"Retirement, The School and Discipline of Spiritual Life"

"And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed."  Mark 1:35.

We have already remarked, in the progress of this work, that the leading characteristic of the present age is far removed from anything approaching monastical life. On the contrary, the prevailing feature pervading all classes of society is that of extreme activity and feverish unrest. The spirit of the age is anything but in sympathy with the philosophy of Diogenes, or favorable to the culture of asceticism. This, however, must not be considered a cause of lamentation, since it is not for this species of retirement for which we plead! Limiting our remarks to what is termed 'the religious world,' it is in this the narrower and more sacred circle we repair for the illustration and enforcement of our present subject. The spirit of religion, as it now prevails, has caught the infection of the spirit of the world, and is far remote from that holy isolation and sacred retirement, so essential and helpful to the development and progress of the spiritual life of the soul; apart from which it must, necessarily, become attenuated in its character and checked in its growth. In devoting, therefore, a brief chapter to the especial consideration of this subject, we feel that we are but aiding the advancement of that religious life of the soul, to the promotion of which the present volume is devoted.
  The words which form the basis of our remarks, unfold one of the most interesting and instructive incidents in the life of Christ. Our Divine and adorable Lord felt the absolute necessity- as man- of retirement for repose, meditation, and prayer. With extreme simplicity and conciseness the incident is thus recorded: "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed to a solitary place, and there prayed." The day preceding was one of incessant and unwearied employment in healing the afflicted and tormented resorting to Him for relief. For we read that, "At evening, when the sun did set, they brought unto Him all that were diseased, and those who were possessed with devils." The sun had gone down- the shadows of evening had gathered around Him- His benevolent work was done- and exhausted in body, yet more wearied in mind and agonized in spirit by the scenes of suffering and grief He had witnessed- He retired to His couch but not to rest. Bearing with His jaded frame the feeling of the infirmities He had witnessed and relieved, sleep had, in all probability, been a stranger to His pillow; "and in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed."
  From this touching example of our blessed Lord in retreating from the society of men- even that of His disciples- to seek in retirement and solitude, in meditation and communion, that strength and energy and fortitude so essential to the accomplishment of the work His Father had given Him to do, teaches every believer one of the holiest and most instructive lessons of the Christian life. To its consideration let us address our thoughts, blended with the silent prayer that, an example so illustrious, a duty so essential, and a privilege so holy, may, with the divine blessing, greatly promote the health and advancement of the life of God in the soul of the reader.
  Spiritual life is eminently fitted for religious retirement. It is a plant of Paradise- a flower of Eden- which only really grows in solitude. It is from Heaven- it derives its nourishment, as its existence from God- with God it deals, and to God its aspirations ascend. Our Lord emphatically declared that, "His kingdom was not of this world." And as his kingdom in his saints is composed of "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit," the inference strictly logical, that the growth of this kingdom which is in the saints, cannot possibly be advanced by a world with which it has no sympathy, and from which it is so essentially alien. "For, what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with darkness? and what concord has Christ with Belial?"
  Thus we find Him who is Essential Life, and who is the spiritual life of the regenerate, retreating from the multitude who pressed so eagerly around Him- and even, as we have remarked, from the more genial companionship of His chosen apostles- and, threading the mountain ravines, seeking in their hidden recesses and profound solitudes, that quietude, stillness, and sequesterment for private meditation and prayer so essential to the repose of His spirit, the replenishing of His strength, and the accomplishment of His mission.
  Follow Him on the memorable night which preceded His crucifixion- see Him pass over the brook Kedron into that lonely garden where he was wont to resort with His disciples; and, amid its sylvan walks, its leafy groves, and solemn shades, behold Him prostrate on the ground engaged in agonizing prayer, imploring strength and succor and comfort from His Father for the terrible 'hour' so near at hand! Oh, if He, the Source of our spiritual life, needed this its school and discipline, the lesson thus taught, is invested with tenfold import and interest to all who would mold their religious life on that of their Divine-human Exemplar!
  A study of the lives of the Old Testament saints will also supply an impressive illustration of the necessity of religious retirement for the culture of spiritual life. See David, the king of Israel, retreating from the pomp of his court, and from the cares of his kingdom, to seek retirement for the purpose of holy communion with God. And on no occasion, and in no place, did his magic harp vibrate with sweeter music, send forth more pealing anthems of praise, or tremble with more soft and pensive notes of sorrow and contrition, than when alone with God in the solitude of the mountain, or in the seclusion of the cave.
  Look at Daniel- interdicted by the decree of Darius from praying to his God, his life threatened in consequence- "entering into his chamber, and kneeling upon his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God." And who will doubt the connection of that retirement for communion with the Invisible One, with the faith and fortitude which enabled him to confront, with such dignity and calmness, the appalling terrors of the lions' den?
  Such, too, was the holy habit of the primitive and puritan Christians. Persecuted and expatriated, "wandering in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth"- hunted like wild beasts- interdicted from worshiping God beneath their own sweet vines- driven to the shelter of the mountains, and to the solitude of the forest- oh! how sweetly did the voice of prayer and praise rise from beneath the overshadowing rock and the deep ravine, as from those secret sanctuaries ascended the rich, inextinguishable incense of holy devotion to the skies!
  What has been, in all ages of the world, and in all dispensations of God's Church, a powerful aid to spiritual life, still is- the hallowed influence of religious retirement. It is necessary, in the first place, for self examination. No wise or prudent merchant will allow his yearly accounts to pass without a close and careful scrutiny as to his exact financial condition- balancing accurately his gains and losses- and taking an intelligent account of his present position. And no true Christian will be less anxious to know the exact state of his soul: ascertaining where he has made progress, and where he has lost ground; and how matters of such infinite moment stand between God and his soul. But absolute retirement is essential to this self-scrutiny. There must first be time made for the work- then disassociation from the too fond and flattering opinion of others- and then the 'calm retreat and quiet shade' appropriate to a process so spiritual and solemn, demanding mental examination the most profound, and no presence but that of God and the soul.
  How can this close anatomy of the heart this honest dealing with self- this faithful turning over the page of conscience, be properly and effectually done, except as we retreat from our business, our profession, and our families, and accompany Isaac at eventide to the quietude of the fields to meditate, or follow Jesus to the solitude of the mountain to pray?
  This holy retirement, too, is absolutely essential to the devout and careful study of the Word. The nourishment of spiritual life is the word of God. The Bible is the divine granary from where is extracted the fine wheat- the "incorruptible seed" by which the soul is fed and nourished. The divine life can only grow as it is sustained and strengthened by that which is divine. It seeks its native food. Fruit from the "Tree of life" alone can meet its requirements.
  Hence the sickly life exhibited by many religious professors! The frivolous and frothy literature of the day- of which, alas! the press is so prolific- is exerting a most baneful influence upon the spiritual life of many Christian professors. In numberless cases the exaggerated fiction- the sensational story- the high wrought romance- is supplanting those works of the religious press contributed by the most intellectual, highly-cultivated, and spiritual minds in the literary and religious hemisphere. The effect of this upon the Christianity of the age must be deteriorating and disastrous in the extreme. How far the prevailing taste for this vapid, worldly literature- thus lowering the intellectual and impairing the spiritual powers of the mind- may contribute to the religious scepticism of the age, is a question of the profoundest gravity. What, then, is the great antidote to this far-circulating moral poison? We unhesitatingly answer- the private and devout study of God's word. We believe that the Bible can only be spiritually and experimentally understood as the student retreats from the arena of religious controversy and biblical criticism into the privacy of his chamber, and there, as upon his knees, invoking the aid and teaching of the Holy Spirit.
  On one occasion our Lord gave utterance to a parable, the interpretation of which was obscure to the minds of His disciples to whom it was addressed. We then read that, "When they were ALONE, He expounded all things to His disciples." The crowd had dispersed the voices were hushed- the excitement had subsided- and "when they were alone"- in the calm, quiet privacy of that moment He interpreted the parable, and opened their understanding, that they might understand the meaning thereof. Thus He teaches us now.
  It is not always in the crowd, and amid the voices of conflicting interpreters, or even from the pulpit, that the literal and spiritual meaning of the Scriptures is understood; but, when we withdraw into the privacy of the closet, or the solitude of the sick-chamber, He explains to us, and causes us to understand, the mind of the Spirit in the Word as at no other time and in no other way. And it may be that for this end, the Lord has set you apart by sickness or bereavement that He might set you apart both for Himself and for the deeper and more spiritual teaching and understanding of His truth. "The Lord has set apart the godly for Himself "-and to this end, He sets them apart from all others.
  And, oh! in the quietude of that separation- in the stillness of that hour- you may have closer communion with God- know more of Christ and understand more of the truth, than at any previous period of your spiritual life! "And when they were alone, He expounded all things to His disciples."
  'Alone' now with yourself- 'alone' with God- 'alone' with Jesus- 'alone' with the Spirit- oh how clear, how precious, and how comforting does the word of God become! and we exclaim with Jeremiah- "Your words were found, and I ate them; and Your word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart." And with David- "How sweet are your words unto my taste! yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" Oh, it is thus when sequestered from man, and only with God, we excavate the gold and extract the honey from that "word which he has magnified above all His name."
  Closely allied to this, is the necessity of religious retirement for the purpose of fortifying the spiritual and devout mind against the doctrinal errors, the ecclesiastical superstitions, and the infidel assumptions of an age like ours. How much there is in all this to divert the Christian from the maintenance and culture of personal piety- from a close, vigilant care of the health and growth of his higher, his spiritual, life! It is the strong current of Infidelity which we have in the present day more especially to breast. Superstition appeals not to the intellect, but to the senses; not to the mind, but to the passions. Infidelity on the contrary, professes to assail the mental citadel of the soul, and, consequently, its range of operation is wider- its proselytes more important, and its effects upon society more far-reaching and disastrous. The infidelity of the age is insinuating and plausible. It is not what it once was, ignorant and gross, bold and defiant; stalking abroad, stamped with features hideous and vile, blasphemous and repulsive. Modern religious scepticism, on the contrary, is in close alliance with learning and refinement, with place and power- civil and ecclesiastical; it walks abroad attired in silk and lawn, assuming the attractive and insinuating form of liberality and fashion; of expediency and worldly policy.
  Oh how necessary it is that the man of God should frequently withdraw from these bewitching and seductive wiles of the enemy, that he may become more conversant with God's word- examine these wiles in its unerring light- and, from the armory of divine truth draw those heaven-tempered weapons by which he shall "be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand!"
  The limits of this chapter will only allow us to refer at length to the paramount importance of seasons of retirement, for the sacred and solemn purposes of devout meditation and communion with God. It was for this purpose our Lord rose a great while before day, and retired to a solitary place. His oratory was the mountain's side- the deep ravine, overhung with dark, beetling crags- studded with ancient forests whose profound stillness alone was broken by their Divine Creator's voice of wrestling, agonizing prayer! There must we repair- tracking His holy footsteps- would we promote the life of God in our soul!
  Prayer alone is the atmosphere of spiritual life. The word of God is its food, prayer is its atmosphere. As bread alone could not possibly sustain our natural life, apart from air, so the Word- divine and precious as it is, must be combined with a constant and close walk with God. Especially is this necessary after severe engagement in the active duties and privileges of religion. Our Savior presented a striking and instructive illustration of this in His own beautiful and consistent life. The whole of the day, and far into the night, preceding His retirement to the solitude of the mountain, He had been engaged in relieving human suffering, in curing disease, and in casting out demons; and before the day dawned- a great while before- He rose from His lowly couch, and "departed into a solitary place, and there PRAYED."
  Oh, what a lesson learn we here! Of what moment it is that, after a day spent in religious activities- the mere machinery and scaffolding of the Christian Church- we should, in lowly imitation of the Savior, retreat to the hallowed solitude of our closet, and there commune with God- confess the failure and infirmity of our doings- and lave the 'feet' afresh in the blood that cleanses from all sin- even the iniquity of our holy things! "When you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly."
  Oh the precious privilege of thus being alone with God!- the privilege of confessing all sin unveiling all sorrow- revealing all need- confiding every fear and feeling of the heart and from that hidden source drawing renewed supplies of grace and strength, counsel and comfort, to go forth and battle afresh with the temptations of the world, to discharge more efficiently the duties of our calling- and to struggle more manfully with, and to bear more patiently under, the trials, disappointments, and sorrows of life.
  "Come apart, and rest awhile." Such is the loving, considerate invitation of Christ to all His servants! How needful, too, is the season of sacred sequesterment from the world- for refection upon, and preparation for, the world of glory and blessedness, of purity and service, for which we hope, for which we long, and to which we hasten! Everything here- comparatively- is unsubstantial, unreal, and evanescent! "All, all on earth is shadow; all beyond Is substance!" Do we long to be more heavenly? we must commune more closely with Heaven. Do we desire to be more spiritual? We must deal more frequently with the Divine. Realizing more vividly our mystical resurrection with Christ, we shall "set our mind on things above, not on things on the earth," "while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."
  We plead not for a monastic, or a conventual life; the life of the ascetic, or the recluse. Far from it! Monasteries- Convents- Retreats, are as opposed to the genius, as to the teaching, of Christianity. The gospel inculcates no such religion as this. But, we do plead for occasional sequesterment from the business of the world, and from the active duties of religious life, for the important and solemn purposes of trimming afresh the waning lamp of our Christian profession; for prayer, contrition, and confession; and for filling our urn with the pure water of life that flows fast by the oracles of God, and down from the crystal river proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb.
  It is in retirement, too-  separated from those we most fondly love, and from the sympathy for which we most deeply sigh- that our divinest and richest consolation is often found. No condition of our humanity so perfectly harmonizes and shrinks from publicity- sorrow delicately loves retirement as the stricken gazelle nurses its wound alone. "Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her." Thus, beloved, the Lord may now be dealing with you. He is gently leading you in a solitary way- into the separation and loneliness of the wilderness- that He might speak to your sad, and bind up your bleeding, heart.
  It was in the wilderness that David's hands were strengthened in God- it was in the wilderness that Jonathan ate of the honey- it was in the wilderness that the Israelites drank of the smitten rock- and it is still in the isolation and solitude of the wilderness of the world, and of all creature good, that God, "the God of all comfort," comforts those that are cast down, through the word, meditation, and prayer, imparting that mental repose and soothing of spirit found only as the soul lies down by the 'still waters' of a hallowed and devout retirement.
  If, then, the Lord is now gently alluring you into the separation and solitude of the wilderness, be assured it is but to speak words of comfort and strength to your sad and lonely heart; and the solitary wilderness shall echo with your music, and the dreary desert shall bloom and blossom as the rose. There is no comfort so divine, no consolation so sweet, as that experienced in the depth of the world's solitudes- alone with God! "And Jesus departed into a solitary place, and prayed." And who can describe the divine soothing, strength, and comfort which His human heart, broken and crushed with sorrow, found in that solitude of fellowship With His Father?
  Oh it is here, in the wilderness, your sorrow is understood, your grief is fathomed, your sympathy and soothing are experienced. It is here, with Christ alone, we feel our independence of human sympathy, rise superior to creature love, realize the grandeur of our nature, the sublimity of solitude, and the wealth of consolation, in being wholly, blissfully, and eternally swallowed up in God!
  And yet there are moments, doubtless, when you are oppressed with a sense of isolation and loneliness, and sigh for a more enlarged enjoyment of 'the communion of saints' than as yet you have experienced. How much there is that sunders even saint from saint! Alas! that it should be so! Doctrine separates you from some- ecclesiasticism from others- or, perhaps, a more advanced stage in the divine life- outstepping in your spiritual knowledge and Christian experience many who but linger in the rear- and thus you are as "a pelican in the wilderness," as "a sparrow upon the house-top."
  But this solitary way in which you walk has its especial and divinely-sent mission. There are experienced in it blessings found in no other path. Apart from its molding influence upon your religious character, it throws you more entirely upon God, and brings you into closer personal sympathy with one of the most touching and instructive periods of the Savior's history when, checking the rising sense of loneliness which stole over His spirit, He exclaimed- "And yet I am not alone; for my Father is with me." Oh count it a great honor when you can descry the footprint of Christ, and say- "Here my Lord and Savior walked, and here would I walk!"
  May the practical effort of this meditation be the stirring of you up to seek more retirement from the world, that you may grow in grace and in fitness for heaven. Make time for the cultivation of personal and private religion, for prayer and meditation, and for the spiritual study of God's word, even though, like your Savior, you may be compelled to 'rise up a great while before day.' Let not your religion be an out-of-door religion- a Sunday attire- a professional robe! Let it be a religion which- while visible to every eye like the glow-worm, shines the brightest when no eye sees it but God's!
  Is the time of your departure at hand? Are the shadows of life's evening falling fast and darkling around you? Oh let there be a solemn pause between time and eternity- between earth and heaven! Drive not the shadowy affairs of time into the dread realities of eternity! Seek a renewed baptism of the Spirit -a deeper seal of your acceptance in the Beloved -a fresh looking to, and taking hold of, Christ- casting from you all good works and all bad works, and running into Jesus, hiding you from them all in a fissure of the Rock cleft for you!
 "Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
 "The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree,
And seem by Your sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
 "There, if Your Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
Oh, with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
"What thanks I owe You, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!"