Retreats, Holidays and Pilgrimages (Three Different Types of Rest)
We need to rest… modern studies show it, medicine affirms it, the bible suggests it, and our conscience ultimately attests to it… One of the positive effects of the recent pandemic was to cause many of us, who were stuck at home, to stop, to pause and to rest… for some perhaps for the first time in their lives. But one year is not enough. Our lives need rest to function well. I just want to begin to share in this reflection about three different ways to rest and take time out, all of which are valid in their own way… and which connect with different needs within us. These are Retreats, Holidays and Pilgrimages. The boundaries between the three are not clear cut, and you may have part of one and part of another in your rest time, but they each have distinctives. Retreats are times to dial down into the love that is at the centre of all things, and simply allow yourself to be loved. Holidays are times to remember to play and to express and do all that you like about life and yourself. Pilgrimages are times to journey, quite possibly on your feet, to a destination, but to realise as you journey that you are learning things about life, yourself and others. All three are about being loved and growing in love, but just expressed in different ways. All can be done alone or with others, though retreats lend themselves most to being alone with God, even if around others. All can be a way of taking time out at home for a few hours, a day or a week. But often to really get the most out of these three ways of resting it is helpful to get out of your daily situation and location, and go away to somewhere beautiful. All three of these ways of resting can refresh and inform the content, flow and rhythms of our daily life and work, so that there is more rest, play and creativity within our life and within our work. They also seem to connect with the stages and flow of life. Babies as lovesponges, just needing love to be poured into them in order to come alive, seem to evoke the image of retreats. Toddlers playing and learning to engage the world through play, where ‘play is a child’s work’, seem to evoke the image of holidays. And teenagers growing into life, learning new things, travelling into new experiences, new relationships and new lands seem to evoke the image of pilgrimages. (For further explanation of the suggested connection to developmental stages see the footnote)
So I’ll just briefly unpack these three different types of rest, and ways of taking rest time, with the hope that it might encourage others to think creatively about the type of rest their heart needs at this moment of life. Our society and societies have been burdened by overwork and a ‘work, work, work’ mentality. This is changing and we are rediscovering the importance of rest. May you, as you retreat, holiday and pilgrimage, discover that it’s ok to receive, it’s ok to play and it’s ok to journey…
It is all about receiving love… We are who we are through love, and we only grow into who we are to become through love.
I believe this is to be the true focus of prayer, of retreats and if I may be so bold of our Christian faith. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). ‘What do you have that you did not at first receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7).
As you receive, and are able to open your heart up to receiving love, then you are able to give love out. You simply cannot give what you have not received.
And so retreats are about taking time to rest in love - to receive love from God for you.
This is surely the focus of contemplative prayer. Learning to rest in that love, to receive that love and ultimately to become that love!!
Times of stillness are very good for learning to receive love. 5 minutes a day… 30 minutes a day… a few hours a week, and so on, according to your leading.
But these in themselves may not be enough.
You may find you really need to get away somewhere where you can just relax, open up and be you…
This takes time learning to relax.
It takes time to learn to be you…
And it takes time to learn to receive love.
It may require a retreat!
I recommend starting small and building up, rather than biting off more than you can chew all at once. Take a day out in a quiet place and see how you find that. If you benefit from that try a couple of nights in a retreat centre or a retreat cottage somewhere. If you find you are blessed by that you may at some point feel you would like a whole week. This is a good amount of time to allow the soul to wind down and rest and be still and alone with God. But such a long period of solitude may not be for everyone.
There are many sorts of retreats available. Some have more of a communal silence about them, where you are in a large centre, and lots of people are retreating together and yet alone. However, there are other places where you could have almost total solitude if you desire.
There is much more to say about taking a retreat. But for now it will be enough to say I really recommend this as a way of learning to receive love and to let love into your heart. Find a beautiful and reasonably comfortable place, and open your heart up to receiving love. Eat, sleep, enjoy the silence, read, be… and love will come to you. The one who is love will come to you. He will. He always does. For He is always with you; and He is always ready to reveal more of Himself.
I recommend the website of The Retreat Association where you can search for a retreat by area. First click on ‘Home’ and then ‘Find a retreat’, and then the area of the UK that you would like to travel to for it. The website link is: http://www.retreats.org.uk/index.php
In life we need not to just work, work, work.
Play is absolutely vital in reminding us of what life is really about, and in bringing us back to the centre of life.
When we take a holiday we remind ourselves what our lives are about. Being, enjoying nature, loving, being family, eating, sleeping, resting, thinking, dreaming, making love, reading books, spending time on hobbies, being creative, playing games, watching films… enjoying life.
If life was meant to be all about work, why are we happiest when we are doing these things? Happiness surveys all attest to the fact that it is these ‘holiday’ type of activities that make us feel happiest. We are happiest when we are ‘holidaying’, and happiest when we are ‘playing’… or involved in recreation – re creation… the renewal of creation… through rest… and through play.
We remind ourselves of who we truly are and what life is really meant to be about, and thus we breathe life into our daily lives, reminding ourselves to ‘do’ more of these things when at home. We also therefore breathe life and creativity into our work, by injecting it and us with a dose of play… Work, therefore, itself becomes more creative, as it was always meant to be. Perhaps work is really at its heart about creativity and play… When God spent 6 days creating the world was it 6 days of hard slog, or was it 6 playful days of creativity?
Just like retreats, holidays can be had at home… as a fun hour, a day or even a week cut aside. The important discipline with learning ‘to holiday’ is to put all else aside. Everything that feels like work needs to be put aside for this period, whether that is phones, emails, computers, to-do lists, jobs, etc… There may still be some essentials such as the cooking, but even with these it is so much better for a holiday period where all that is not fun can be reduced to an absolute minimum!
Israel’s feast days and yearly festivals, could be argued to be the biblical basis for the importance of holidays, and I think that’s valid – but I think as well just as good a basis is knowing the nature of the Father, and that if He really is that good, then surely He wants us to play!
There are lots of ways in which you could go away for a holiday. A hotel break overseas, or a cottage for two weeks in the beautiful countryside. A camping holiday... An adventure holiday... A break by the sea, resting on the beach; or a break in the freezing cold, but in the cosiness of a little cottage somewhere. The choice is yours, and we are not short of tourist adverts leading us towards the correct break for us.
I will just focus on one website which tells you a lot about a country that I live in and am very fond of: Wales. It is not the country of my birth, but I feel it is one of the best in the world to come to for a restful break, in fact for any of these three restful types of break that we are looking at. But in looking at ‘holidaying’, the website Visit Wales is awesome in all it covers. There are fantastic breaks available in the rest of the UK - I dream of a fortnight in the Hebrides. There are fantastic breaks available in Europe or the rest of the world - I dream of visiting Greek Islands that I have not yet been to! But I personally cannot recommend Wales highly enough as a destination for a holiday, so if you need a holiday and to relearn to play here is the link: https://www.visitwales.com/
As children learn to rest and receive love, and learn to play and express themselves, a desire to travel into new things emerges… sometimes an adventurous spirit emerges, and sometimes a curiosity about life and the world, but one way or another there is a desire to travel into new things: new relationships, new lands, new activities, and new discoveries – physical and spiritual.
This is the beginnings of a desire towards pilgrimage.
To journey into life… To reach out and find new things. To seek… to find. To adventure; to pursue. To dream; to desire and to be fulfilled. To give oneself on behalf of a cause or for another… to journey to find oneself. To look, to pursue and ultimately to journey…
And so walking is perhaps the ultimate spiritual and physical image of pilgrimage.
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.’ (Psalm 84:5)
On a pilgrimage we walk – perhaps together, perhaps alone, or perhaps only metaphorically, but one way or another we walk, as we travel into new things. For as good as trains, planes and automobiles are, and as good as the internet now is to get us to destinations beyond us simply by sitting in our room, yet it is our two feet that were given to us as our way to move in and through this life… through recreation, and into new creation.
The aim is to discover more of life, and as a popular saying goes to find that, in one sense at least, ‘the destination is the journey’; that in one sense at least, the pilgrimage itself is the point, though of course it will lead to new things, new insights, new discoveries, new experiences, and ultimately new creation.
There are so many ways in which you could take a pilgrimage.
There are numerous sites where there is something significant from Christian history that can act as the focus or end point of a pilgrimage, and the journey to that place can also be a spiritual experience to find more of who we are. These sites have often been such places of prayer, that - whilst God is within us, and in all places at all times - the spiritual atmosphere of these places is conducive to find more of the Trinitarian God who already dwells within your heart. And so the journey to ‘the outer’ helps with and leads back to ‘the inner’.
You could take a trip to any of these places, often places where Celtic Christianity was prominent: Lindisfarne, Iona, St Davids and Bardsey Island being obvious examples.
Or you could walk one of the many signposted pilgrim paths in the UK.
These often trace ancient pilgrim routes.
There is St Cuthbert’s way in the Scottish Borders/North of England and there is a recently completed one - the North Wales Pilgrim Way, from Holywell to Bardsey Island, which traces an ancient pilgrimage route.
The website for this is: http://www.pilgrims-way-north-wales.org/
This is such a good way to take time to reflect on life as well as to have fun along the way and hopefully enjoy some of the elements of a holiday along your pilgrimage as well.
(We certainly get the impression from Chaucer's Canterbury tales, that there was quite a lot of fun to be had on medieval pilgrimages!)
There are guided walks as well, if you prefer to do this with others, and in fact the experience of walking and talking with people different to yourself could itself be a pilgrimage and an opening of heart and mind to love.
But equally you could in the spirit of the Celtic Christians, take a journey without knowing where you are going, giving yourself an amount of time to do it in.
‘For the Irish monks, pilgrimage was first and foremost an inner state of mind expressed in outward terms in a life of physical exile and journeying.’
Or you could take a journey with some sort of end result, but with lots of freedom to move from the path on the way. This is what I do when I go walking and camping for weeks: though I have a path to follow, I allow myself to go off from the course I originally may have planned, and that can be fantastic in terms of the things you end up seeing and discovering, just by being willing to be a little flexible in terms of the nature of the journey, believing that the heart of travelling in freedom is more important than ticking boxes in terms of miles walked and exact paths covered. Though it has to be said that most people, if they set off to walk a certain path, often do want to do the full and proper route, and that’s ok too.
As Ian Bradley puts it in 'Colonies of Heaven':
‘The revival of pilgrimage has been one of the most striking and surprising religious movements of recent years. Inspired in part by the increasing enthusiasm for ecumenical ventures, the growing yearning for spirituality and a new interest in sacred places, it has brought thousands of people from different Christian denominations together as pilgrims to share a physical and spiritual journey lasting anything from a few hours to several weeks. A number of long-distance footpaths have been opened up in the last few years specifically so that modern pilgrims can follow in the footsteps of the Celtic saints. The old pilgrim route along the northern shores of the Solway Firth to Whithorn has been waymarked with signs bearing the distinctive logo of the Celtic cross and is the focus for an annual walk to support Christian Aid. St Cuthberts’s Way is a recently opened long-distance footpath covering the sixty-two and a half miles between Melrose and Lindisfarne. A pilgrimage to Bardsey Island off the western tip of the Llyn Peninsula in north-west Wales led by Cleadan Mears, Bishop of Bangor, in 1992 revived another ancient Celtic tradition and the island of 20,000 saints now plays host to a steady stream of modern pilgrims who seek a week’s retreat in a simple cottage without electricity, running water or sanitation.’
There is an organisation who run pilgrim holidays which may be worth having a look at. The website is https://www.journeying.co.uk/
But there are lots of others around – have a search for them and see.
(A page on Ray Simpson’s blog may help in finding pilgrimage resources:
‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’
St Augustine of Hippo.
Our hearts are on a pilgrimage to find that rest… in all things.
There is a rest for the people of God and there is a rest for humanity…
The Hebrew Scriptures attest to it with their symbolic, and practical image of Sabbath – the 7th day, 7th being perfection… and pointing towards a future and more complete rest. Rest comes from the heart of God, and rest is built into the fabric of creation, for the 7th day was REST being spoken and breathed over creation…
But Rest is within the being of God, and existed even before the 7 days of creation.
The 6 days of work and creation were an overflow of the love and unity of the Father, Son and Spirit, and the playful creativity of a God who was already at rest.
And then the 7th day crowns it off with a declaration of the perfection of love, and the importance of ‘being’ in the midst of all that is.
Sabbath… Rest… at all times.
But we have been taken so far out of this rest in our hearts that we need to recover it through retreating, and holidaying and pilgrimaging!!
As we take time to retreat, and to holiday, and to pilgrimage, we rediscover what life is all about and rediscover the love, that is the centre of all things, in which we ‘live and move and have our being’(Acts 17:28).
It is not that we work really hard, and occasionally have a little rest or retreat to keep us going. The word for that way of thinking is driveness… that is simply burning yourself out, and then having a little rest so that you can keep burning yourself out some more!! No, it is about re-framing how we see life, and re-framing it in the context of love and receiving love! That’s what we need to do – re-imagine and re-frame our lives!
For our work itself is meant to be more restful than it has become, and so we need restful rhythms not only to reinvigorate us for work, but to re-frame our work in a more restful and life-giving and creative context. Not just individually, but in our communities as well. Perhaps we could say that our work itself is meant to be more like a pilgrimage – a journey of discovery. If we could see it like this it might begin to redeem the sense of toil we have experienced that came through the first Adam.
But the re-framing of our lives and work lives can only happen by including some sort of rest rhythms and periods within our days, weeks, months and years, in the form of retreats, holidays and pilgrimages.
Retreating… to simply let God love us.
Holidaying… to relax, play and express ourselves.
Pilgrimaging… to journey, to seek and to find.
But we need that focus on holidays and on play as a vital and central part in our growth. I say this because some might be tempted to focus on the two more ‘spiritual’ sounding forms of rest and leave holidays out. But, it’s not enough to just take retreats and pilgrimages, we need holidays as well! The more you get to know our God of love, the more surprised you become by how he loves fun, play and silliness!! Not only do we rest in retreat, and creatively work in a spirit of pilgrimage, but we also have fun and play in ‘holidaying’.
He is a God of fun, and he wants all our restful prayer, and heartfelt pilgrimage to be done in a spirit of joy and lightness. And in doing so, we journey on from and into rest… we happily work, we happily rest, and we happily play.
 I see that the purpose of these three ways of resting seem to connect to three developmental stages of growing in children. As children our first need in this world is to recieve love, both through physical care, but also through emotional and spiritual nurture. Without this love in one way or another we die. Likewise, retreats correspond to this need to be loved, and are all about letting our self be loved, returning to our core and foundational need, and what life is all about. Secondly, as children, once love begins to form the basis for our identity, we begin early on to play. We know that a child’s work is his play. It is both an end in itself, and also the vehicle through which a child engages with the world, learns about the world, and learns to relate to the world and others in it. Similarly holidays, are times for learning and often as adults re learning to play. All the things that we love about life and love doing, become central again to life, particularly if they have been sidelined through overwork - and become a reminder to us of what life is really about, and a reminder that we are best when we are playing. A third stage of growth is that in the context of the receiving of nurturing love, and in learning to express him/herself through play, a child begins to travel into new things. This stage becomes most apparent in adolescent years and beyond, where the travelling into new things, might be a new experience, new relationship, a new skill, a hobby, a trip away, a new understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ and spirituality, and for some people in early adulthood this can literally involve travelling the world. Well in the same way, pilgrimage is about travelling into new things. A journey is undertaken, and often a literal one by foot, to a new place, with a focus of learning about life, self and others on the way.