About twice a year I head off on my own for a few days in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside to a retreat house called Stanton House. In some ways my time away is a nice break, the rooms are comfortable, the food good and there is plenty of time to take long walks along pretty country lanes. But a retreat is far more than a mini-break by any other name. It is a time to stop and to be with God and with yourself. Away from the internet, away from the phone, away from the 1001 distractions that thwart all your good intentions to do serious business with your Lord and Saviour. Away to listen, to think, to pray.
Of course different kinds of retreat suit different kinds of people. For some people their encounter with God needs to take place in complete silence – I am afraid I have never been very good at that sort of thing! For others, a retreat needs the presence of a spiritual director or a soul friend who can help shape their thoughts and prayers – I have to confess I am not that good at being led by others. Others still will spend their time painting or making clay pots or taking photographs. I have never had this kind of practical skill, and I’ve learnt to accept that I never will.
For me a retreat is a chance to write. Last time I was at Stanton House I felt a distinct confirmation of a call to write and I wrote over 10,000 words of my MA (not bad considering it is 7 years late). This time has been less productive, but partly because I had an appointment in Aylesbury to see my MA supervisor. But even then, the bus ride was a great opportunity for reflection, to see a new part of the country and enjoy the beauty of the country and the market towns. (Lots of red kites on the way!). And yesterday I at last finished the last verse of my commentary on the Hebrew text of Zephaniah – a great cause of celebration! I also had a chance to prepare my sermon for Sunday, just the Lord, me, and the text – something that otherwise happens all too rarely.
And in between the writing there is the reading, both of books I have brought with me (that have been sitting accusingly on my study floor for longer than I care to remember) and also the many books that fill the bookshelves of Stanton House. The whole place is a great repository of all those Christian books from the 60s and 70s that you thought had died out, in no particular order, and jumbled up with more modern fair. In my room, for example, I had everything from Nine O’Clock in the Morning by Dennis Bennett to Prayers for People under Pressure by Jonathan Aitken, rubbing shoulders also with a volume of G.K.Chesterton short stories and a Julian Rathbone spy novel.
And when I’ve had a couple of days to unwind so that I can actually listen to what the Lord is saying, then I begin to hear what is saying to me personally and in my capacity as minister and pastor to our two little churches. I’ve done some serious wrestling with the Lord, and He’s shown me some important things I need to learn. All I need to do now is remember them and put them into practice.