My First Retreat
An Article by Dr. Joanne Taplin, GP in Nottinghamshire, married and mum to two boys
It's been just over a year since I went on my first ever retreat. Having been a Christian for nearly 37 years, involved in church leadership, and a working mum, it’s one of those things that I may have thought I’d have ‘done’ by then. But I hadn’t. There were many reasons for this, the most obvious being I was just too busy. But then again, that in itself was saying something to me. I became aware of an overwhelming need to get away from the busyness of life for 24 hours and try to quieten myself and just listen to anything God might want to say to me. The previous year had involved a lot of processing of various life events and I felt that the time had come to think about ‘what next’.
A retreat had been something I had thought of before, but been very hesitant. I had a look online but didn’t really know what I was looking for. I came across retreats that were themed around creative activities such as various different types of art or crafts. But I’ve never been particularly creative, so that didn’t seem like the right thing for me. There were many ‘guided retreats’ again on many different themes: bible passages, prayer rhythms, topics. I could really see the benefit of an experienced person leading me through a retreat, but this also didn’t feel right for me. Looking at these different types of retreats helped me realise that I just wanted to be away by myself, to think, pray, read, worship and see what came out of it.
I will be honest and say that as the idea took root in me, I was both excited and scared in equal measure. The ‘excited’ was the thought of getting away from all my usual distractions and listening to hear what God might say to me. The ‘scared’ was, ironically, exactly the same: what if, by removing all my usual distractions, God did say something to me? What then?
After asking the advice of friends I settled on a retreat centre about an hour's drive away, deep in the countryside. I had been there before but just for the day, so did know it was a beautifully quiet and peaceful place. The other important factor was that meals were provided and I knew how good they were.
I booked a room at the very last minute (the night before), but had been so nervous about actually doing it, I think this was the only way I was actually going to be able to do it! Setting off the next day, I wondered nervously what on earth I was doing. But an hour later as I parked the car and checked in, I just felt a huge sigh of relief and relaxed. The place was indeed beautifully peaceful. The welcome was warm and reassuring. My room was large, airy and warm. My 24 hours had started just in time for tea/coffee and freshly made cakes.
I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to ‘do’. There isn’t really a guide or a ‘right way’ to doing retreats on your own, so it did take me a few hours to actually take this on board and relax. And then I did. Relax, I mean. But this was a special kind of relaxing, because it was relaxing in the presence of God. Which is a rather remarkable thing. There were times of quiet, but there were also times of significant conversations with people I’d just met. Being a complete introvert, this was the last thing I was expecting me to engage with on retreat, and yet these were deeply meaningful conversations. There was a time of listening in God’s presence, and it too was significant. And very good.
In the interests of full disclosure I feel I need to confess: the total amount of time I actually spent being purposefully quiet, praying and trying to listen to what God might be saying to me, was literally one single hour. I timed it. Funnily enough God didn’t seem to need that long to get through to me.
In the 24 hours I spent on my first ever retreat, I felt like I was continually being filled with good things: blessed. The good food, the comfortable bedroom, the surprisingly significant interactions with others, the peacefulness in the house, the presence of God in the tiny ancient stone chapel and in the spring gardens, well everywhere really, meant that this was an experience I will remember for a very long time. It also resulted in big life changes and opening up new paths I didn’t think were possible.
So this was my first ever retreat. It was probably the best 24 hours I’ve spent in a very long time. I’m not planning on leaving it 37 years again.