In Dallas Willard’s explanation of a “Curriculum for Christlikeness” (in The Divine Conspiracy), he says that “a small number of [spiritual disciplines] are absolutely central to spiritual growth,” and those disciplines “form a part of the foundation of our whole-life plan for growth as apprentices of Jesus.” Those foundational, central disciplines–according to Willard–are solitude and silence (disciplines of abstinence), and study and worship (disciplines of engagement).
If I had to narrow Willard’s list of four down to a single discipline that is most foundational for our growth in Godliness in this current time and culture, I would say that spiritual retreat is that foundational discipline. In one sense, a retreat is not necessarily a separate discipline, but a practical “container” that holds several disciplines together. But it is for that very reason that I see retreats as such a vital practice–retreats are a practical way in which we create space for the practice of other vital disciplines, especially Willard’s quartet of solitude, silence, study, and worship.
A retreat by definition is a significant chunk of time away from the normal patterns of our life, for a specific purpose. A spiritual retreat simply means that the specific purpose for which we are spending unhurried time away is to grow in Godliness. More and more I am finding–both in my own life and growth as well as in my shepherding of others as a father and pastor–that apart from some intentional effort to retreat from the normal pace and pattern of life, those foundational disciplines that Willard speaks of will be pushed aside as merely good ideas that we will get to someday if we have more time. But when we do make the effort to retreat, even for half a day, and in that retreat we experience silence and solitude that leads to rich study and worship, we are often amazed at what God does in us through that time.