How To Make A Retreat

I wrote an article on retreats some time ago. My editor spiked it, but I found it still cluttering up my hard drive earlier tonight. So as I head off to a week of Lectio and silence and reflection and discernment and all, I leave you all with my prayers and my urging you to follow in my footsteps.

Having grown up in the pre-youth ministry age of Catholicism (the 70’s, at least in my hometown) it wasn’t until I was a college student that I actually went on retreat. Our Newman Community sponsored a weekend retreat each year about an hour away at The Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York.

The usual peer activities were appealing enough: shared prayer, talks from the Trappist monks, music jams, and meals together. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks in the chapel was a new experience. Singing, contemplation, and a fair amount of silence: what a spiritual feast! I joined the prep team for future retreats. Why? I got to go to the monastery guest house Friday morning and often had most of the day in silence before the rest of the students arrived.

After college, I sought out other retreat experiences: the Cenacle Sisters, Madonna House in Combermere, the Trappists, the Benedictines, the Carmelites, diocesan centers, and all over North America, too: the Atlantic shore, the Rockies, Kentucky hills, northern Michigan lakesides, the rural Midwest surrounded by farmland. Just before my Master’s Degree comps, I tried to talk the Jesuits into thirty days of silence. They demurred. I settled for eight. Maybe one day I’ll make it for a whole month.

As the years have passed and my retreats away have piled up, I’ve made very few converts to the extended retreat. Surprisingly, not every priest I’ve worked for appreciated them—but they all gave me the time off. Most of my friends scratch their heads and wonder. No talking? For a whole week? What about tv, computers, and candy? No, no, and only if I used the vending machine.

What is a retreat anyway? It is, as the word suggests, a time away from the world. In the religious context, it is a time for prayer, contemplation, rest, and seeking God.

We Catholics have been blessed with the retreat experiences of the Cursillo movement and its weekend offshoots for women, teens, couples, and any sort of church group. That is one kind of retreat, and just about all of these have extremely social aspects.

I don’t knock them. I’ve attended these, too. I’ve helped to facilitate them for high school youth and RCIA candidates. Extroverts get a lot out of these weekends, and that’s a great way to introduce oneself to time away that’s not quite like a vacation, not quite a party, and infused with religious content. More power to Catholics who get energized by this. But it’s not my personal choice to re-charge my spiritual life.

If your curiosity is tickled by a more contemplative experience, I would start by contacting a retreat house. Many dioceses have them, and many religious orders run them, too. Retreat houses have many organized weekends—for men or women or both, and along many themes. A presenter or a team of leaders give talks, and people take time to digest what is said and bring it to prayer. A series of talks continues through the weekend, peppered with time alone. If a weekend theme appeals to a potential retreatant, this can be a good choice.

Some retreat houses also schedule longer retreats, six and eight days. In these longer events, the retreatant shares liturgy and silent meals with the others in the group. A spiritual director is assigned for guidance. The visitor spends the rest of the time praying, reading, or other quiet activities that aim to contemplative time. The theme becomes something arising from God’s initiative, helped by the director, and the believer is open to where the Spirit moves.

Contacting a monastery is another option. Some host visitors for retreat time, but most don’t offer more than the option of a spiritual director. The monastic advantage is in the daily celebration of Mass and the Hours. Some monasteries permit guests to assist in the labora (work) portion of the ora (prayer) et labora tradition. Here, one gets a taste of the unique charisms of the community or the religious tradition.

When I make a long retreat, the guidance of a spiritual director is invaluable. That director can be my regular guide back at home, or someone from the monastery or retreat house. A first time retreatant really wants to avail herself or himself of the important guidance. Get a director on site, or at minimum, check in with your regular director before and after your time away.

One director counseled me to never enter into a retreat with an agenda. I have gone on retreat at key times in my life: the end of school, before getting engaged, after major surgery, or as a job search commenced. I’ve still tried to empty my mind of expectations, and usually the grace shown me has been a surprise.

Another director advised me to get as much rest as I could in the early days of a retreat. It’s part of the letting go. It’s also important for me, as I’ve found the last few days of a week’s stay growing intense and full of late night prayer.

Have I convinced any readers to give it a go? If you’ve never retreated, try a men’s or women’s weekend, or maybe a parish retreat, or a theme that appeals to you. Many of you have probably been Encountered, or made a Cursillo, or a youth ministry event. Perhaps you might try a weekend at a monastery. Do you dare to try it in silence, or maybe for several days? Let the Spirit nudge you. You will know graces from God; that’s inevitable. Maybe I’ll see you on retreat … but don’t expect me to say anything.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to How To Make A Retreat

  1. Sara says:

    I have been volunteered (and I accepted) to give an annual mandatory religious retreat for my fellow teachers. I have done two of them previously. (topics were: Finding the Humor in Our Faith, and Multiple Intelligences of Faith) I think one reason I accept the invitation is because a few of the retreats I have been on, that I did not lead, were pretty bad. I’ve always lived by the belief that if you could do it better then prove it. That is why I did the first retreat, then the second. We are teachers so we are movers and doers. We all have discussed how we feel if we are not doing something then we SHOULD be. Sitting in quiet reflection may be great for some but it drives teachers (at least the ones I work with) mad. You see we all have a million other things to prepare to make our students more prayerful, so how could we possibly have time to do so ourselves. (sarcastic) Yes, I see the problem in this problem. The irony is not lost on me. Picture it this way… We live lives where we are constantly juggling many, many things so going down to two or three items to juggle for a day is a break for us. Going down to one ie. just quiet prayer feels like a misuse of our abilities. Do you have any suggestions for a retreat that would be prayerful, relaxing, but not drive us to hate our annual (required) retreat experience? Somehow I don’t think that is the purpose. I’ve used my best ideas. The idea I am working on right now is Dealing with our Crosses.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sara.

      The setting is key. It is nearly impossible to conduct a retreat in one’s workplace. I hope y’all can get away somewhere else.

      Other brief things come to mind:

      If quiet is impossible, then some time with no talking and perhaps some music might be fruitful.

      Ask some or all of the students to write prayers for the teachers, then have each person reflect on what their students have written. Maybe the student input will spark something.

      Another thing to do is to assign each teacher a companion and have them write something affirming, as well as one hope or wish for their life.

      I think there’s a way to bridge the gap from the busy secular life as a Catholic school teacher to the initial experience of contemplation.

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