Conversatio Divina

Part 4 of 18

Retreat: What? How? Why?

Larry Crabb

01.  Introduction

A question from an eleven-year-old girl triggered the mini-existential crisis that supplied the energy to write this essay. A long forgotten memory retrieved during a day-and-a-half retreat helped focus the direction of this essay. And a recently devoured book, one that requires stronger teeth than mine to chew properly, suggested the content of this essay.

The girl is Josie, my oldest granddaughter. During a late night conversation with this budding epistemologist, with little context she surprised me with this question: “Pop-Pop, if Buddhism and Hinduism are false religions, how do we know that Christianity isn’t just one more false religion?”

After responding predictably and, I fear, unconvincingly, I spent a sleepless night haunted by long and deeply buried doubts. Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14 kept me awake: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of . . .” (NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ , emphasis mine). Was I convinced? C. S. Lewis’s quip-like definition of faith came to mind: faith is the dogged determination to keep on believing what you once knew was true.

What have I become convinced of? What am I so convinced of that I want Josie to be convinced of it too? I remember thinking, I want to get away for five days and see if I can discover an even more deeply felt certainty that Christianity is true. I wanted to reconnect with the vital faith that has blazed in my soul at earlier times. The energy to write this essay about retreat had arrived.

The direction I now intend to take came a week later. During a brief retreat, a laid-back, unstructured, let-happen-whatever-might-happen Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning with my wife and two close friends, a fifty-five-year-old memory returned to my consciousness with surprising force.

I remembered that as a nine-year-old kid I stared into a mirror and for maybe half an hour looked directly into the reflection of my eyes and entered into confusion. Who is that? Who am I looking at? Who’s looking back at me? Who is me? And who is the I that’s asking who is the me? I stared into that same mirror and asked those same questions dozens of times from age nine to about twelve.

If there’s something to Calvin’s idea of double knowledge—if to know God I must know myself, and if to know myself, I must know God—I was off and running on my trek toward convinced knowledge at an early age.

I had no awareness, of course, that a pioneer psychologist more than a hundred years earlier had wrestled with questions similar to the ones provoked by my image in a mirror. In 1892, in a book simply titled Psychology, William James wrote:

Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always at the same time more or less aware of myself, of my personal existence. [Shades of Descartes] At the same time it is I who am aware; so that the total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects discriminated in it. Of which for shortness we may call one the me and the other the I.Quoted in Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) 90.

Another line from John Calvin comes to mind. He somewhere wrote that human beings are the “brightest mirrors” in which God’s glory can be seen. Was I looking in the mirror to see God? Was I, without knowing it, hoping to see in myself the image of God?

Let me anticipate the direction that this retrieved memory and the thoughts it generated are taking me as I write this essay:

  • I don’t expect to be fully and meaningfully convinced that the biblical God is the true God and that biblical Christianity is the true religion without (at the same time? before? after?) being convinced that I exist, how I exist, and why I exist. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are somehow bound up with each other.
  • I will be convinced that I am and who I am to the degree I become convinced why I am. Purpose precedes identity en route to the deepest form of self-knowledge. Destiny defines ontology.
  • If Christianity is true, and if the God of Christianity really exists as a three-person community, then because I bear his image, I will never discover my identity if I live as an individual substance among other individual substances, disconnected at my center from every other person’s center. To bear God’s image means that I was created to live as a person bonded in community with a unique self, indivisibly connected with other selves created for relationship.
  • The why of my existence, which when lived convinces me that I am and who I am, is to live communally in such a way that my communal existence provides an earthly representation of a heavenly reality.

The memory of the mirror flooded my mind and soul with the kind of material that could never be chewed and digested during a busy life. I wanted to retreat. I wanted to get in touch not with the idea but with the reality of my relational self that exists (I know this intuitively) with one primal longing: to relate the way God relates, to know that God relates to me in love, to love God in return, and to represent God by loving others as he does. It occurred to me that I would be most profoundly convinced of the truth of Christianity—and perhaps able to relate with Josie in a way that would convince her—if I could taste the divine reality of community and discover my purpose in participating in that reality. A direction for an essay on retreat took form.

And then there was a third thing, a book. It’s a meaty read that would require a long retreat to digest. Written by Stanley Grenz, eminent scholar now participating in the divine community as he never could while living on earth, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei provided enough big ideas for my little mind to think through as I wrote this essay. I had ample content to follow the direction I felt energized to take.

So now the essay begins. It will be more ramblingly autobiographical than tightly discursive. But let me give it some organization. I will first briefly explore my view of what a retreat might look like. That will be followed by a discussion of how someone, whether an eleven-year-old girl or a man in his sixties who wants to be convinced of Christianity in a way that increasingly shapes every part of his life, might “do” retreat. And then I’ll conclude with the why of retreat. What value could retreat have in the life of a questioning seeker or a devoted follower of Jesus?

02.  Retreat: What?

Retreat and activism are not opposites. They’re not incompatible. They can even happen at the same time. Pressured busyness does, of course, get in the way of contemplation, but missional activity often provokes rich self- and God-awareness, even while the activity is taking place.

But there’s a danger. Seeing up-close suffering that compels the effort to relieve it can focus sensitive people so fully on their desire to make things better that the importance of an ongoing communion with God, communion that supplies divine energy for mission, can be obscured. The most missional among us are in the greatest need of retreat.

But retreat need not involve a day or a week or a month away. I have found real value in thinking of retreat as the quiet, in-the-moment seizing of opportunities occasioned by unexpected intrusions of God’s Spirit.

A thought wakes me up at 2:00 in the morning. I retreat downstairs to my favorite spot in front of the fireplace and ponder the thought, consciously asking the Spirit to move me in whatever way he wants.

A song on the car radio releases a dormant passion. Anne Murray’s classic love song “Can I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life?” brings tears as I feel how closely connected I am to my wife. I pull the car over, sit alone for maybe ten minutes, and let the longing for connection sweep over me. I imagine Jesus singing those words to me and realize that my desire to sing those words to my wife is part of God’s image in me.

Recently, a sentence from a friend aroused a meaningful and emotion-filled reaction. The sentence was spoken during a spiritually directing conversation. Something the directee said overwhelmed me unexpectedly with how amazing grace really is. I “retreated” into that moment by engaging with what was happening in me. For a few seconds, I looked away, lost in the bliss of wonder, and then I “gave” the directee my spiritually alive self. It was a moment of perichoresis—the mutual indwelling of the Trinity—that left an indelible mark on us both. The moment of perichoresis came because of a moment of retreat.

When I hear the word “retreat,” I think of a focused, non-distracted season (perhaps a few seconds, perhaps a week) of deliberately entering into whatever is stirring in deep places within me that I sense represents the movement of God’s Spirit. The awareness of whatever is stirring becomes ontological only when it creates momentum for connection with God in love-filled worship and with others in love-motivated conversation.

I increasingly become me when my thirst for God releases whatever is alive in me toward others. And in the process, I become convinced that the doctrines of Christianity are true because they become, for me, a jungle gym like those on a children’s playground, an opportunity to play in truth, to love God and love others.

03.  Retreat: How?

One of my quarrels with church is that what we do doesn’t often intentionally connect with where we are. I never come to a church service blank. I can’t. Something is always going on in my life that results in things, good and bad, going on in me. When I come to church weary and discouraged, happy praise music occasionally lifts my spirits. More often it annoys me.

But when I retreat, I can be where I am. I can be fully who I am. It seems to me that coming into retreat with a deliberately blank mind and voided heart, as some recommend, takes away the advantage of retreat that is harder to claim in church.

Sometimes I do just sit in God’s presence without focusing on anything going on in me, simply waiting for God to engage with me however he chooses. But I generally find it more helpful to come where I am, with whomever I experience myself to be. In my book The PAPA Prayer, I speak of presenting ourselves to God openly and honestly, as a way of beginning a relational encounter with God.

Some months ago, as I was leading one of our weeklong Schools of Spiritual Direction (if interested, go to our website at, I broke with tradition. In every other School, I would arise at 5:00 a.m. and spend from 5:30 to 7:30 studying and pondering a passage from one Bible book that would become my devotional for later that morning.

But this time, I sensed a desire to get in touch with core questions that might shed light on where I was in my spiritual journey. I came up with five. I “retreated” every morning from 5:30 to 7:30 by quietly reflecting on one of the five questions, by taking five focused looks into the mirror of my soul’s memory. My early morning retreats became my later morning devotionals. What follows is the shortened and edited version of each one. I offer it as one illustration of the “how” of retreat.


Question #1:When did I first become aware of a compelling sense of transcendence?

How? I look up.

I decided on this retreat question in direct opposition to the emphasis brought by a sixteenth-century philosopher named Michel de Montaigne. Listen to him speak:

For many years now, my thoughts have dwelt only on myself. The world looks out and across: I turn my gaze within. I am always meditating on myself, trying and considering. Others, if they stop to think of it, will find that they send their mind abroad; it moves on ahead. As for me, I am forever revolving in myself. If I study something else, it is merely to apply it to, or rather in, myself.Grenz, 102.

In contrast with some philosophical stalwarts from the past, I wanted to look outside myself, above myself. I wanted to look up. Augustine’s inward turn, his legitimate search for God within, was despiritualized by René Descartes, who looked inward for a different reason than Augustine, to discover the rational self, the self who could master the world through reason. Each person was regarded by Enlightenment philosophers as an individual substance, a collection of thoughts and choices that together could transform this planet into utopia.

This Enlightenment model of the self was challenged by the Romantic Movement, which Montaigne anticipated and Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed. Rousseau believed that the fundamental essence of a human being was good, and that human essence was a propensity, an inclination toward self-preservation that should be honored, that belonged to each person as a trust so that, in Rousseau’s words, “Our first care is, and must be, to watch over our own life.”Grenz, 107.

During his final years, Rousseau embraced “you must be yourself” as his purpose, which according to one observer meant that “you must be your feeling.”Grenz, 107.

This trajectory led to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s insistence that subjective awareness of the infinite within the finite should always find free expression; to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s understanding of God as the “Over-Soul,” who inhabits us for our well-being, not as a divine person with whom we relate but as a cosmic Spirit we release into the world as we discover him by going “into [our] closet” and shutting “the door”Grenz, 114–115.; to Friedrich Nietzsche’s conclusion that there is no ordering aesthetic or moral principle outside oneself, that God is dead; to Michel Foucault’s Nietzsche-influenced philosophy, which declared that the death of self followed the death of God. The Enlightenment’s “self-mastery of the world” model of the self elevated reason above God, and the Romanticist’s “self-expression in the world” model led to the death of any hope that I might exist as an image-bearer of a relational, good God. When I consider where this trajectory and these models led, I find myself longing for a compelling sense of personal transcendence that will define me by giving me an identity-defining purpose.

So, I look up as I retreat. And I think back: when did I first become aware of a compelling sense of transcendence?

Two moments come to mind. The first occurred when I was five years old as I sat with my grandmother on her front porch. We sat quietly together on the porch swing for hours, looking at birds fluttering around her feeder and bees buzzing in proximity to the full-flowering azalea bushes that bordered the entire porch. And I thought (with more clarity in hindsight), There is beauty in this world. Something in me resonates. I long to participate, to be at one with beauty. Could its source be God? I count that porch time as my first retreat.

Five years later, I looked out the window by the upper berth of my bunk bed in the log cabin motel room that my parents had secured en route to a camp in the Adirondacks. It was midnight. I was awed by pine trees that shot a thousand feet into the sky, a bright full moon that cast its reflection on the still lake, and the stars that were unimaginably far away yet still visible.

As I lay there, aware of not only beauty but also bigness, I sensed the trees were moving, dancing really, to celestial music that the orchestra of stars was playing. And I thought, There is movement in this world. Beauty is going somewhere. Something is happening; it’s moving in a direction. I want to be part of the movement. Could its design come from God? I count that bunk time as my first vision.


Question #2: When did I first feel unsafe in this world?

How? I look around.

Albert Einstein once declared that the most pressing question every person asks is this: Is this world a safe place to live? Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell admitted he read two detective novels every day to keep his fears at bay.

When did I first become aware of unavoidable danger that would destroy me unless a benevolent God existed who would bring me safely home?

I was four. I was playing with toys in my grandparents’ living room, happy, content, and safe. Without warning, I saw Mother run out of the kitchen, crying, heading for the front door, screaming all the way at her mother, my grandmother, “Mother, stop it! Just stop it!”

Years later, I learned that my grandmother, the one who introduced me to beauty, was an alcoholic. But then all I knew was that I was alone in an unsafe world. I yearned for someone strong and full of love to be with me. I had looked around.


Question #3: When did I first realize that something was wrong with me, something that was unlovable, inexcusable, something that would get in the way of my reaching my potential?

How? I look in.

In kindergarten, at Mifflin Elementary School, all of us kids were required to lie down on a mat and go to sleep for half an hour every afternoon right after lunch. I wouldn’t close my eyes. I wanted to keep looking at—I can’t remember her name—the cutest girl in class.

I wanted something for me that seemed to justify disobeying my teacher’s order to close my eyes.

Retreating on that memory, I sense a void in my little boy’s soul left empty by a dutiful mother—a good mother in many ways—who always took care of me but rarely hugged me, who never in her eighty-six years told me she loved me, who on only a few occasions made me sense that she enjoyed me. The void filled up when I looked at that cute little girl.

As a kindergartener, I knew I was wrong, knew I had better not be caught with my eyes open, and knew that not closing them was a punishable offense. Sixty years later, I retreat and realize my needs have a way of dictating my actions. Like Rousseau, I easily believe my first care is myself. I don’t love, frequently. I sometimes feel unable to love. My needs seem too urgent to expend energy on you.

If God is love and if I bear his image, something’s wrong. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has Father Zossima say, “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.”Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Signet Classic, 1999) 312. Something’s wrong with me for which I have no solution. A look in is disconcerting. It reveals that I have one foot in hell.


Question #4: When did I first become aware of a battle going on within me, a battle that must end in the death of one of the two combatants?

How? I look deeper.

In seventh grade, I sat next to Lyle Saylor. He is now a successful physician. Back then he competed with me for the title of best speller in class.

During one spelling test, the teacher read words out loud, and we had to spell each one. I wasn’t sure how to spell one especially difficult word—I think it was insouciant—and Lyle’s test paper was in full view on his desk next to mine. One quick glance would up my odds of a perfect score and staying even with Lyle.

I knew it was wrong to cheat. I didn’t want to cheat. But I knew I might spell the word incorrectly. I didn’t want to lose to Lyle.

The battle was on. One combatant needed to die. Both couldn’t live. I couldn’t decide whom to kill. Worse, I sensed it would be far easier to kill the good guy.

I really don’t recall what I did. I think I cheated. If I didn’t, I could quickly list a hundred other occasions when felt needs dictated wrong actions. O wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me, and how and when will I be delivered? It’s not always encouraging to look deeper.


Question #5: When did I first become aware of an anchored hope within me, a realization of a guaranteed and wonderful destiny ahead with a narrow road leading to it that I would want to walk now?

How? I look ahead.

A favorite television show during my teenage years that I enjoyed watching into my thirties was the weekly half-hour series The Adventures of Robin Hood. I can still recall the couch on which I was sitting when the final episode—which I watched over and over again in reruns—was first broadcast. I was maybe sixteen.

After long, difficult years during which Robin Hood lived with his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, the good King Richard finally returned from the Crusades, deposed the evil Prince John from the throne he had usurped, and held a huge ceremony to honor the valor of Robin Hood, the man once deemed an enemy of the crown, and to restore him to his lands and castle.

As I watched the clean-shaven, well-dressed former outlaw walk down the long aisle to stand before the king in the presence of a thousand well-wishers (including, of course, a beaming Maid Marian), I choked up. I nearly wept.

Someday, I thought, I will stand before King Jesus, and in the presence of people I loved on earth, I will bow before my king and hear him say, “Well done! Enter into the joy of the Lord. It’s time to party!”

The look ahead brought back the look up. The beauty of God is moving to restore this world to everything it should be. The danger I saw in the look around was gone. It could still hurt me, but it could never destroy me. All that is wrong with me that the look in revealed was paid for and forgotten. And the battle is over, the battle exposed by the look deeper. The true King won. And though the battle continues in my experience, I knew I would share in his victory forever.

My “five looks retreat” connected me to the community of God. It released me to share passionately with others what happened in me during each morning’s retreat. That week, I loved God a little more, and I loved others a little better. I moved closer, maybe all the way, to truth that I was convinced was true, that I want Josie to believe, that I believe when I see myself in a mirror, that I’m helped to understand by reading good books such as Grenz’s.

To summarize the “What” and “How” questions: (1) What is a retreat?—a focused, non-distracted season of deliberately entering into whatever is stirring in deep places within me that I sense represents the presence and movement of God’s Spirit. (2) How can I retreat?—sometimes by just showing up and waiting on God; more often by discerning what is alive within me, either with joy or pain, and presenting what I discern to God. The “five looks” are one way of doing retreat that worked for me.

04.  Retreat: Why?

We were made male and female for the relational and physical pleasures of marriage and the enjoyment of wholesome community with men and women. But a far more basic reason emerges from a study of why image-bearing humans were created as male and female.

Alone, we are incomplete. No man, no woman is an island. The pleasures of genital sex, the intimacy of marriage, are for now. Neither will be carried into eternity. But the yearning to bond will. And to create a yearning, born of incompleteness, that longs for a completeness only union with another can provide is perhaps why God made us male and female. The longing to bond together in the kind of love that defines the community of God will not only be carried into eternity, but will also be satisfied forever in eternity.

The image of God is perhaps best understood not simply as the human capacity to relate, not even as the human desire to relate. I see God’s image most clearly visible in perichoretic relating among humans. It’s that kind of relating that is possible only in the community of Jesus-followers, in the church. It’s the loving community of people that bears the image of a loving God.

The self-mastery self and the self-expressing self, products of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement respectively, constitute the individual self that remains ultimately alone.

Because I bear God’s image, I am now capable, thanks to Jesus and thanks only to Jesus, of living as a self-giving self, the relational self that lives in a community which represents God in a way I never could as an individual self.

By God’s design, the relational self has become the ecclesial self, the self connected to other Christian selves in the body of Christ. As Grenz puts it, “The ecclesial self . . . finds identity through participation in the divine dynamic of love.”Grenz, 332.

Why retreat? I know of no other opportunity so charged with the possibility of getting in touch with what the triune God has placed within me: the calling, the capacity, and the consuming desire to relate, to love, to sacrifice, to suffer for another. In the regenerate soul, the deepest need is to be loved. The deepest desire is to love.

And when I focus, when I arrange for a non-distracted season of deliberately entering into whatever God’s Spirit is stirring within me, I become convinced there is a God who is himself a community of three persons, and he has done what was necessary for me to live in community with him and others as a bearer of God’s image, as a relational self who gives myself as an ecclesial self to God for his glory and to others for their well-being, because I want to do so.

One final thought. I didn’t include the last phrase in Paul’s words to Timothy that I earlier quoted. Here’s the complete verse from 2 Timothy 3:14:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (emphasis mine).

When I see Christians divided, I wonder if the whole Christian thing is one more false religion. When I see Christians forgiving each other, suffering long with each other, sacrificing for each other, and moving into the world with that kind of love, I become convinced: Christianity is true.

I want Josie to be similarly convinced, perhaps by watching me. If I keep on retreating, that might happen. I might get more deeply in touch with my desire to love.


Dr. Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director, and founder of NewWay Ministries. He currently serves as distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University and spiritual director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Among his more than twenty books are Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off, Soul Talk, and The PAPA Prayer.