Times come when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding, but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in. Emilie Griffin
It is impossible to overstate the level of exhaustion many of us are experiencing these days and how dangerous it is. Christian busyness layered on top of the stresses of life in our culture, along with the more subtle sources of exhaustion that are harder to identify, means we are all at risk of drifting into dangerous levels of exhaustion before we even know it!
And this is where the invitation to retreat comes in.
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; it is, as Emilie Griffin puts it, “a generous commitment to our friendship with God.” The emphasis is on the words extended and generous.
Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives, which means we’ve gotten pretty good at giving God 20 minutes here and half an hour there. And there’s no question we are better for it!
But many of us are longing for more—and we have a sense that there is more if we could create more space for quiet to give attention to God at the center of our beings. We sense that a kind of fullness and satisfaction is discovered more in silence than in words, more in solitude than in socializing, more in spaciousness than in busyness. And we know that it is in this time we will find rest from and answers for our exhaustion. It is impossible to overstate the level of exhaustion many of us are experiencing these days and how dangerous it is. Click To Tweet
Identifying the Source of Our Exhaustion
There are reasons we end up as tired as we are, and we must note the sources of our exhaustion if we want to enter into retreat with God in a restorative way. Subtle sources of exhaustion plague serious Christians these days, and it is important that we become aware of them. Then, rather than exhausting ourselves further by trying to figure out how to fix it on our own, on retreat we can ask God, “What are we going to do about that?” and listen for his answer.
Seven Possible Sources of Fatigue
1. We are functioning out of an inordinate sense of responsibility. As Christians, or simply as responsible human beings, many of us feel that we should be willing to be exhausted in the service of God and others, and that this is normal. We have unreasonable expectations that we should be a never-ending fountain of love, goodwill, and service at all times and in all places.
2. We find it difficult or even humiliating to receive help from others. Remember the apostle Peter, who found it so difficult to let Jesus wash his feet even though he had seen Jesus allow Mary to wash Jesus’ own feet the previous week? What is really going on there? This resistance to allowing others to serve us is often rooted in our perception of ourselves as servants of others—including Jesus—and this is the identity we are most comfortable with. Those of us who have been following Jesus for a long time are always asking him, “What can I do for you?” We can hardly imagine that question being reversed and Jesus asking us, “What do you want me to do for you?” as he does in Mark 10:51.
3. We are living more as a performer than as the person God created us to be. Functioning out of oughts and shoulds results in a performance mentality in which we become increasingly disconnected from our authentic self. We might even develop a subtle conviction that we are valuable only when we are performing. The simplest way to understand this is that oughts and shoulds come from someone else, so when we are doing things because we think we should, we are reacting and responding to something outside ourselves. Authentic desire, on the other hand, comes from within and is part of who we are.
4. We have few, or no, boundaries on our service and availability to others. We always feel we should do more because there is always more to do. The result can be a nonstop pace of life that, at its best, is tied to genuine passion for what we do, genuine longing to experience life fully, to go through every open door, to seize every opportunity, and to contribute to every good cause and mission. But we can also reach a point where our genuine gifts and passions wear us out because it’s so exciting we don’t know when to stop. By calling the disciples to “come away and rest a while” in the midst of so much human need, Jesus was recognizing the need to prevent exhaustion. He was guiding them into a healthy and sustainable lifestyle by helping them establish boundaries and rhythms around their availability to others. He did not want them to wear themselves out to the point where they would be no good to anyone.
5. We are carrying the great burden of unhealed wounds. The practice of retreat provides the needed time and space to be with the difficult, hurting places of our lives—not for problem solving or fixing (because not everything can be fixed) but to stop holding it in so bravely. It provides the context in which we can release emotion, let go a little bit (or a lot) in God’s presence, and allow God to comfort us as only God can. When we don’t have regular time and space for allowing God access to attending to the wounds of our lives—sadness, unresolved tension, toxicity in one of our relationships—we get weary from holding it in, and eventually we will begin to disintegrate.
6. We are experiencing information overload. There is no end to the amount of information available to us, but there is a limit to how much time and energy we can expend on taking it in and processing it. At some point we simply have to take a break from it all; we have to recognize this as the source of our exhaustion and take a rest from it. To stay on a Spirit-guided path, we need to ask, Am I going to keep gathering information, or am I going to take the next step on my spiritual journey?
7. We are mired in our own willfulness. Willfulness describes our attempts to impose our own ideas on others, establish our own agenda, and control everything around us. The result of this willful lack of acceptance means we hold ourselves back from what actually is happening, separating ourselves and resisting what is rather than giving ourselves to the gift of now. It’s sort of like a tired, grumpy child who resists nap time. The gift of now is the nap offered to us by a parent who is wise and generous and knows what’s best. When the gift contained in the now (a nap) is refused, not only does the child expend needless energy resisting (and getting all worked up), the remainder of the day is harder on everyone—including the child. On the other hand, if the child says yes to what is actually happening in the current moment, everything goes better!
On retreat we may be able to acknowledge willfulness as a source of our exhaustion and notice all the ways it is wearing us down. As God reveals this to us, we may then be ready to enter into the opposite of willfulness, which is willingness—the willingness to accept and to enter into what is happening spiritually. The willingness to accept that someone else’s wisdom may be better than our own. In the safety of a retreat environment, we can ask ourselves, Where in my life am I willfully resisting reality in favor of an ideal that exists in my own mind? What would it look like and feel like to choose willingness instead? The practice of retreat provides the needed time and space to be with the difficult, hurting places of our lives—not for problem solving or fixing (because not everything can be fixed) but to stop holding it in so bravely. Click To Tweet
Hear and Accept God’s Invitation to Retreat
My guess is that the invitation to retreat feels as different and countercultural to most of us as it felt to the disciples, but it was—and is!—the right invitation, offered by one who knows his children so well. The beauty is that we are not pushed, coerced, manipulated, or told we have to. Rather, we are invited to enter into rest, into something so good for us—body, mind, and soul—that once we recognize it as the winsome opportunity it really is, everything in us will leap to say yes. We may even wonder why it took us so long!
Adapted from Invitation to Retreat by Ruth Haley Barton.