Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton. IVP Books, 2018
Ruth Haley Barton and her work with Transforming Center has built a strong collection of resources aimed at tending to the spiritual lives of pastors and Christian leaders. Her volume “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership” published in 2008 with a second edition published in 2018 laid the foundation of much of her following work. Through workshops, retreats, podcasts, and further books Barton has shown that the work of Christian leadership is soul work. Her work follows a similar path to that of Richard Foster in teaching a largely evangelical audience the wisdom ancient spiritual practices have for modern busy leaders.
Her latest book explores the spiritual practice of retreat.
As every Christian book about retreat should do, she grounds her invitation to retreat in the example of Jesus and his own practice of retreating to a quiet place to pray, as well as his calling his disciples come away to a deserted place and rest a while. (Mk 6:30-31) Since that time, people in the church have recognized the importance of balancing their active life of work, with a time of retreat to give deeper attention to their relationship with God. “Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention.” (P. 4)
Retreat often has two phases. The first phase is a retreat away from something. Barton uses the military phrase of strategic withdrawal from those places where we might be in danger. These dangers include distractions, trying too hard, exhaustion, poor boundaries, and feeling as if everything depends on you.
At The Hermitage, a retreat center in southwest Michigan where I am on staff, we will encourage retreatants to begin their time of retreat simply with relaxing and not doing anything. People need time to let go. Sometimes, that is all that can be, or needs to be accomplished on a retreat; simply letting go.
Once you have retreated away from something, the next phase is to retreat into something – and Barton describes that something as the rhythm of your retreat. She takes a few chapters to discuss moving into a different rhythm, one based largely on fixed-hour prayer. She sees fixed hour prayer as an important way to reset one’s mode of being. In an appendix she provides an order of prayer for praying four times a day during one’s retreat.
At the Hermitage we often talk about the rhythms of the Hermitage with daily morning prayer, including Eucharist on Wednesdays and centering prayer on Saturdays. Communal meals eaten in silence also help to live into the rhythm of daily life. These rhythms provide a structure, or a framework upon which the retreatants, and the staff, can shape and guide their day and give space to their intentions.
After the initial getting away to a retreat, Barton acknowledges that the retreatant can move into an experience of a deeper letting go and relinquishing. Letting go of control – you may have planned to read a few books, or write a paper, but on retreat you realize the Spirit is calling you to something completely different. Barton relates that retreatants may also experience a relinquishing of false-selves, and a letting go of identity.
In the next chapters Barton discusses the creative possibilities that can happen on retreat. Retreats can become productive times of discernment, recalibration, and finding spiritual freedom. It is important not to rush to these more productive experiences of retreat too quickly without giving enough time to let go and enter into the rhythm of the retreat.
Her final two chapters discuss the very important topic of returning from retreat. The retreat is not an end in itself. “The purpose of retreat is twofold: to become more deeply grounded in God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives, and to return to the life God has given us with renewed strength, vitality, and clarity about how we are called to be in God for the world.” (p. 115) It is not uncommon for people to want to remain in the heightened experience they had on retreat – I have felt that way too – but returning from retreat is important.
On the driveway exiting the Hermitage departing retreatants see the sign “Return slowly.” This is not an indication that we don’t want to see them again, but it is a reminder that a retreat should serve the purpose of return. People returning to a time of retreat too quickly and too often may actually be escaping rather than retreating.
Barton has an easy going and approachable writing style. This short book is built on a strong foundation which Barton translates into practical suggestions and guidance. The format is especially geared to novice for whom retreat might only conjure up sleepless nights on rowdy church youth retreats or extended boring corporate meetings filled with activities nobody wants to do.
With all that Barton and Transforming Center accomplishes, it is hard to imagine when she finds the time to heed the invitation to retreat, but her book demonstrates she speaks with the wisdom of thoughtful experience.
In my work at The Hermitage, I feel fortunate that I get to extend the invitation to retreat, and provide the rhythms and structures which foster attentiveness to God.