Review: Invitation to Retreat

I am blessed to live not too far from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This will be my space for a spiritual retreat in April. So, when I was given a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God, it could not have been better timing.

Her book opens with this quote from Dallas Willard:

“If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart after a while.”

Barton describes the sources of exhaustion that might lead us to retreat as “an inordinate sense of ought and should, finding it difficult or even humiliating to receive help from others, living more as a performer than as the person God created us to be, few or no boundaries, always feeling the need to do more, carrying the burden of unhealed wounds, information overload, and own willfulness.”

She states, “The purpose of retreat is always twofold: to become deeply grounded in God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives, and to return to the life God has given us with renewed strength, vitality, and clarity about how we are called to be in God in the world.” Retreats are an invitation to do a series of things that all begin with the letter “r”: to rest, relinquish, experience rhythms that replenish, re-calibrate, reengage our lives, and establish patterns of resting and returning to God.

When we feel that there is no room in our calendar to retreat, that is when we need it the most. When we first arrive, Barton recommends rest, perhaps even crawling into bed and imagining God’s arms around you. Then don’t over-plan the days; go with your natural rhythms.

Or one could participate in the fixed hour of prayers with the community or use the prayers Barton includes in the chapter on prayer.

In retreat, we practice surrender or “abandonment to divine providence.” We let go of our strivings and efforts. Many of us feel indispensable. If we go on a retreat, we wonder who will feed the kids, handle my business affairs, and answer my phone? We soon find out that the world can manage without us. Barton says, “Sometimes we can do more for people in our absence than we can do for them in our presence.”

We will likely experience the discomfort of leaving our striving and achievement behind. We might notice the hole we keep trying to fill by keeping busy and achieving. Using the Enneagram as a descriptor, Barton suggests that we try to give our false-self patterns to God. I am a three on the Enneagram, so that means I am going to have to turn over my deep-seated need to succeed and just be.

I have some discerning to do on my retreat, so I was thrilled to see that the author addressed this. Chapter 8 describes discerning God’s presence and activity in our everyday lives, seeking His wisdom and discernment about particular decisions, and following His lead during the retreat.

Questions follow in Chapter 9 in regard to our life rhythms. These are deep, probing questions which would be helpful to journal. Then we are challenged in the next section to identify what hinders us in keeping the sacred rhythms in our lives. She writes, “Sometimes our gifts are actually destroying us, and our gifts and strengths can undermine the greater good God is laboring to bring forth in our lives.”

Lastly, she has suggestions for preparing for “reentry.” An especially useful question to ask is, “How can I be wise and even protective of your tender, exposed self, the self that has become so safe, open, and even vulnerable in God’s presence and in the safety of the retreat environment?”

This rich book will definitely be in my suitcase on my own retreat so I can prayerfully engage in some of the questions at the end of each chapter. So, I have a few questions for you, the reader:

– When was the last time you made a silent retreat to be alone with God? Is this a regularly scheduled event that you put on your calendar and make it a priority?
– What is the current state of your soul? Are you experiencing any of what Barton calls the “sources of exhaustion?”
– Do you have anything you might need to discern but you are putting off addressing the issue?
– Are your gifts beginning to feel heavy and burdensome because they are actually destroying you as you serve God?

If you feel spiritually empty, perhaps there is an invitation in this prayer by Rumi:

The mystery of spiritual emptiness
may be living in a pilgrim’s heart, and yet
the knowing of it may not be his . . .

Wait for the illuminating openness,
as though your chest were filling with Light.

Don’t look for it outside yourself.
You are the source of milk. Don’t milk others!
There is a milk-fountain inside you . . .

There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,
and yet you go door to door asking for crusts.

Knock on your inner door. No other.


Kathy has experience as an elementary educator, teacher trainer, adjunct professor, and has served as Family Resource Director for a major hospital. Kathy is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor and is credentialed as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor by the American Association of Play Therapy. She is owner of a private practice, Path of Life Ministry, in Wilmore, KY.


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