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I love the pop of red against the bare branches. An unexpected surprise while on a walk.

Hi there, readers! Can you believe it’s January 22nd?

The Christmas decorations have been stored away for a couple of weeks now. Candles are sprinkled throughout my house during these winter months, providing light and comfort on cold days. Yesterday, the temperatures in New York were bitterly cold. Walking outside for even a few minutes took my breath away.

A couple of weeks ago I read a wonderful book called Invitation to Retreat by Ruth Haley Barton.  I read the book because I was reviewing it for The Englewood Review. The timing felt providential—one year ending and a new one beginning. Each January, I find myself reflecting on the previous year and thinking about the one ahead. What are my hopes? What are my dreams?

Reading Barton’s book reminded me of the importance of spiritual retreats. When was the last time I did this?

As I read, I found myself resonating with Barton’s assertion that making time for retreat is a crucial spiritual practice. This past weekend, I booked a room at a monastery in February, putting a date on the calendar.

Below is my review. It’s a short book and worth your time. May you find the call to retreat as inspiring and challenging as I did and plan your own spiritual retreat.  I’d love to hear your plans. Leave a comment and let me know.

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Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat is a gift to readers. In a compelling and straightforward manner, she diagnoses what plagues most of us: busyness and exhaustion. However, she doesn’t leave readers hopeless. She identifies the cure: retreat is an essential spiritual practice.

If you have ever been frustrated or disappointed by retreat experiences in the past, you need to read this book. In the introduction, Barton describes a mix of scenarios that made me smile in recognition—the church retreat where participants share a room and end up sleeping too little, eating too much, and come home exhausted relationally and physically. Or the work retreat centered around strategic planning where colleagues spend long days brainstorming and deliberating next steps, working harder on “retreat” than on normal working days.

Barton reminds readers there is another option: we have been invited by Jesus himself to “Come away to a deserted place . . . and rest a while” (Mark 6: 30). When we take him up on his invitation and retreat, we feel renewed and replenished rather than exhausted and depleted.

But first, Barton explains the diagnosis: we are exhausted.

From operating out of a sense of ought and should to imposing our own willfulness over our agendas and the people around us, Barton describes why we are so tired. And, she warns that, when we are overly exhausted, we aren’t able to see our circumstances with clarity. We may miss how busy we really are or fail to recognize the exhaustion in our lives. Retreat allows us time to ask God, “What are we going to do about that?”

Barton uses the phrase “strategic withdrawal” interchangeably with the word “retreat.” The more positive connotation of this phrase emphasizes the wisdom needed to recognize the need to pull away for a time. No matter where we are in our spiritual journeys, there is never a time when retreat ceases to be an essential practice. We live busy, distracted lives. Our smartphones ping and beep constantly. While we may long for more time with God, we struggle to quiet our cluttered minds and hearts for more than a ten-minute stretch in our daily lives.

The bulk of the book provides guidance once on retreat. “Finding Your Rhythm on Retreat” is a helpful chapter for individuals who have never experienced an unstructured retreat. I remember some key advice the organizer of my first silent retreat offered years ago. She told us that we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves sleeping more than usual. Rather than feel guilty or embarrassed, we were directed to listen to our bodies. Barton echoes this same sentiment. A retreat allows us to enter into restful rhythms. As we mindfully care for our body’s needs, we also become more mindful of the movement of God’s Spirit in the silence, the rest, and the solitude.

Chapter seven, “Relinquishing False-Self Patterns,” is timely given the current interest in Enneagram typology. Barton touches on each of the nine personality types and identifies the “false- self” patterns that often plague each one. For instance, a three may struggle with the need to succeed. Barton explains how the success-driven mindset manifests itself, even while on retreat, and offers guidance for further reflection. So often, we want to believe that when we are doing something “spiritual” we are immune to our sinful desires. Nothing could be further from the truth! Reading Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary a number of years ago—his journal about his seven-month stay at a Trappist monastery—I was struck by his honesty as he wrote about his struggle to be known, recognized, and praised, even while living in rich community and serving alongside other monks. He admitted how easily his ego was bruised when he felt slighted or unnoticed.  

The final chapters of the book address important topics of re-entry and returning. How does one return home well? In regards to the former, Barton uses the analogy of a diver who tries to come to the surface too quickly. That person can suffer decompression sickness. For the participant who re-enters regular life without any preparation or forethought, a shock to the system is most likely in store. As Barton acknowledges, we all process retreat experiences differently. Some may want to talk with a spouse or a friend about their time away. Others may want to say very little. And some, I’m thinking of those with young children here, may find themselves overwhelmed, even frustrated, by the immediate demands and needs of their children and spouse upon return. Barton offers some practical suggestions to smooth this transition.

Additionally, how does one make retreat a regular practice? Going on a one-time retreat is not a sufficient cure. I was struck by Barton’s commitment to this practice in her own life. For her, a retreat is not a self-indulgent luxury or a rhythm that can wait for times when her schedule is less busy. Instead, it is life-giving and life-sustaining. This is the challenge for all of us—making regular time to pull away from our busy lives and to create space for silence and rest where we can experience God’s presence and discern his voice.

Lastly, one of the beauties of this book is its practical nature. It can be used to organize an individual retreat, one with a group of friends, or even with a larger group. At the end of each chapter is a section called “Practicing Retreat.” Barton discusses how to prepare for a retreat and provides some guided reflection to use once there. At the end of the book, she includes fixed-hour prayers as well as a suggested daily retreat schedule.

After reading this short book, I knew I needed to do two things: put a date on the calendar for my next spiritual retreat and pack this book in my suitcase.

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Blessings on your week.

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