MYSTICISM: The Need Of Retreat by Evelyn Underhill

The Need Of Retreat by Evelyn Underhill

From Light of Christ

A first retreatant lately told me that when she confessed to her husband what she intended to do, he took his pipe from his mouth and said earnestly: “Go my dear.  Go, by all means!  You’re just about due for a spot of re-birth.”  That man, it seems to me, had a very clear idea of one function of a retreat: its power of causing the re-birth of our spiritual sense, quickening that which has grown dull and dead in us, calling it out into light and air, giving it another chance.

Most of us are bitterly conscious of the extent in which we are at the mercy of our surroundings: which grow ever more and more insistent in their pressure, their demands on our attention and time; less and less suggestive of reality, of God.  They call out and keep out the least spiritual side of our nature: and almost insensibly, often with the very best intentions, and under plea of good works, family duties, social obligations, we capitulate to the surface activities of existence, the ceaseless chain of passing events.  We forget that awestruck upward glance which is the mark of a spiritual man.  Then we lose all sense of proportion; become fussy, restless, full of things that simply must be done, quite oblivious of the only reason why anything should be done.  Our prayers become more and more like supernatural shopping lists, less and less like that conversation between one friend and another which is the ideal of Thomas à Kempis.  We can’t rest in the Lord; there really isn’t time for that.  Besides, there’s the telephone, which may be trusted to ring at the most shattering moment.  So we gradually forget what interior silence is like, and seldom enter the interior world: and the result of this is appreciated only too well by all those with whom we have to deal.  When we have reached this stage, nothing is going to save us but that Spot of Re-birth.  We need a re-quickening of the spark of the soul; a re-emergence of the “fine point of the spirit” – that most sacred and least considered element of human personality, so easily shoved down into the cellar, smothered and forgotten in the pressure of practical everyday life.

That might be called the clinical reason for retreats.  Now take another reason.  Our so-called civilization gets more and more complicated, more and more noisy.  It is like one of those mills where the noise of the looms makes it impossible for the workers to hear each other speak.  And if we go on at it long enough without a break we begin to think the looms are all that matter, and we are merely there to keep them going and must not bother about anything else.  In other words, I am sure there is a real danger that Christian spirituality in its deepest and loveliest reaches will be killed out by the pressure and demands of the social machine, and even of the ecclesiastical machine.  Man will get ever more utilitarian and this-world, and will wholly forget his true relation to God.  I am sure you remember the beautiful letter of Baron von Hügel, in which  he tells his pupil how all that we do has a double relatedness.  It is part of the chain of cause and effect which makes up human life; and also it is, or can be, joined directly to God, the Changeless Reality who gives meaning to that life.  To realize, make, keep up that double connection – this is to be fully human, fully alive; and how are we to teach and establish that in the scutter of the modern world?  Even religion tends to become more and more pragmatic, utilitarian; more and more active, and less and less of an attachment, a being.  And so by a curious paradox, as man’s physical universe gets larger, his true horizon shrinks.  He has become the slave of the clattering loom.  He can’t hear his own soul speak.

Now those who control the modern factory – wiser in their generation than the children of light – know what all this means in the exhausting and impoverishing of human material, in nervous tension, apathy, unrest.  So there is no good factory without its welfare department, its rest room, its opportunity for quiet.  To withdraw the worker at times from the clatter and pressure is to increase the quantity and quality of the work.  So I sometimes think retreats should be regarded as a bit of spiritual welfare work; quite essential to the organization of the church, and specially to the efficiency of its ministers.  I am sure that were the making of at least a yearly retreat an absolute obligation of the priesthood, this would be a far more direct Way of Renewal than some of those now proposed.

I don’t mean by this to recommend the retreat for merely practical reasons – because it makes the effective active Christian even more active and effective than before.  I would rather recommend it because it puts in the foreground and keeps in the foreground that which is, after all, the first interest of religion – so easily lost sight of – the one thing needful – the soul’s relation to God.  That relation is so subtle, so invisible, so deeply personal, and yet so powerful – how is its delicate beauty to be savored, and its humbling influence felt, while Martha runs from the gas-stove to the scullery, listening with one ear to the loud-speaker declaiming morning prayers?  We need for that such a silence and leisure as we get in a good retreat; what one of the mystics called a “rest most busy.”  Then the repressed elements of our truest being can emerge and get light and air; and perhaps such a renewal of faith, hope, and charity – those three virtues that are trained wholly towards God – that they may keep their heads above water, when re-immersed in the torrent of the world.  And here I venture to say that it seems to me that in the special circumstances and needs of the Christian life in our day we make a very grave mistake if we identify too closely the ordinary retreat with the Ignatian form.  Certainly there are souls who can use the Ignatian form again and again with sincerity and profit.  Their temperature-chart runs an uneven course.  They need again and again to be reminded of first principles, to be trued-up to the pattern, and make in one way or another the crucial choice between the Two Standards.  But we are beginning to realize that Saint Ignatius never meant his masterpiece to be turned into a yearly exercise for the devout.  It is too powerful, searching, even shattering, for that.  I believe the retreat as a part of our normal spiritual routine will yield on the whole its fullest results when we regard it more often and more generally, in Abbot Delatte’s beautiful phrase, as an opportunity of “steeping our souls in the beauty of the mysterious.”  To dwell quietly and without self-occupation in the atmosphere of God is surely the best of all ways of redressing the balance between the temporal and eternal sides of our life.  It is this aspect of the retreat experience which seems to me to deepen, steady, and enrich personality; it is this which produces the “Spot of Re-birth,” and sends the retreatant back to the world more able to find the inward in the outward than before.  In relation to this aspect, and the production of this atmosphere, the conductor has a special responsibility; for nothing that he does here will be of the slightest use of his retreatants, unless it proceeds from his own interior life with God.

And finally, what is to be the real objective – the aim – which we who believe in the retreat movement set before ourselves?  We have said that it shall not be merely practical or merely remedial.  It must include and look beyond both those aims.  The object is the same as the object of the Christian life – sanctity – the production, fostering and maintenance of holiness.  To sanctify, as Von Hügel was fond of saying, is the biggest thing out.  Now souls are sanctified by the pressure and cleansing action of the Spirit, acting through and in the events of everyday life.  But in order that the action of the Spirit may produce this effect, we know that a particular disposition, outlook, temper, is also required in the soul.  And how is that to be produced?  Perhaps most easily and directly by taking the soul from its normal preoccupations and placing it in an atmosphere and condition in which, with the minimum of distraction, it can attend to and realize God.  And this in essence is a retreat.

Isn’t it worth while to make some effort to create and keep going houses in which so great a thing can be done?  Our increased capitulation to pace and noise makes it more and more necessary to provide such opportunities for realizing our spiritual status, and learning the width of the chasm which separates deep from distracted prayer.  It is not easy under everyday conditions to learn and maintain the art of steadfast attention to God; yet no art could more certainly serve his purposes than this.  “One loving spirit sets another on fire.”  The church will win the world for Christ when – and when only – she works through living spirits steeped in prayer.

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