These four walls… One with the palm tree wallpaper and host to my scratch map, marking the territories I have and mostly have yet to travel. This 3 by 4 meter cell has played with creativity, held dreams, been a place for passionate song writing. It has been a retreat witnessing both beautiful and complex seasons of delight, tears and wrestling.
My bedroom is an adventurous retreat and now that my parents happen to be moving to a new place, I’m prompted to write about such a concept. What exactly is retreat? Is it really necessary? Can it ever be enjoyable or adventurous?
Inside the box?
It is worth the mention that one can spend time alone with god anywhere however for me, some of the most profound encounters with God have taken place inside my humble box bedroom. Many people often have places that help them to ‘feel’ or ‘hear’ God more clearly and for me, it has always been cross-legged on the carpet of my bedroom. Strangely, not my student room, but the northern four corners of my late teen – early twenties parental home.
Lack-lustre or exhilarating?
Retreat sounds like time spent alone. However, I have learnt the hard way that this is not always the case. We are not all built to be introverts and prolonged enforced solitude will only lead to a deep isolation. Rather, retreat is about withdrawing willingly from pressure, people, schedule and habitual activity in order to be with God. At times, we feel a pull on the strings of our hearts to withdraw and sit at Jesus’ feet. Other times, it requires chosen discipline to turn off the TV, say good night to our friends and come to listen.
But my friend, it’s always worth it.
Three elements of retreat
I’ve lately been reading a book* all about the different architectural spaces within traditional monasticism and how the principles of such spaces can be applied to our contemporary lives. Cell, the monk’s bedroom, was the place for private prayer – the place to retreat, in order to be with God. In short, the bedroom was the essential daily place to commune with God in three ways:
- To confront your inabilities and encounter a rich delightful grace in the love of Jesus
- To wrestle openly and honestly
- To silence the raging wars around you
At times, I have knelt against my bed aware of my own selfishness or pride, and most often my rash anger in haste reaction to stressful events. Sometimes, I have been less passionate and zealous, simply sipping coffee with casual thoughts such as: ‘I’m not that great;’ ‘there are other Christians out there doing a much better job than I am;’ ‘I wonder what Jesus would really say if He returned right now because I’m not exactly radically changing the world with his love this morning…’ Yet as I have retreated, sought silence or opened my bible, God has met me there. His words of love and grace are spoken. The truth of his grace sinks in: I am saved by grace, not works. Because of Jesus, I am washed clean and God is well pleased with me.
Honest wrestling seems to have been the crux of my bedroom conversations over the past couple of years. These walls have heard my questioning and frustrating pleas to God: why won’t you heal that friend? Why not restore their life? I see this big controversial question and I’m struggling to understand what your word says about it, or if you really care? You made me an extrovert so why am I stuck here for a season with no-one around to talk to? I am faced with a housing & financial decision and I have no idea what to do – Lord what should I do? I feel incredibly low, Lord would you show me your love and also show me what may be the cause that I need to pray and practically work through?
The list could go on. All of these are things I have genuinely wrestled with in various seasons. In every season, I have shut my door, scribbled the questions in a journal and prayerfully invited Jesus to start to answer. One time, God answered so profoundly and quickly that I was stumped, able to write down the answer, pray through it and be so incredibly moved by his goodness, that I worshiped zealously until all I had left was speechless stillness. That was incredible and I remember such moments vividly.
However, more often than not, I crawl under the covers of my bed, trusting that the answer will work itself out in the small sustainable everyday as I continue to read scripture, experience ordinary life and live alongside others; most often, the answer comes in hindsight later on and I come before God in thankfulness. Retreat is possible because God is a relational God. That same God knows our hearts and so honesty is warranted. He loves a curious heart and He will always give the answers. Those answers may come tomorrow, in a years time, or maybe on the other side of eternity. But in the waiting, God offers his profound peace, his love and the genuineness of his presence. Be encouraged.
Finally, in cell we escape the wars of seeing, hearing and thinking – one scholar’s take on this idea of withdrawing in solitude to be with God. The one battle that remains is the battle of the heart which we’ve discussed already (number one). Retreating with God allows us to escape the waging wars and principalities of the world that can so easily entangle us: stress, identity, broken relationships, worry…
So many things try to spiritually form us: culture, media, social norms, the latest science around health & wellbeing… The reality is that none of these will ever attain fulfilment or a happiness that lasts longer than a moment. We live in the world but are not of the world. We have a deep desire to be with our creator and as we retreat to spend time with God, we are spiritually formed by him, coming into the fullness of who we are made to be in Christ.
I recall one night, about a year ago. I had been studying hard for an assignment, whilst applying for placement opportunities, and due to the pandemic just generally found myself drowning in pressure. And so, yet again, I pressed play on a Jonathan Ogden playlist (highly recommend), pulled out the journal and invited Jesus to a two-way conversation. As I exhaled, listened, voiced my worries and opened scripture, the Holy Spirit eventually broke through in this back-and-forth rhythm of my posing a question or a worry, and him revealing a glimpse: a picture, or a word.
God completely upended my understanding: ‘you have let your reputation as a high achiever and academic define you. Let go of this and be free to fail. I define you.’ Suddenly as I escaped this identity war and allowed Jesus to form me, I was freed to enjoy creative pursuits and beautiful relationships without pressure or worry for how I may be perceived. The effect on my life was astounding – God is good and gracious and will lead us in the way everlasting.
God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and we can bring anything to him. He will speak, both through scripture, through others and also tangibly in the whispers of our thoughts. Perhaps, you’ve never encountered this? Do not be discouraged. Invite God to speak and have faith – has a thought popped into your head? Believe it and ask God to confirm if it was him. He will, and he will teach you to recognise him step by step. For me, it’s often a picture or a thought that then develops and is backed up with Scripture as I pray on it more. Regardless, Jesus will always speak love and direct us in the way we should go – the way of his inclusive, freeing and loving kingdom. If it’s not loving or encouraging, it’s probably not coming from God.
Find your adventure cabin
Retreat is wonderful and a discipline to be honed. As I write this for myself, as a prompt to continue in this as I move to prepare to move to new horizons, I encourage you to discover the act of ‘Cell.’ There is something profound about defining a cell space for your own. It does not mean that God will always speak there, nor that he won’t ordain an encounter elsewhere – He very much will! However, it helpfully creates a centre to retreat to, becoming a ‘porthole’ for you to connect with your loving creator.
Finally, retreat with God is relational quality time, where we don’t just rattle off prayer lists or follow a prayer prompt. It’s authentic, open, spontaneous and as genuine as a coffee with your best friend. Retreat can be still but it can also be exciting, full of laughter or even movement. It does not replace bible study or prayers for the world and for those around us, nor does it replace much needed time in social settings such as small groups and church. But rather, it’s an additional and essential part of spiritual life.
I have never regretted any moment of withdrawing. No time spent with God in this adventure cabin of a bedroom has ever been dull, difficult or come from a place of trying to be a good Christian. Sometimes, I’ve had to just stick on some worship music, or google, ‘prayers for when…’ That’s ok and often incredibly helpful! Every time I’ve come to sit cross legged in this small bedroom of mine, I have met with God, found his love and known that He hears me. My Creator exists, and He wants to spend time with me. So I say, better is one day in his presence than a thousand elsewhere. I will retreat, to find him, to gaze upon his wonders, to wrestle with my heart and to be moulded by the potter.
God is love, God is good and God will answer all who call on him, showing them great and mighty things that they do not yet know.
Be encouraged, retreat and keep adventuring with Jesus.
*Seven Sacred Spaces – can be found here. The chapter on ‘Cell’ expands on this theme of retreat and withdrawal with God.
Recent writings from Eleanor: