WE WERE sitting in my front room when he dropped the bombshell:
"Retreats are great, Simon, but they aren't real." He had been on a
retreat that I'd led, and told me that he had had a good time and
was pondering another. But, he said, the trouble was that it was
not real life, and he needed something "real" because his life was
So was he right? Are retreats real, or just pleasant but floaty
Whether it is for a week or a day, we do like our retreats, our
favourite retreat centres, and our wonderful spiritual nuns. We can
even wear our commitment to retreats like a medal, signalling
cutting-edge spirituality. But are they real? As my friend said: "I
discovered so much on retreat, felt so much. Just to have that
space . . . but it wasn't real life."
If this were a court case, and retreats were the accused, this
would surely be the prosecution's point of attack: portray retreats
as an emotional half-holiday for the busy: nice food, nice setting,
no meetings - who wouldn't be temporarily blessed? But do not give
them credibility beyond that; keep a wide chasm in the jury's mind
between the retreat experience and real life.
But I confess that my friend's words surprised me. Why? Because,
from where I was sitting, the person he discovered on retreat was a
good deal more real than his normal everyday self - a self who
struggles with a life in which his unhappiness spills everywhere.
"Health is more real than ill-health," I said. "Ill-health may be
more normal, but not more real."
Retreats are not normal: they are not the way in whichwe spend
most of our lives. A week away, or ten minutes of quiet in the day,
are special times - stolen times, sometimes, from which we return
to the ups and downs of home life, work life, church life, social
life, unemployed life, all endlessly shifting shapes of experience.
But to say that retreats are not normal is not to say that they are
In a birthday letter to his 24-year-old son, who was struggling
with his own difficulties, the poet Ted Hughes wrote: "Everybody
develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially
constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of
circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually
meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we're likely to
get a rough time, and to end up making 'no contact'."
As Hughes reminds us, the human being is comprised of the real
and the borrowed, the primary and the secondary self. Retreats are
concerned with gently exposing the borrowed - those internalised
voices from the past which have distorted our self-perception - and
with restoring us to the original. This is real life. It is what
happens elsewhere that can feel like pretence.
Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT,