Marking out time in your day, week, month, and year for God to speak to you can be a direct way to spiritual growth. Not that spiritual growth can be discerned easily. It can’t be quantified the way pencil marks on a wall can track a person’s height or the way a scale can, however accurately, reflect a person’s weight. Spiritual growth is harder to notice. It takes into account the interior and the exterior, what we feel and what we do with those feelings. Growth includes how we’ve thought and learned as well as how we’ve led from those thoughts.
I suppose I could spend some time with my assumption in the first sentence–for God to speak to you–but I won’t. Go with me on that one.
There are ways that people of faith mark out time for growth. It generally includes, among other things, acts of service, participation in congregational worship, and celebration of the sacraments (though the language of sacraments won’t be consistent across all Christian denominations). More internal gestures would include praying, studying sacred passages, devotionals, and giving. A retreat is another example, one that can involve people or be done on your own. I just finished a personal retreat, and here are a few points about retreats, whether with groups or personal.
- Take the retreat anywhere you have space, time, and resources. You don’t have to leave town. When I spoke with my spiritual director about needing to focus on prayer and about the upcoming retreat too many months before May, she encouraged me to separate space in my day or my week at that time. She said that I could build retreats into my schedule and not wait for one. So, take the retreat in the afternoon, right before your busiest time in the day, on your commute, when you have family around who can assist.
- They need to be planned with enough space for you to hear. Hearing presupposing listening, which is critical. Retreats have many purposes. Some people go on teambuilding retreats. I’m talking about retreats where the explicit and hoped for point is to listen to what God may be saying. You need “planned” time to sit, in solitude, and listen. Solitude is hard. If you’re not used to that word, it means doing nothing but listening. It means being quiet before God. It’s not prayer but it’s related. It’s being still and waiting.
- Prepare yourself for all kinds of strange things. I have a least two fun stories from every one of my personal retreats. It’s a practice that I’ve taken one every other year for the last six. On this last one, an old woman pulled me next to her and told me that God had given her a message for me. Now, in my spiritual history and present that’s not strange, but in the context of my paying attention to God, it was timely–and a little interesting. It was at the beginning of my time and gave me another reason to say, “God, okay, my ears are open.” You may experience spiritual pain on these things. You may revisit hardships. You may remember or be consumed by temptations or lies about who you are. It may not be joyful, some of these spaces set aside for listening. It may be hard. But growth is happening.
- When you return, rebuild your plans for your spiritual growth. I came home thinking about what the next year needs to look like: my monthly spiritual direction, the idea of connecting to a group of pastors, setting in concrete conversations with a friend or two regularly, talking more to people I trust about what’s inside. I thought about my denomination’s version of continuing education reports which, I’m pleased, they revised to include the important dimension of spiritual growth and not only reading, learning, and educational experiences. I’m considering some of the ways I need to structure my time so that I’m practicing what I’ve learned, so that I can grow deeper and stronger, so I can hear God clearer.
- Tell people who love you what you’re doing. Those good people can ask you helpful questions. They can support you while you’re gone. They can help fill in the gaps you left when you departed. Tell people. They may talk with you when you return or pray for you while you’re away. While you don’t need to take everybody with you on a retreat, in a sense, you need others to come along.
The next post will be about what not to do on these retreats. The one after will be about things to do. Now, a question for you, if you’re in the answering mood. What kinds of things do you do to hear and listen to God?