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Sally Dakin explores how we can have a retreat at home

This article was published in the September to December 2021 issue of Rapport magazine.

I wonder how you use the word ‘retreat’ in everyday language? For me it’s about ‘backing off’ from something (or someone) – like the infamous retreat from Moscow in 1812. Or scurrying home to a safe place – like an animal to its burrow. But it might imply a decision to ‘stand back’ from a situation, to get a broader view and a bigger perspective.

I’d like to focus on the last of these: our choosing to ‘step out of the ordinary’ in order to engage with our extraordinary God, and to seek His perspective on our everyday lives. You might argue that this is one of the main purposes of a weekly Sabbath day, and I’d agree: a retreat simply intensifies the God-focus of our time out. It’s not primarily about me-time, nor is it about building human relationships; it’s about God and my life.

Just me and God?

My concern here is with solitary retreats in your own home – even if that home is shared with others. And my emphasis is on ‘self-led’ retreats, with no outside input, and no need for any kind of electronic device. In other words, a very different kind of retreat from those you might experience at Lee Abbey, where the days are carefully structured, times of solitude are balanced by times of togetherness, and wise guidance is readily available.

For some, this may sound rather worrying: ‘going it alone’ may not appeal. But may I suggest that if a (led) retreat is a special kind of ‘holiday with God’, then a retreat at home is a special kind of ‘day off with God’ – or, better still, several days.

But what shall I do all day?

I wonder what your idea of a perfect day off looks like. Does it involve activity and new adventures, or relaxing in a familiar setting? Do you prefer to plan things carefully, or simply go with the flow? Whatever your preferences, your special ‘day(s) off with God’ can accommodate them – though if you are an extreme extravert, you may need to make a conscious decision to explore your introvert shadow side as you journey towards wholeness.

So why not jot down some of the things you think you might want to do (or not do) on your retreat? When it comes to it, you may feel able to abandon many of these ideas, preferring to spend time doing nothing … just being in God’s peaceful presence. You may also need to address a stream of ‘Yes, but …’ thoughts, whether related to the idea of a ‘day off with God’ or to the practicalities of a retreat at home; the ‘What about ..?’ questions which may feel particularly challenging if you live in a busy household without much space. It’s good to be realistic about all these issues – but don’t let them stop you finding a date in your diary.

First things first

Before you go any further, you may need to talk to anyone who will be directly affected by your absence – just as you would if you were going away on a retreat. Having listened carefully to each other, and agreed that you’ll discuss the arrangements in detail nearer the time, you may be able to firm up your ‘booking’. However you imagine your ‘retreat’, the ‘retreating’ itself will require some forethought: central to a day off is the process of extricating ourselves from all the things we’re otherwise on – stepping off the metaphorical treadmill, if you like.

Of all the hints and tips people have shared with me about retreats at home, the importance of preparation came through loud and clear. As one friend says, ‘It’s like having a party: have as much done as possible beforehand, so you can enjoy it!’ It’s also worth allowing plenty of time the day before to make all the necessary arrangements, not only in relation to the space and the time you’ll have, but also in relation to the people who will be affected. These arrangements will depend partly on how you imagine your day(s) unfolding; my advice would be, prepare, but don’t over-plan. A rough outline of the structure of your day will help you prepare what you need, but once you begin your retreat, let God steer your time management.

Preparing the people

When the time comes, particularly if you live alone, leave messages of non-availability on your computer and phone. Communication will be crucial if you live with others. So you’ll need to discuss who can use which spaces when, what happens about meals, messages, children, pets, and so on. One friend managed a five-day retreat at home. She comments:

‘My husband dealt with post, phone calls etc and kept my mobile. If we had to say something important, then there was a notebook on the table which we used to let each other know whatever was necessary. There were very few entries actually.’

Preparing the space

For most people, the combination of silence, stillness and solitude is helpful – even if it feels strange to start with. So, as I choose my space, and decide how to organise it, I will prioritise those three aspects. If there’s a lot of background noise, some gentle music might cover it, so bring a CD player; if you get fidgety, bring some prayer beads (or your knitting!); if you struggle with your own company, try talking aloud to God about this in advance.
You will need a warm room and a comfy chair and ideally an outdoor view. You might want some flowers and, if it’s likely to be dark in the evening(s), perhaps a candle and a cross, and a picture/icon to meditate on.

Preparing refreshments

You’ll need to think about meals and prepare as much as possible in advance. One friend always takes giant chocolate buttons on retreat. While I’m eating alone, I either read or simply enjoy the food. And, even if you intend to fast in some way, have regular refreshment breaks to help form a structure to the day – perhaps set up a refreshment station with hot drinks somewhere different from usual.

Depending on what you imagine doing, you may need to assemble some or all of these:

  • Bible, hymn book, book of prayers, book about prayer
  • journal/notebook and pens/pencils
  • creative materials
  • outdoor clothing
  • a box of tissues – it’s much easier to allow yourself to be touched by God when not surrounded by others

On retreat at last!

For me, a retreat always starts with doing nothing – usually just looking out of the window for a while, gradually ‘letting my soul catch up with my body’ and becoming aware of God’s presence. I offer Him whatever thoughts and feelings surface, and trust Him to lead me through the day. Some people just need to sleep.

When I start to feel like doing something, I turn to Scripture – perhaps one of the day’s Lectionary readings, using the Lectio Divina approach. Later in the day, when I’ve slowed down a bit more, I’ll choose a gospel story for an imaginative meditation, using the Ignatian approach.

In the evening I might read something short about prayer or spirituality – last time it was a piece by Henri Nouwen – but with my heart as much as my head, always ready to stop reading and talk to God about anything that strikes me. It is worth avoiding the temptation to spend the whole time reading about God with your mind, rather than engaging your heart with God.

In between the various spiritual and physical meals, I like to go for a walk: for me, this is really important processing time as I work through all kinds of things with God, often talking to Him out loud. It’s also good to walk more slowly than usual, allowing the senses to be open to the world and ignoring other people as far as possible. An idea might be to go for a walk and practice Mindfulness: breathe in for four steps, hold your breath for four steps and then exhale for four steps.

For most of us this slowing down is very important, remembering that there’s no need to achieve anything – we just create the space and the time for God to show up. It’s more about being than doing, letting God set the agenda. A friend who has attempted a retreat at home says, ‘It was a great time of reconnecting with God, of being forgiven for all my moaning during lockdown and of reorienting my life toward God’.

It may well include looking both backwards and forwards in our lives; it may be an opportunity to review our current prayer/spiritual practices; it probably won’t be a day focused on intercession. But generally speaking, less is more, bearing in mind the need to be gentle and kind to yourself. If you find yourself distracted, try jotting down things you need to deal with another time. And if you’re a hands-on sort of person, you may like to respond to God creatively, perhaps drawing, colouring, stitching, or making a collage.

At the end of the day

Before you ‘go home’, take time to review your ‘day(s) off with God’ and make some jottings, both about issues or ideas you want to follow up with God, and about the way the day(s) unfolded: what might you do differently next time? You may want to discuss some of this with a friend or spiritual director. And I hope you’ll want to put a date in your diary for your next ‘day off with God’.

Sally Dakin

Sally is an ex-midwife, ordained in 2004, and now Spirituality Adviser in the Diocese of Winchester. She is enthusiastic about practical prayer and ‘mission spirituality’ and loves leading creative prayer workshops and quiet days.

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