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 for whom I’ve worked 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 for 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 group. That is one kind of retreat, and just about all of these have extremely social aspects.
I don’t knock the social time. 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.
How would I start?
Contacting a retreat house is a good choice. 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, usually of six and eight days in length. In these longer events, the retreatant shares liturgy and silent meals with the others in the group. A spiritual director is usually 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 tries to remain 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 that will be needed.
Some of my retreats have been more fruitful than others, but I’ve derived some grace from every one of them–even the one where I contracted food poisoning and had to go home early. A newcomer to a retreat really does want the contact with a spiritual director to help navigate the potential pitfalls: boredom, temptation, confusion, and the like.