Every year at Lent, the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent tells us the story of Christ’s time in the desert. Jesus began His public ministry after a retreat of 40 days and 40 nights, fasting and praying in the desert. In Ipso, a ministry in the Archdiocese of Denver, asks a question that frames this up well:
If Christ, the son of God, needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of His life, how much more do we need retreats in our day and age?
More Than Our Daily Prayer with Scripture
How much more indeed, do we need to get away and pray–to go on retreat! Not only priests and religious, but every lay person needs some quiet time alone with God. “Yes,” you may say, “but I get that time every day during my prayer with Scripture.” Of course, we should be spending some quiet time with Our Lord daily in lectio divina. We really need to be reading the Gospels and listening to Him speak to us regularly. That’s how we’ll grow our relationship with Jesus. That is how we’ll get to know Him and His love for us ever more deeply.
Avoid the Dictatorship of Noise
Yet, we’d all benefit from spending even more time with the Lord beyond those daily doses of meditation. Regardless of one’s vocation, we continue to be faced with many issues that demand our time and attention every day. Just conducting our daily routines, not to mention solving last minute problems and working through crises, consumes a lot of bandwidth. On top of that, every day, we face the din of the world around us. Marketing specialists tell us that we’re faced with hundreds to thousands of ads each day. All of this doesn’t even count the non-marketing emails, text messages, letters, cards and calls that bombard us. Some of the messages we receive may bring God’s peace with them. Some may be neutral, and others may cause us agitation—and that agitation usually is not from God.
Robert Cardinal Sarah, in his book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, quotes Thomas Merton:
…the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair…Those who love God should attempt to preserve or create an atmosphere in which He can be found. Christians should have quiet homes. Throw out television, if necessary…Provide people with places where they can go to be quiet—relax minds and hearts in the presence of God—chapels in the country…hermitages. Retreat houses without a constant ballyhoo of noisy “exercises”…
Perhaps we’ve already begun to disconnect from some of the din. Maybe we have, as Merton suggested, unplugged the television, or we may have cancelled cable television. That certainly can cut down on the unnecessary noise in our lives. It can, as well, bring us less agitation from the world and the devil. But is that enough? Does it provide enough silence and solitude with God to keep us nimble in the spiritual battles we all face? Are we getting enough big chunks of time with Our Lord and Savior to make a significant difference in our ongoing conversion?
Features and Benefits of a Retreat
This is where a retreat really can provide spiritual benefits. A few days spent in a retreat can make a world of difference in one’s life. This time away from the turmoil of the run-of-the-mill routine can clear out the spiritual cobwebs. It can open us up to really listen to God and allow Him to work in us and on us. It’s like having access to a spiritual reset button when we find we’ve strayed from the path to holiness.
What does a retreat involve? The answer to this question depends on what you’re looking for and where you find the retreat. For example, group retreats may include the following activities:
- Presentations by the retreat master, followed by individual prayer time for meditating on assigned Scripture passages
- One-on-one meetings with a spiritual director
- Opportunities for Confession
- Daily Mass
- Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
- Praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a group
A private retreat can include many of the elements noted for group retreats, and it can be customized to one’s needs. Individuals can arrange private retreats outside of a group setting with some retreat centers and monasteries. This requires contacting the monastery or retreat center in advance to discuss what one needs and what the center can provide.
To Be Clear
Now, many parishes conduct what they refer to as “Lenten retreats” or “missions” or other similar activities. These “retreats” typically feature a speaker presenting food for spiritual thought over one or more evenings in one – to one and one-half hour blocks of time. Some take place over a half-day period. While they are edifying to many, they often are long on presentation, and short on quiet prayer time with the Lord. Ten or fifteen minutes of reflection after a presentation, no matter how good the presentation is, will not allow the depth of prayer we need at times. What I am advocating is a serious block of time–be it one day or multiple days–where an individual has the opportunity to really spend some quiet time periods in personal prayer with Our Lord. We need this to settle in and to be able to hear Him speak to us.
Silent or Not?
Does the retreat need to be a silent retreat or not? Here again, it depends. If you’re used to spending time praying in solitude, a four-day silent retreat can be incredibly spiritually invigorating. For some people new to retreats, starting off with a weekend retreat may be the right answer. Not only is it logistically easier to get away, it also may not seem as daunting as a longer, silent retreat. There’s no one, right answer to the question of silent or not. Suffice it to say that many of us prefer the silent getaways. After all, God speaks to us in the silence and solitude of our hearts. Let’s give ourselves the opportunity to hear Him when He has something to say to us.
Choosing Where to Go
Not all retreat centers and retreat masters provide the same type of spiritual experience. For example, some groups and individuals are more orthodox in their approach to the faith than others. A good rule of thumb is to ask a trusted, orthodox priest or spiritual director who they’d recommend.
As well, some retreat centers or retreat programs provide more retreat assistance and guidance than others. My wife and I have gone on self-guided retreats at different monasteries over the last few years. Some provide Confession, only by appointment, and no direction. Others make priests available to provide both Confession, spiritual direction, and if requested, overall retreat guidance. This information is easy enough to obtain via websites or email and phone calls.
All that being said, for a first-time retreatant, it’s probably better to have a guide in the process. Group, private, guided or unguided, there’s no time like the present to plan for and reserve a spot for your first, or your next, retreat. God’s waiting–He wants to talk to you.