When we go on a vacation to the country we often say, “I’m getting away from it all for a while. What we mean when we say this is that our withdrawal into solitude functions as a means of escaping–or simply relieving ourselves temporarily–from activities, responsibilities, relationships or other unwanted experience (“it all”). The word from is important here. The “awayness” of our movement is governed not so much by the destination as by the point of departure. From this viewpoint, solitude is a place of rest, of relaxation from a life we wish to avoid (at least temporarily).
This is often also the way we look at Christian retreats. Indeed “retreat” itself is a military term used to describe a temporary pull back from the heat of battle in order to regroup and perhaps to prepare for another advance. Christian retreats are advertised as opportunities to leave the busyness of life behind so that we can rest in an environment of Christian friends, Christian worship, Christian teaching, and beautiful scenery.
I affirm the place of retreat in our lives. I think it is a valuable and wonderful thing to step aside from the clutter of daily life in order to make space for God. This was Jesus’ regular pattern of life on earth. And yet, I also have concerns about looking at withdrawal merely as a “getting away from it all.” I wonder if we aren’t missing something.
For example, as a student of early monasticism, I think that the “away from” way of looking at withdrawal is one reason we misunderstand the phenomenon of movement to the desert in early monasticism. We can’t seem to understand monastic withdrawal except as a withdrawal from something: taxes, persecution, or the shallow Christianity after Constantine. But when I read the actual literature of early monasticism–or even the reflections that flow from contemporary solitaries–I catch something different. Among solitaries, withdrawal is not primarily a movement from, but rather a movement to. This change of words may seem like a small matter, but I think it
is important. How we view our withdrawals shapes the way we look at our “real life” and even our relationship with God.
Evan B. Howard, (Ph.D.) is an adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at Colorado Mesa University.
He is the author of The Brazos Introduction to
Christian Spirituality and Praying the Scriptures.