Rachel Drew, Director of Mamre Association Inc:
"Patrick has an instinctual sense of what people need for their healing, renewal and development. His work with us has been life-giving. People who attend these sessions leave always with a greater sense of who they are. Patrick has a lovely gift of enabling others to feel a confidence about their own humanness ..."
From “A Conversation with Patrick” With Jan Herring January 2006
What got you interested in leading retreats?
Well, I suppose ever since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated with the ways that God speaks to people. In both retreat work and in parish life, my emphasis always has been on helping people to listen to the movement of God in their lives. This is the focus of spiritual direction, which is on the one-to-one level, and takes most of my time through the week. The themes that come out of these encounters feed the content for my retreats.
So how do you choose your topics for retreats?
Well, sometimes topics are suggested for me by a particular group of people. For example, a support group made up of six or seven married people and which meets fortnightly might ask me to conduct their annual retreat. They ask me to speak and guide their reflection on a particular topic of their choosing. Sometimes topics come out of what I have been writing, or it might be a follow-on theme from a previous retreat. The content though never remains the same. A retreat topic may have similar points, but because a retreat is an organic thing, the content always comes out in another shape each time. Hopefully I can trust the Holy Spirit enough to give me the words to say that meet the needs of those attending. I also pray that the people can hear what God wants them to hear.
There is a difference between institutional faith and personal faith. A lot of people just go to church on Sundays, and it seems that what they hear in church is all they have to go on for their lives. In your book, are you expanding the theme of institutional belief versus personal faith?
What I want to do is to offer a paradigm that is much larger than simply a moral approach. Although the popular view of Christianity is that it is a system of “do’s” and “don’t’s” regarding behaviour, the Gospels do not proclaim this at all. In fact the Gospel takes us out of this “moral living” orbit into a totally different universe, where it speaks of incorporation into the very life of God: read the Last Supper discourse (John 14-17) – it’s full of incorporation language. God just doesn’t want us to be good; God wants us to live from within his very self! I see this Gospel understanding as a mystical approach, as distinct from a moral approach.
Mention the word “mystical” in some circles though, and people will attack you for being wishy-washy and pie-in-the-sky. There’s nothing wishy-washy about “I am in the Father, and you in me and I in you” (John 14:20). There’s nothing pie-in-the-sky about the New Testament proclaiming “Your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), “We are already children of God” ((1 John 3:2) and Paul’s proclamation, “All belongs to you, you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:23).
I love what I consider a summary of Paul’s worldview and the view of the Gospels: “There is only Christ. He is everything and He is in everything.” (Colossians 3:11) Paul isn’t some dangerous pantheist; he knows and lives from what is ultimately true. Our life is not made up of our life-circumstances; rather our true and only life is within Christ and is already within Christ. Our little life is a downloading of the One Life of God, and it is in our life that we discover not only who God is but who we are, for there is no separation between our life and God’s life: it’s the one life. You’re within God, and you can’t be outside God.
So is this the value of retreats for you – so you can get this message across to people?
Yes. Retreats provide an opportunity different from workshops. I prefer retreats to workshops because workshops tend to operate out of the left brain. That is, they are usually about the transmission of concepts which people tend to evaluate and then agree or disagree with you. When reflection is merely on the level of concepts, it usually stays as thought, and does not affect the person’s soul. I prefer the arena of retreats, which hopefully employ more of the right side of the brain. This has to do with wonder, imagination, metaphor, story, and letting ourselves hear on the level of soul.
When I give a retreat I can usually pick up fairly quickly if a group is there to merely process information or “check out” what I’m saying. This usually leads to comments such as “I don’t agree with what you said about …” This is a sure indication that not much prayer has been going on, for one of the safest ways to avoid encounter with God is to stay in the realm of intellectual propositions. Retreats aren’t about evaluating concepts but about humbly listening not to me but to the movement of God’s spirit in them.
Sometimes I start a retreat by saying, “I hope you remember nothing I say, because my content’s not the point. I pray my words don’t get in the way of what God wants to say to you.” My role in retreats is to be a midwife.
What about silent retreats as opposed to talking retreats? People get a bit scared about going to silent retreats because they can’t talk.
I think it’s a common fear for many people because we’re not used to silence. In a silent retreat we can’t busy ourselves and make ourselves feel we are worthwhile through what we can do. The opportunity is not there to prove ourselves to anyone, and to compare ourselves favourably or unfavourably with what others have said or done. We can’t be constructing any identity, and that’s why it’s fearful. We fear not having an identity if we can’t convince ourselves that we’re a super-mum or a terrible mum, a producing male who can make things happen or a failure, a religious person who knows a lot of jargon, or a victim.
Our identity is not in what we do but in who we are and Whose we are. “We belong to Christ” as Paul has said: we are His, and it is this that gives the identity that can’t be destroyed.
So is one of the reasons why people don’t come to retreats because they are afraid of the silence?
Yes I think so, because it means I can’t hold onto nothing. In silence we go into what has been called “liminal space” or “threshold space”. I can claim nothing for myself – which is wonderful, because it lets arise the awareness that who I am is who I am in God.
I know that when I used to go to retreats I would think ‘I am in the presence of God’, and I would listen for Him. I would wonder ‘Is God talking to me at all?’, and then three weeks later would say ‘ah yes, he did speak to me at that moment or that time.’ I always get something out of a retreat, maybe not right at that moment but a few weeks later.
Yes. To ask “What did I get out of a retreat?” is to ask the wrong question. This implies that a retreat is all about us, and that if we “do” a retreat there should be a return. This makes the practice of prayer into a kind of spiritual capitalism: “quid pro quo”. Retreats are not about us, they are about letting God be gracious. At times I think we’ve used God to make us feel better. Be aware of the language we can use: “I’m into God”; “See what Jesus can do for you”, “God, fix up my life”.
I fall into it too; we all do it. “God, change this other person; make them change!” What the Gospel does though is to keep your feet to the fire. It demands that you change, you surrender, you get out of the way. That’s why Jesus went around saying things like “stay awake”, because he knew that the invitations to conversion were always being presented to us. “Here I am, I come to do your will.”
That can sound terribly old-fashioned, yet it’s the call of the Gospel.
When people come to the retreat for the first time, they might not know what to expect. What can they expect is the essence of a retreat – turning your life over to God, just being there, listening and perhaps talking to God.
I hope I can help them to get in contact with their deepest desire, which as so many of the saints have said, is always the desire for God. “Doing God’s will” is to want to do God’s will, which is that we live more and more from the awareness of Whose we are and where we live (which is in God). Desire is different from expectation, which is about what we think we want. Desire though is about the longing and yearning to experience the unity with God which is already ours.
Life is a school if you like, to learn to consciously live from this great truth of Whose we are. When we allow our deep desire for God to bubble up into our awareness, so much else starts to move. In spiritual direction I find I have to keep reminding people that “yes, you do love God – you really do.” It seems strange, but many of us feel so overwhelmed with evidence to the contrary at times, and we can doubt our love for God. Yet surely people’s very wanting to take two or three days out of their life for a retreat is a reminder to them that yes, they do love God.
Our life circumstances are not our life, but portals and doorways through which we can fall into our life which is already safe in God.
What are misconceptions people can have about why they don’t go to retreats? Why do so many people stay away? We have twenty to forty people from the whole diocese come once a year to retreat. What about the rest of the diocese? Why can’t they see the value of going away for the weekend and shutting out the world for three days and spend time alone with your thoughts? You’re not lonely because you’re amongst people. You’re safe and comfortable but alone with God.
I suspect that there’s something deep within many which really distrusts what might happen if you draw close to God. “What’s God going to do with me? Where will I end up?” It can seem rather scary if God takes over our life: “what might God ask of me?” We have a sneaking suspicion that God will ask of us something that we don’t like. Yet we will never be asked anything that is against the pattern of how God has made us (as distinct from what we think are our personalities).
God never asks us anything beyond our limits.
Many of us can apply a minimalist approach: we’ll do what it takes to keep up our “credit points” so hopefully we’ll scrape up enough grace to enter heaven.
Yet it is quite common for people go away for encounter weekends.
Yes, and it is wonderful that they do. A retreat though is different from an encounter weekend, in that there is no set agenda. A weekend like say Marriage Encounter has a goal, a stated purpose – and needs to have. On a retreat though, you never know how God will surprise you.
On the radio recently I heard a man speak about other religions having no “saviour” whereas Christianity does have a saviour in Jesus Christ. This is an important point for Christians.
I came across recently a quote by Mark Twain: “History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Whatever occurs in Jesus’ life also happens in our own whenever we are seeking the intimate relationship with the Father that Jesus lived. Jesus’ life is the human life within which we are invited to participate, and that’s why he’s called the Son of Man. His life shows us how to live fully in God.
It’s in this way that we’re saved from trying to “make” ourselves. We’re saved from “saving” ourselves through being good enough, holy enough or having achieved enough. I fear that much of Christianity through the centuries often has been closer to Gnosticism, which holds that if you know the right knowledge you’ll have a ticket into heaven later. Jesus wasn’t interested so much as to whether the Roman centurion or the Syro-Phoenician woman had correct head information, but whether they were responding in the present moment to the presence and invitation of God to share God-life.
You’ve said at the beginning of this conversation that you’re not very happy with the way people take one or two verses out of the bible. Yet one of the methods of praying is taking a verse that stands out and praying on it, waiting and listening for God’s word.
There is a difference between simply quoting a verse and praying it through. When we take a verse or passage and contemplate upon it, we’re letting it speak to us, and not the other way around. It takes humility to genuinely let scripture go deep within us, because we’re opening ourselves to the Spirit, and giving the Spirit the permission to transform us. In praying the scriptures, you’re not going to the head first; you’re not finding something to justify what you want to believe or what you want to hold.
It’s rather taking it in and letting the Spirit of God respond in you: that’s a different thing. You know the difference when someone has genuinely prayed, and when they are simply using scripture to be violent.
What do you mean by that – using violence?
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of someone hitting you over the head with a particular verse or two from scripture. When scripture is used to split and divide, or abused as a weapon to justify me against you so I can feel smug about it, then I’m disobeying the central command of Jesus to “love one’s enemy”. You don’t love somebody by being polemic or by conceitedly correcting them, because that says more about you than the other person. We can use scripture or theology to be violent when we let the idea or concept take precedence over the way we reverence and interact with the other (however much we might defend our manner of approach by saying it’s “for their good”).
It’s as much about how we say something as what we say.
Is there anything you would like to add about retreats?
One of the saints I’ve come to know more deeply recently has been Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), the French girl who died at 24. Her great theme was confidence – not confidence in ourselves but confidence that God could not forget us. Perhaps it’s fitting I leave the last words to her. This confidence in God, which she calls “the simple way” could be seen as the spirit of a good retreat.