The sun began to set on the mountains in Idyllwild, California. The sky transformed from blue with white clouds to faded blue with purplish-pink clouds. I hiked from the retreat house, where I would spend two nights, to an overlook called Inspiration Point. I didn’t have anywhere to be, and no one waited for me to finish a task, make a phone call, send a text, or respond to an email.
I had the freedom to take as much time as I needed, yet part of me didn’t know what to do with so much freedom. This was my first silent and solitary retreat with God.
I was in the middle of a full-time seminary program and working a part-time job. My soul needed this time. Here, I could catch my breath. I could breathe in the fresh mountain air and breathe out all I carried with me — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically.
What is a personal retreat with God?
Retreat. What comes to mind when you think about this word? An escape? Withdrawal? Something you attended with your high school youth group?
I initially thought of retreats as something scheduled through my church — like a women’s retreat or a youth retreat. They typically involved times of worship, a speaker, and possibly breakout sessions or small group time. But this type of retreat was different. In this context, a retreat with God is a practice of setting aside time and space to focus on your relationship with Him and how this relationship impacts your overall well-being. This isn’t necessarily about intense Bible study, but more about being intentionally present with the Lord.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He replied, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Jesus expressed loving God with all our being as the most important thing. But how often do we prioritize time with the One we love? Are we waiting until we have more time before being intentional with our time?
I am definitely an introvert, so the plan to withdraw and recharge sounds refreshing. However for some, time alone may be your worst nightmare. You can’t imagine yourself ever taking days alone, and you wonder what would happen if you did.
Setting aside this time to focus on your soul is at an intensity and duration your ordinary lifestyle doesn’t permit. The goal of retreat is to become a lover of God, to be loved by Him, and to be open to the Spirit’s leading; this goal is about relating to a Person rather than a to-do list.
In planning where to have your retreat, it can be a designated retreat center, camping, a hotel, or even a friend’s home. Maybe you do a weekend home swap with a friend to give you both an opportunity for time away. Wherever you decide, make sure it’s a place with minimal distractions. Sometimes you don’t know until you get there, so ask questions about the environment to avoid things like loud neighbors, traffic or construction. I once discovered my retreat location was next to neighbors who were remodeling their condo. Not ideal, but the Lord and I figured it out.
Time alone with God on retreat is the priority, but sometimes it works to plan a personal retreat at the same time and location as a friend. You may share a meal or two during retreat or even be comforted to know someone else is there in case of an emergency.
How will I benefit from a retreat with God?
Often, we don’t recognize how much we need a retreat until we are on retreat. The pace of our everyday lives doesn’t leave much room for paying attention to our internal world.
This first 48-hour retreat came during my initial adjustment to a transition — moving from Indiana to California to start a master’s program after a 20-year hiatus from education. It was autumn, but California autumn did not feel the same as Indiana autumn, and I was homesick.
My drive up the mountains to the retreat center led me to the autumn colors I desired. The palm trees of Los Angeles were long gone and now I had stepped into more of what looked like home.
I was teary-eyed. Somehow this time felt like a gift.
As you think about ways you may benefit from making this practice a regular rhythm in your life, consider these retreat benefits:
From the mountains to the autumn leaves, I became mesmerized by my surroundings, and this attention drew me back to my Father. Psalm 148 emphasizes how all of creation worships and praises its Creator. “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148:7-10)
Retreats don’t necessarily have to take place in nature, but in whatever setting you choose, consider how you can use this time to notice beauty. Even ask yourself: What ordinary or simple things do I notice that shift my attention back to God?
Talking and exploring with God
How often do you ask the Lord questions and wonder if He will ever answer? Retreats are a time to explore with God what’s on your heart. The questions may be deep, or they may feel childlike. Either way, a retreat is an ideal time to give adequate space for listening.
On this particular retreat, God asked me to explore the meaning of being with Him extravagantly. I noticed a rock structure on a nearby mountain that in its shape reminded me of the woman in Luke 7, her face on one side shrouded by her long hair. Her extravagant gift amid tears was an act of worship. As I looked at the rock and thought about this story, God led me to verses that talk about His lavish love and brought to mind worship songs I could sing and use for worship throughout my retreat.
Permission for a different pace
Shifting from constantly doing to being still is not easy. However, once you have embraced a different pace on retreat, it allows your whole self to breathe deeply. This may happen in stops and starts, and you’ll find yourself constantly warding off distractions.
Ultimately, I find the slower pace offers the most shift in perspective. You notice more both externally and internally as you gently move through your day, watching and waiting for the Lord.
Not every moment in my first retreat was easy and beautiful. I found it difficult to sleep as these questions and conversations with the Lord led to broken places within me. “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me …” (Jeremiah 15:15a)
In my everyday environment, this brokenness would be easy to ignore and override through entertainment, food, social media, or reaching out to a friend. It was in this slower pace and different environment that the Lord saw fit to bring some things to my attention so He could bring more healing there.
How can I prepare for a retreat?
“If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart after a while.” — Dallas Willard
Putting a personal retreat on your calendar can be the most important first step in preparation for a retreat. Create the space before you’re too frazzled and stressed. Ask God what type of retreat rhythm would be best for you.
Is it a retreat every six months, maybe once a quarter, or possibly an annual occurrence? God knows all you hold: your schedule, responsibilities, and the realities that make getting away with Him challenging.
As you prepare for this time, consider the following to help aid you in the preparation process.
Create an inviting plan.
Don’t think about your plan as a list to check off. Instead, create a retreat plan that excites you. Remember, you’re preparing to meet with the Creator of the Universe, the Lover of your soul.
Uncertain how to even do that?
Sometimes it helps to follow a plan in a retreat book. Some of my favorites are Shel Arensen’s “Come Away: How to Have a Personal Prayer Retreat”; Ruth Haley Barton’s “Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God”; Ben Campbell Johnson and Paul H. Lang’s “Time Away: A Guide for Personal Retreat”; or even Jane Rubietta’s “Resting Place: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Retreats.”
Another idea is to have a spiritual director, friend or even mentor create a retreat for you. They may ask you questions about your relationship with God and what you most need from this time.
If you decide to create a plan yourself, consider creating ample space for quiet so you’re focused on being with the Lord rather than productivity. You may want to include time for a walk or hike; for sleeping or napping; multiple readings of a specific Bible story (like those from the Gospels); journaling your conversations with God; or praying for those the Holy Spirit brings to mind. Again, try to slow down your normal pace. It may feel awkward at first, but allow the entire retreat to be opportunities for constant dialogue with the Lord, including those places of discomfort.
Even the most inviting plans may be interrupted by how the Lord responds and engages with you, which adds beauty to what was initially created. Don’t hesitate to scratch what you planned and follow the Spirit’s leading.
Pay attention to entry into and leaving your retreat.
Allow yourself enough time to transition into the retreat. Maybe use the car ride to turn down the noise by driving without music or by silencing your phone. Sometimes my best conversations with Jesus are in the car, so I benefit from driving to a retreat location in the quiet.
Then, as you leave and head into whatever a regular routine looks like for you, make sure you close out your time well. It might not be a good idea to end a retreat on a Sunday night and head into work the next morning. However, you know what will be best with your routine and how you function.
Regardless of your location, plan, and even transitions to and from retreat, be expectant. You’d better believe the Lord is excited to be with you.
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him (Isaiah 30:18).
As I transitioned back into routine after my first silent and solitary retreat, I had so much to catch up on for my job that pays the rent, as well as my job as a student. I realized I needed to create more space for transitioning back and not expect this immediate return to productivity.
However, I was grateful for this practice and the ways God met me everywhere from mountaintop experiences to walking through dark valleys of my story — both leading me to extravagant worship and freedom.
Copyright 2021 Krishana Kraft. All rights reserved.