. “Repent or burn in hell” was the underlying attitude. When people “get saved” in this sort of movement there’s a real sense of excitement and joy. However, because the focus is so strongly on the conversion and so little on the aspects of growth, sanctification, and maturity, the spiritual life gets caught up with the emotional life. Disciples & pilgrims are replaced with fans & enthusiasts. That feeling of elation when you “first met the Lord” is equated with spiritual health. If you ain’t happy, you ain’t trustin’ Jesus. And so when you’re feeling low it’s time to attend another crusade and get worked back up into a spiritual excitement.
The crusade of those days is the retreat of today. It’s almost like an addict’s spirituality – you’ve gotta get that spiritual high, and if you don’t you’re really in a bad place. Sunday morning worship can help in getting that hit, so long as there’s enough good music in the “worship set” and the preacher is particularly “anointed” that day. But after a while the regular routine gets dull, so it’s time to go on another retreat to recharge.
This is an inherently unstable system! Instead of finding rest and identity in Christ in the corporate worship of the Church, Revivalist spirituality requires us to get away even from the Church in order to reclaim its energy and fervor. There is something horrifically unbiblical about that – Jesus tells us to abide in the vine, St. Paul tells us we are one Body, St. Peter tells us we are a royal priesthood, so how does it make any sense that we can better be branches grafted on the vine or better members of the Body or better ministers under the High Priest by separating ourselves from those very things that give us life and purpose? It doesn’t make sense. Revivalist spirituality is unhealthy.
This doesn’t mean that retreats are inherently bad, though. It means that the common need for retreats today is an unhealthy need. So now that I’ve torn down something, what do I have to say that is positive and constructive? First of all, the spirituality issue. Rather than subjecting our spiritual lives to the slavery of fickle human emotions, we need to ground our spiritual lives in the strong tower of the Church. Instead of relying on our individual strengths and weaknesses, we should be grounded in the community of faith. After all, it is through the Church that we first heard the Gospel of Christ, so why should it not be through the Church that we continue to grow in Christ?
And so, rather than starting with questions like “what’s your spiritual gift(s)?” and “how do you personally relate to God?” which highlight the individual, we need to start with spiritual disciplines and practices which link up the individual to the common/shared life of the larger church. Before I can know who I am in Christ, I need to know who Christ is in me. And so we should found our spirituality upon disciplines that are received from outside ourselves, rather than invented on our own. For on our own we are easily-scattered stones; together we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
In light of that, we can find a place for retreats. They can still be valuable opportunities to get away from the busy life of the world and focus on our spiritual health more intently. But with a spirituality that grounds us in the common life of the Church we hardly have any reason to go on a retreat that removes us from the Sunday liturgy. Writing especially as a Catholic Christian, wherein I would assert that the Eucharist is the center of Christian worship, there really is no reason to forego that primary act of worship. If we receive the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ as our theology and liturgy claims, then what else could possibly be better for us? Retreats are great escapes from the world, but if someone thinks he needs an escape from the Church then something is terribly wrong – either with the spirituality of the local church or of himself. Or, quite likely, both.