‘Retreat’ not to be confused with ‘escape’, Christians hear
Published 07 June 2012
Nearly 300 Christians came together to explore the value of silence during the Retreat Association’s annual conference last week.
In his opening talk, the Rev Graham Sparkes, President of the Luther King Educational Trust, shed light on desert spirituality and how its gifts are just as relevant today.
He spoke of the importance of stepping back from life to a solitary space in order to strip our lives of the superficial, look afresh, and encounter the divine.
“We have the tendency to fill up our homes, our time, our emotions and our lives, almost ceaselessly and restlessly adding to what is there,” he said.
“We are frightened of asking the unanswerable questions and of peering into the depths in case there really isn’t anything there. Or – worst of all – there is no one there.
“But unless we first accept the gift of empty space, and embrace it, then we will not be able to find the one who waits to find us and lead us to a new place: a place of new beginnings.”
Sparkes pointed to the example of the early desert fathers and mothers who retreated to the desert to seek God and discovered community in their isolation.
He also drew from the story of Moses’s encounter with the burning bush and the way in which a solitary encounter with God changed the direction of his life and heralded liberation for his people.
“That is a challenge for us here. I do not believe we should confuse that word ‘retreat’ with the word ‘escape’,” he said.
“We are not escaping into some inner, solitary world where God can bring us blessing. Rather, we need to come here bringing with us the cries of our shared humanity: the struggle for basic human rights, the poverty caused by the failure of our economic system, the sexual abuse of young girls in our cities, the longing for peace in the midst of continuing violence.
“We find our way to the desert to allow God to form us together into a kingdom people that together we may live out God’s justice and liberation for our world.”
Sparkes went on to suggest that the age of post-Christendom could be the moment “when perhaps the radical spirituality of the desert can be spoken and heard once again”.
“For it is in the desert that we can find rare and precious gifts – the gift of learning to see, of discovering empty space, and of finding solitariness that leads to community,” he said.
The Retreat Association’s sixth conference was held at the Hayes Conference Centre, in Swanwick.
It was joined by Fr Brendan Callaghan SJ, who spoke about the major role he played in the 2010 BBC TV series, “The Big Silence”, which filmed five people on a silent retreat and how their experience went from terrifying to transformative.
Director, Alison MacTier said: “The conference is central to the work of the Retreat Association in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to celebrate the value of Christian spirituality. The desert is a theme that everyone can relate to in one way or another - particularly the new life that may emerge from it.
“We have received a lot of very positive response to the conference, showing that retreats and Christian spirituality is still very much alive.”
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