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The reality of retreats

09 November 2012

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 a mess.

So was he right? Are retreats real, or just pleasant but floaty nonsense?

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 not real.

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, 2012).

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