As the weather warms up it occurs to me that I see more advertisements for retreats and retreat-like activities. The spa area heats up along with their marketing themes where customers can choose any number of health and relaxation techniques, from mud baths, to sitting in a Medieval mine breathing in the unpolluted and pollen free air, that may or may not have a good dose of Radon with it.
The current issue of the Church Times has a focus on retreat as a practice that has spurred me on to write this short reflection. Truth be told, I am a poor “retreatant” because, although I realize the importance of retreats and at times lead retreats, I rarely seem to make retreats possible for myself. Retreats were once a mandatory practice for clergy, and I have managed to spend time with some very good retreat leaders. Some bishops maintain that clergy, in deed all people, benefit from a yearly retreat. I found that where difficulties arose in this practice is that one might go off somewhere to have a nice relaxing retreat only to leave a spouse and children behind feeling more frazzled than before. Retreats were nice, but the benefits were quickly undone.
Today I spent two hours sitting on a bench next to a small river. The experience was emotional and spiritual, but was it a retreat? My own thought is that it was more a game of waiting as I am so tightly controlled by time and the feeling that I should really be doing something productive. Sitting by the river did not feel productive. When I give more though and reflection to this short interlude in my day I realize the trap that I, and others, have fallen into. Namely, that we must somehow produce something in order to have any worth. That I gain my being by Works rather than Grace. Sounds familiar.
As I sat and watched a terrific amount of water flow past, I also noticed things that I would not have otherwise if I had not simply sat and done nothing. The birds sing and fly high up in the tree tops. An industrious ant persisted in climbing up my arm despite repeated removal. The bench felt incredibly uncomfortable like it was designed to ensure that nobody would loiter more than a few minutes. Animals started to creep out of their hiding places once I became part of the scenery.
One of my favourite books is “The Wind in the Willows” and for good reason I was reminded of it today as the low tree branches dangled in the rushing water. In this book, some of the characters embody, for me, my own behaviours around retreat. At times I am like Rat who likes to lay back in his boat and let the river take him where it wills. Yet in the next moment I can be like Toad, filled with distraction because of a “put-putting” of an electric bicycle that motors past me. So to, can I feel like Badger when one group of walkers has past me for the third time – that I am not really contributing to something, or some purpose. I have not clocked a new time around the course, nor have I improved my Nordic Walking posture. Eventually, as these different moods and characters go on, I am left feeling a bit like Mole. Like I have just emerged from the deep dark ground to be surprised with the light, the sounds, the actions, the feelings, the newness. The wonder of it all.
Retreats are good for the soul, even the smaller ones when one can afford the time of an hour or two watching the river flow past.