By Bob Wolniak, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
My first retreat experience came as somewhat of a surprise. I was a college student attending my first day of camp with hundreds of others my age, eagerly looking forward to spending time in worship, Bible study, making new friends, and deepening existing ones. Then we were told that for the next three hours there would be total silence in camp, and we were to spend that time alone with God. As an extrovert seemingly incapable of thinking without speaking, I nearly panicked! In spite of other instructions, I ended up wandering along trails in the forest in a daze. Eventually I sat down, took out a few pieces of paper, brushed some ants off, and began writing a prayer to God. To this day I still vividly recall this experience and its effect on the rest of my week—being more aware of God. In fact, it led me from that day forward to eagerly look for times of quiet to unplug and journal. Something I now cherish more than ever in a busy ministry role and increasingly full and frazzled schedule.
Many of us, without realizing it, regularly practice and cultivate the presence of social media more than the presence of God. One recent British science fiction anthology series tells modern parables that illustrate the unanticipated consequences of the constant presence of tech devices crowding out everything else. The executive producer describes it this way, "If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone."
In such an environment where our attention span has been given over and given up to our ubiquitous flat screens, I think it is all the more vital to recover the Christian practice of seeking solitude and silence.
Author Dallas Willard describes it as the “most important spiritual discipline for people today.” Richard Swenson calls it “creating margin.” For me, the periodic practice of an extended retreat of silence akin to the one I had as a college student at camp, remains the best way for me to reconnect with God, reflect on recent events, examine my spiritual life, and talk to God. When our lives are so filled with noise and images, short daily devotions, as important as they are, may not be enough. I need extended time to quiet my mind and be able to truly pray and commune with God.
There are as many ways to take a retreat as there are personalities. But I find that going for a walk in creation, having something devotional to read with reflection questions to answer, and setting aside devices that interrupt and distract are all widely held, useful practices.
If you’ve never tried it before, make a simple plan to set aside a few hours this month. Choose a location, and take along a journal, Bible, and snack. Oh, and leave the tech behind. Expect that it might take some time before your mind stops rushing to the tyranny of the urgent. Let the distractions, as well as your mind and body, quiet down. Be ready to hear God.