Since the first centuries after Jesus, countless Christians have left their homes to go and seek God in the wilderness. Something inside of them knew how difficult it was to find God amid family obligations, careers, and a culture that wasn’t conducive to a well-rounded spiritual life. These life-long seekers became the first generations of monks and nuns, but it was Jesus himself who was the inspiration for all of this. After all, again and again the Gospels describe how Jesus would go out into the wilderness to pray and commune with his Father.
The importance of these times of prayer and communion has never gone away. And for those of us who are not called to the contemplative life of a monk or nun, retreats are an essential part of our spiritual lives. Stepping out of our daily routines, however, asks for a commitment of time and resources. As with any important sacrifice, however, the benefits far outweigh the cost.
So, who should go on retreat? The short answer is that this is something we all should be doing and there are a number of important reasons why retreats are so important.
First, to “retreat” means to step back or to withdraw to a safe place. People don’t go on retreat to escape, but because they recognize that they need to clear their heads and get away from life’s distractions. The “safety” of a retreat center provides us with a new vantage point for looking at what’s going on in and around us. Retreats are also great ways to provide self-care and nurture that spiritual part of ourselves that often gets little attention when we are busy with other things.
For Fr. Peter Schuessler, SDS, Vicar-Provincial and Director of Formation for the United States Province of the Salvatorians, retreats are really non-negotiable.
“I recently read a wonderful term used from Pope Francis: ‘rapidization.’ He’s talking about the fast pace of our society. And I like the idea that we have ‘de-rapidize.’ From a spiritual and human-health perspective, we all need to slow down,” Fr. Peter said. “We are going so fast and we have the internet, social media — we’re just bombarded and this can be detrimental to our health. Retreats help us slow down.”
Next, a time of retreat allows us to get back to basics and focus on what is most important in life. Making quiet time for prayer and spiritual enrichment is really about making an opportunity to listen to the ways God is speaking to you. If we take time for retreat, we give ourselves the opportunity to slow down and pay attention. We become more intentional about how we want to live and be mindful of all the ways God is present to us.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, annual or semi-annual retreats offer us a chance to be open to the work of the Spirit. When we are able to unplug and to listen, we can also be open to the ways the Holy Spirit is moving and active within us and we are empowered to go back to our families, jobs, parishes and obligations with a renewed perspective, hopefully able to see how the Spirit is at work in all our relationships and commitments.
Although the prospect of a first-time retreat can be intimidating, bringing to mind questions of schedules, expectations, rules, and even food, there are lots of resources available for help in planning a retreat.
When asked what advice Fr. Peter would offer first-time retreatants, he suggested that a person simply explore what options are available. Retreat centers and parishes will often offer a one-day (or even one-hour) “busy people’s retreat” that includes times for prayer and reflection around a theme. Most retreat centers also offer “preached” or “guided” retreats that are built around a theme and usually feature a single speaker who will offer a series of talks with times for private and communal prayer, including Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and opportunities for Eucharistic Adoration and Reconciliation.
Many monasteries and religious communities have retreat centers that are available for individuals who would simply like to have a few days away for quiet reflection. Often, you can request someone to act as your personal retreat director and you are welcome to join the community for their liturgies. Finally, there are extended retreats, such as the 30-day Jesuit “Spiritual Exercises,” which take place over a longer period of time. Talk to a priest, religious sister or brother or trusted friend whom you know have been on retreat to hear their stories. You can also easily learn more about individual retreat centers and their offerings online.
For Fr. Peter, a long-time spiritual director and retreat leader, retreats are one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.
“For me, retreat is about being, not about doing,” Father Peter said. I think this is very important. We’re being conditioned by our society, which is a ‘doing society,’ and the measure of your worth is what you do. A retreat is a time for being. Journaling, reading Scripture, liturgy … let yourself just be and don’t focus on what you think you have to do.”
Finally, Fr. Peter noted, “Find time after you come back from retreat to review your journal, maybe journal more. Ask yourself, what did I learn, what insights did I have, how did God speak to me? Is there some resolution? Do I need to pray more? Pray differently? This post-retreat homework helps bring everything together and make our retreat time more fruitful.”