I have said before that I believe spiritual retreats are a foundational discipline–not of greater value than other disciplines, but foundational in the sense of primary. In the hurried, noisy culture in which most of us live, we rarely pause to reflect or listen, and even more rarely do we pull aside from the busyness to simply be alone with God with no agenda. Yet it is in those quiet places of solitude that the truth of the Gospel sinks deeper than theological knowledge and moves our hearts to worship the God who saves. Retreats create space in our lives to pursue other vital disciplines, which otherwise would not happen (or would only happen sporadically and distractedly).
So if that’s the case, why don’t we retreat more often? If retreats set the stage for so many other areas of spiritual growth, it would be foolish to allow retreats to be a rarity in our lives. And yet for most of us, myself included, rare retreating is the reality. Why is that?
Dallas Willard used the acronym VIM to describe the elements necessary for spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. There has to be the right Vision, the right Intention or decision, and these have to be accompanied by adequate Means of carrying it out. Willard says “We simply cannot accomplish at the intention level what has to be accomplished at the vision level, and we cannot accomplish at the means level what has to be accomplished at the intention and the vision level. One common problem is that we tend to accentuate the means and get all the means, but we do not have in place the vision or the intention” (from a lecture given at Talbot Seminary in 2008, called Beyond Pornography). I think this goes a long way in explaining why retreats are so rare even though they accomplish so much good in our hearts.
Retreats are part of the Means of growth toward maturity in Christ. But if our Vision of retreats is that they are merely optional luxuries that are nice occasionally, then we will not be likely to utilize the means available to us, no matter how many opportunities and resources we might be given. Likewise, if we see retreats as important, yet never Intend or decide to build them in to our schedules, they will not happen.
Therefore if we are going to make the most of this foundational means of spiritual transformation, we must first be convinced that retreats are indeed vital–not in and of themselves, but because they create space for deeper relating with God and one another. And as that vision grows, we must then make it our intention to actually retreat–something as time-consuming and counterintuitive as a retreat will not just happen unless it is decided on and planned for. And then, only when that vision and intention are in place, will retreats become a foundational means of growth toward maturity in Christ.