I’ve not had much luck with retreats recently.
In January, Husband booked me a spa day for Christmas with a set date and time. (Admittedly, this was not a time I would have chosen, as Tiny was still very Tiny; meaning that I actually spent a quarter of the day in a used hotel room, bonding with my breast pump!) Nevertheless, I appreciated the gesture. December had been difficult, as poor Tiny had contracted Bronchiolitis. We therefore spent a whole week in hospital, followed by an entire month indoors recovering and hiding from the bad weather. As a result, I’d developed a pretty chronic case of Cabin Fever by the time January came around! So, despite the difficulties of leaving him at home, I have to admit that I was looking forward to some time out and, even more so, some time alone.
The problem with this, however, was that the spa was small, Christmas was barely over and the package was booked through Groupon… meaning that the entire place was packed with groups of women having New Year catch-ups! Determined to make the most of it, I swam around stationary chatters, attempted to journal next to a crowded Jacuzzi and eventually took to sweating it out in the corner of a quiet sauna with an increasingly crinkly book. By the time my massage came around, I was relieved; finally some guaranteed peace and quiet! However, by some stroke of divine hilarity, I managed to land the chattiest masseuse I’ve ever encountered. Honestly, this lady did not stop for breath! I don’t mean to be rude, but she literally told me the same story twice, and unfortunately, it wasn’t really that funny to begin with! Internally, I begged her to stop talking. Outwardly, of course, I laughed at the right times; feeling horribly guilty when she congratulated me on being “friendlier than most clients”. (Oh, honestly, you have no idea what I’m thinking!) So, ironically, in the end, my relations with the breast pump ended up being the most peaceful part of my first solitary, child-free day!
Fast-forward 8 months to last week, when Husband; conscious that I’d spent his entire summer vacation studying online courses and organising more events than I can probably keep up with; asked about my prayer life. My what now? Truth be told, it wasn’t (isn’t) great. Despite my whole Mary, Martha, Mother system during term time, I’d approached Husband’s time off with a kind of frantic, achievement-driven fervour. I mean, seriously, how many new skills can I learn and how many of the year’s events can I prepare for now, while I have such excellent childcare?! In short, it all got a bit silly and my brain is a little bit full. So, being the good Husband that he is, he booked me in for an unguided spiritual Retreat at a local priory. Once more, well played dear! However, due to more circumstances beyond his control, it was also a little bit comical.
For a start, I turned up late, having spent the morning rearranging some college events that had been confused and cancelled. (Note to self: in future, don’t just turn off your phone when you arrive at the venue; start the day as you mean to go on!) When I did arrive, berating myself for spending so much of the morning on Facebook, the warden informed me that most of the place, including the chapel, was unfortunately off limits for building work. Brilliant. He lead me to a little room in one of their cottages and said that this, and the garden, was to be my space for the day.
Did I want lunch?
Oh pants, hadn’t thought of that… no, maybe I’ll fast… though I hadn’t prepared to fast… should I fast? Erm… I’ll decide later, thanks! (Further note to self: preparation for a retreat should include some thoughts towards lunchtime, or even the first hour, at the very least!)
The cottage had everything I’d need for at least a week, including the kitchen sink. So, like Sheldon (a la Big Bang Theory) I faffed about for the first fifteen minutes warming up chairs and “finding my spot”. Eventually, I decided upon the desk by the window, unpacked my brick of a study bible, 4 separate prayer journals, a colouring book and a pack of pencils. (There; at least now I look like I mean business!) I surveyed each of them… and then I looked out of the window for a good ten minutes. Where to start?! (I mean, this is ridiculous. Its not just that I’m a practicing Christian but I’m supposed to be a practicing Intercessor… I actually asked to serve through the gift of prayer. One busy summer and I’ve forgotten how to do it!) Thankfully, being a designated Retreat Centre, they had a handy little guide on where to start; which kindly pointed out that switching off is hard work. As such, they advised that you don’t just dive in cold turkey. If you really want to take proper time out and into the right frame of mind to talk with, hear and receive from God, then you really ought to slow things down first. Don’t expect immediate intimacy. Take time, in silence, to clear your mind of all its business first. Great!
So, nicely and quietly, I started with the colouring book that my mother-in-law bought for Christmas. And then I saw her. (Not my mother-in-law, I mean, another woman!) She crossed the garden in front of the window, trailing an orange wire behind her. You have got to be kidding me…
Yep… Out came the lawnmower! Excellent!
I tried to persevere with the colouring book but, besides the lawnmower, two other things were distracting me. One was the bed (it had been a fairly rough night!), and the other was the biscuits, (to fast or to dunk?!). Eventually, I caved and opted for the bed!
After a nice little nap, I got up and the lawnmower was gone. Hooray! And so I took to the desk again; this time delving further into the Retreat guide, which, to my relief, also suggested taking time to rest. (Guilt-free napping during prayer time! Check!) My head was definitely feeling clearer, so I lit a candle (you know, ’cause it seemed like a good, retreat-y thing to do) and decided to finish the colouring page to ‘get into the zone‘ (and, you know, because it was only half finished…) Unfortunately, at this point, the workmen came out of the chapel for their lunch and sat right in front of my little window. Suddenly, at the sight of tracksuit-clad laughter, I became all too aware that I was a grown woman sat alone, colouring in. I quickly moved away from “my spot”, put the kettle on and promptly attacked the biscuits! Fail. Now what?!
The temptation to switch on my phone was exhausting. However, I thought, here’s a crazy idea… why not just read the Bible?! So, I curled up on the sofa, supped on a brew and read Mark’s Gospel (that’s the one that’s short and to the point!). I can’t pretend I took it all in, and definitely had to challenge myself to stop missing out words for the sake of finishing it in time (achievement-addict strikes again!); but at least this way I actually, finally, acknowledged Jesus. And about flipping time, is what I think He said.
Anyway, I finish up and reckon I’ve got about half an hour. I look at my prayer journals but, you know, this really doesn’t feel like the time or the place to have such an agenda. Instead, I sit back, close my eyes and just talk to God.
Now that would have been an excellent place to start, wouldn’t it?! Except I’d now reached the end!
Not the most “successful” of retreat days, I guess, but it’s given me a fresh start, if nothing else. Because, here’s the thing; retreats, time out, prayer days… they’re all really, really important; but only as fuel and inspiration for a prayerful life. I mean, I hate meditation exercises that are all about me, me, me as much as the next person; but how do you get to the good stuff without addressing the state of your heart first? (Especially when it needs such a thorough clean!) There’s no point in getting to the stage where you haven’t switched off for so long that you need an entire day to do it, before you can go any deeper. I mean, relaxation really is a forgotten art these days; maybe we all need to unplug our wifi and plug up our ears once in a while? (Besides which, I’d also recommend that you don’t sack off reading or praying for the rest of the week, “because I’ve got a whole day of it on Thursday” … (guilty as charged!) If you do manage to find some precious hours to retreat; its a bonus, not a binge!)
The other question raised today was what “switching off” really looks like, when your life is mothering and ministry? I can’t and won’t switch off from my kids, and its incredibly difficult (and even questionable) to switch off from other people. But parents frazzle and ministers burn out; and when you burn out, you help no one. So… what then?
I realised recently that our lives are full of people. And it’s a good thing; we thrive on it. Our lives, our work, our home and even our holidays are a constant buzz of visitors and visiting; and we are about to add yet another new set of characters to it. This is exciting and, in my opinion, is the way that church should be; all involved; all in family. However, I also realised that, while its naturally been three years since Husband and I got away on our own; it’s also been two years since we went away with just our children. And now I’m starting to feel it! Because the thing is, in order to sustain this way of life; the relationships, the hospitality and the ministry; we need -and our children will certainly need- good, quality investment, in the form of refreshing and memorable respite.
(Just to clarify, the spend I’m emphasising here is time, not neccessarily money! However, when it comes to prioritising, it’s definitely worth thinking about how to make the most of both..)
The last time Husband and I got out for a meal together, I made a rule: no talking about college, and no talking about the kids. Wow. If it had been one or the other we might have been Ok; but both?! That was a challenge! Eventually, we ended up playing a game, (and, if you have the same trouble, I’d definitely recommend it!) Basically, we each had to come up with our ideal weekend together, made up of our favourite memories. (So we’d have the breakfast from here, the walk to there, the night out from that place and the, err, nocturnal activities from another!) It was a great night and, perhaps unsurprisingly, each memory came from a time when we had retreated; got away on our own, switched off and had some fun.
As a strange metaphor, this realisation reminded me of a conversation I had with my Dad years and years ago about the National Lottery. I said something idealistic (shocking!) about giving it all to charity, and he said, “that would be pointless, because you’d have nothing left to give.” His method, he informed me, would be to invest it all and live and give off the interest.
Retreating, (whether spiritual, marital or familiar), is like a lottery investment in the bank. The moments and the memories, (with God or your spouse or your family), are the interest you need to fuel and sustain you for all of the living and the giving inbetween. That’s not to say that you don’t need to invest in these relationships every day… But it is to say that it’s a little easier, with so much stored up for a rainy day!