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Catholic Retreats

Part 1. A guide to the nature and value of retreats;
attending or setting up retreats; and getting
the most from the retreat experience. 

The Immeasurable Value of Retreat

A retreat refreshes and revitalizes, gives the opportunity for more time spent in prayer and contemplation, and rekindles and deepens one’s relationship with God.   One may take this opportunity to more clearly hear God’s call and to seek God’s healing grace and thereby attain a degree of spiritual renewal.  The purpose of a spiritual retreat, as an addition to daily spiritual activities, is to temporarily leave behind the usual distractions we all face for a time long enough to allow relaxation and for an inner change to occur: the ongoing conversion of heart that is critical to deepening faith.   The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the necessity of such retreats: “In the fever and agitation of modern life, the need of meditation and spiritual repose impresses itself on Christian souls who desire to reflect on their eternal destiny, and direct their life in this world towards God.”

 Yet, it is not only modern life that sends us forth to a period of quiet contemplation.  A scriptural basis for understanding the importance of retreat that long preceded the modern world is easily found.  We can turn to Jesus’ actions and his suggestions to others as transmitted in the gospel accounts.  Near the beginning of Mark’s gospel, this is relayed: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1: 35–37; see also Luke 4:42)   He undertook his solitary respite not when there were no other important matters to tend to, but because of the essential need to make time for prayer despite all the things to be done.   Sometimes Jesus would spend an entire night in retreat: “In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12).  And, this is also relayed: “The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.  He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.” (Mark 6: 30-32)  No doubt, the apostles were energized by the response of the crowds they encountered, but they still needed a chance to recharge before carrying on. 

The Models of Retreat

The Mass serves as a fundamental model of retreat, though on a smaller time scale.  We leave the world to enter the church (which is the deserted place compared to the busy surroundings) for prayer, contemplation, hearing the Word, lifting up our hearts to the Lord, and receiving the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist.   We are dismissed from the Mass to go out and serve, having replenished our spiritual reserves.  In addition to the Mass, there are brief respites from the burdens of daily life we may experience in praying the rosary, spending an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, reading Scripture, sitting in meditation and contemplation, or enjoying God’s creation by walking a nature trail.   When one thinks of going on a retreat, this is to be done for the purpose of pursuing the same basic respite but more sustained and profoundly invigorating: an extended and focused spiritual endeavor, whether for a day, a weekend, or a week.   

One especially useful model for the fullness of retreat is embodied in the recommendations of St. Ignatius (1491–1556; founder of the Society of Jesus) for spiritual exercises undertaken over a period of 30 days.  The Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus presents this information about the value of theses exercises which may be adjusted to fit retreats of less than 30 days:

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a month-long program of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices that help Catholic faith become more fully alive in the everyday life of contemporary people…. [They are] a series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness designed to help a retreatant (usually with the aid of a spiritual director) to experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ, to allow our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God....

The Spiritual Exercises are divided into a series of four “movements” or “stages” with accompanying prayer, visualizations, reflections, and spiritual exercises for each week.  These four movements include consideration of God’s generosity and mercy and the complex reality of human sin; an imagining of the life and public ministry of Jesus, his proclamation of the gospel, his sayings and parables, his teachings and his miracles; and of Jesus’ last days, his arrest and interrogation, whipping, public mockery, passion, crucifixion and death; and then, of Jesus’ Resurrection, his Ascension, and the pouring-forth of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Christ’s continued life in the world through the Spirit today and in the Messianic People called and missioned to his cause…..we attempt to get out of God’s way in our hearts, deepen our sense of interior freedom from the hero-system of popular secular society, and allow God’s own impelling Spirit to lead us in taking action, out of this new freedom, which is authentically emancipatory for other men and women.

The Basic Elements of Retreat

Retreats differ from conferences, seminars, and meetings in that the primary work is interior spiritual development through a prolonged period of reflection rather than simply being exposed to information, techniques, and inspiration, then returned immediately to the daily routine.   Many retreats may be organized around a presentation or series of presentations that ultimately help guide the participants for the remainder of their retreat time.   Sometimes, seminars and workshops with a religious theme are described as retreats, but may lack important elements of a full retreat environment that is designed to assist participants in deepening their relationship with God.   That type of event might more accurately be called a “time of reflection” because it spans a few hours of time and aids in grasping an important principle, while additional pursuits, such as meditation, contemplation, and prayer, would be important for turning that into the full retreat experience.

Based on an evaluation of retreat offerings and traditional depictions of retreats, a working definition of what constitutes a true retreat may be articulated.  Understanding that there can be exceptions, general features of Catholic retreat would include these:

  • Minimum duration.  Time spent at a retreat site would involve a minimum of about 6 hours for a single day retreat; there is a preference—in terms of renewal and refreshment—for an overnight retreat when possible, which may be extended to several days.  A common format is a three day retreat that begins Friday evening and ends Sunday afternoon.  For most modern circumstances, a one week retreat (5–7 days) is the maximum that can be readily arranged (clergy and oblates typically arrange one week retreats each year).  A 30-day retreat is an established format among religious orders and often serves as part of the discernment process for entering religious life involving monastic living. 
  • Meals.  Having one or more meals at the retreat site avoids disruption of leaving to another location for meals; the meal becomes, instead, an effective component of the retreat and plays a role parallel to the fellowship meals that Jesus shared with his Apostles and with the Eucharistic meal we share at Mass.  Most retreat sites offer meals prepared by onsite staff and/or have availability of meal services for groups (catering and/or kitchen facilities to be utilized by a retreat group).
  • Adequate time specifically set aside for prayer and contemplation.  Since retreats are frequently organized around a formal presentation, to distinguish the retreat from most ordinary learning experiences, the participants should have at least half the time at the site spent in other activities, such as prayer, scripture reading (or reading other spiritual books), contemplation, walking in nature, etc.  Prayer time might include liturgical activity (e.g., group prayer, attending Mass in the retreat chapel) as well as personal prayer.  The presentations for a spiritual retreat should be primarily those involving religious topics, especially covering subjects that help direct retreat participants to deepen their faith; these talks should be offered by those who have adequate training and experience with a deep devotion to spiritual life, such as clergy, monks, and nuns.     
  • A restful setting, with availability of nature walks.  In order to accomplish the goal of “retreat,” the site should have some degree of insulation from the ordinary busy life; even if located in the heart of a city, the retreat site should have grounds for walking and a relatively quiet and peaceful atmosphere.  Most religious retreat sites have a natural area of at least 40–80 acres of wooded land to achieve this purpose.
  • Personal space.  Retreat sites should offer rooms to allow each person privacy, or, at the least, a place to spend time away from other activities that might be going on at the site.  Many retreat sites have rooms that can be rented for the day, as well as overnight accommodations.
  • Spiritual direction.  Though not everyone may take advantage of it, a retreat should offer spiritual direction, that is, individualized assistance in accomplishing the aim of retreat and in carrying home a renewed sense of purpose.  A spiritual director will be someone with adequate training and experience to listen carefully to the story of the person on retreat and offer fruitful guidance.   Retreat sites may have a spiritual director available to visitors; group retreats may have a spiritual director in their company.

Personal and Group Retreats

Retreats vary in character not only in their duration and setting, but they may also be divided into two basic types: personal retreats and group retreats.  Both have the function of interrupting the daily routine and allowing for spiritual renewal. 

The personal retreat permits far more flexibility in scheduling the retreat date and in pursuing relaxation, prayer, contemplation, and study in accordance with one’s own preferences.   It may be undertaken especially to aid in making an important personal decision and to devote extra time for prayer for healing of oneself or others.  A retreat can help one recuperate from stressful events; we may turn to scripture for a good example of this:  Jesus, upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matthew 14:13)   

Group retreats frequently center about a particular theme, perhaps a presentation by a guest speaker, and have the advantage of providing guidance and structure for a portion of the retreat.  Group retreats may emphasize silence—when not listening to a presentation or meeting with a spiritual advisor—so as to avoid the natural tendency to fall into ordinary patterns of discussion; other retreats may instead encourage socializing, especially when members of parish are brought together in restful preparation for certain future activities.

Oblates (lay religious members) usually have at least one retreat each year as part of the commitment to their order.  Retreats are sponsored by the local coordinators for their group.  In Oregon, such retreats are sponsored for Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans. 

Encouraging Retreat Participation

Aside from personal retreats, which may often be arranged with little effort (though retreat sites may be filled during weekends, so turning to week day retreats or planning further ahead may be necessary), by far the most readily available retreat opportunity is when a retreat center offers a specific retreat (such as an Advent or Lenten retreat) open to all.  Often the retreat center has organized this with the aid of another organization that provides the speaker and some of the guests so as to attain a minimum participation level.  Individuals from any parish may then sign-up to attend.  To enhance participation in these already-scheduled retreats, parishes can provide in their newsletters advance notice about them, particularly mentioning those within relatively short travel distance or those involving a topic or speaker that is highly recommended.  The retreat websites list their calendars of upcoming events.

Individual parishes, or lay organizations within the parish, can establish a group retreat for interested parishioners by making plans a few months in advance, lining up a place to accommodate the size of group that is deemed desirable, arranging a retreat leader and/or speaker(s), and determining the days, hours, transportation, meal requirements, and other aspects that go into a well-organized retreat.   Day retreats (with no overnight stay) are easiest to arrange and allow the largest number of participants and are best done within short driving distance of the parish; weekend retreats (or other 2-3 day retreats) permit more activities and better opportunity for relaxation, and might be arranged to take place somewhat further away if necessary.   Longer retreats (e.g., one week) usually require intensive planning, including a longer lead time for announcing the event so participants can arrange to be away from their usual activities, and often must be located at a site that is established for the longer retreats (adequate overnight facilities and meals), sometimes requiring more extensive travel for the participants. 

Retreat Center Requirements, Limitations, and Costs

Generally, retreat centers expect that those attending will be adults, either single or couples (some retreats are specifically for couples); ask about bringing young children or bringing pets if that is part of your plan (most retreat centers have a “no pets” policy except for service dogs).  Some retreat centers focus on programs specifically for youth and young adults (e.g., the Father Bernard Youth Center, which gives the sample age range of 16–38).  Persons requiring wheel chair access should ask about this, as some of the more rustic settings or older facilities may have limited access for some of their rooms.   Those with special dietary needs should inquire about the meals offered; most retreat centers will arrange to meet certain dietary restrictions if given adequate notice.   Retreat centers have varying practices regarding provision of linens (towels and bedding) which need to be taken into account for overnight stays.  Most Catholic retreat centers invite individuals to spend time at the site and walk the grounds at no charge, though reservations may be required to avoid conflict with scheduled events.

Retreat costs are kept low as part of the mission of the religious organization providing the retreat opportunity.  Typical day retreats (with no overnight stay) have a cost of $25 to $35 and retreats that include overnight stays have costs typically around $40 to $60 per night; these prices usually include meals, but seminars or workshops offered by the retreat site during these periods will generally have an extra cost.  Meals, commonly offered buffet or family style, when priced separately are most often in the range of $5 to $15 (with breakfast less expensive than lunch, which is less expensive than dinner).  Reservations are accompanied by a deposit, of which only a portion may be refundable if cancellations are made early enough (other deposits might be required, such as to cover any unexpected cleaning costs).  Group retreats with overnight stays may have a minimum reservation size, such as 15 or more persons, and it is common practice for the sites to offer package pricing for groups, combining costs of meeting room facilities, meals and snacks, and lodging.   Retreat sites often have arrival and departure times organized around the management and cleaning of the lodging facilities.