“Welcome! You were here last year, right?” said the enthusiastic religious as I made my way to the registration desk.Located on the shores of Crooked Lake in Oconomowoc, the Redemptorist Retreat Center offers a peaceful getaway from the stresses of everyday life. (Catholic Herald photo by Maryangela Layman Román)

“No, I wasn’t here last year,” I replied.

“This is your first time here?” 

“No, I’ve been here – 43 years ago.”

“Well, welcome back!”

That conversation marked my return to the Redemptorist Retreat Center in Oconomowoc on Friday night, March 7. He thought I was joking, but it’s true. I hadn’t been there, or anywhere else, for a retreat in more than 43 years.

I hadn’t planned on attending this one, but I had run out of excuses. For more than four decades I had been able to maintain my retreat-free life for many valid reasons: school, work, marriage, relocation, children, more children, more school, a couple of more relocations and more work. Add children’s activities, graduations, funerals, and weddings and it was easy to say there was no time for a retreat.

Even as my litany of excuses dwindled, and as my spiritual director prodded me to make a retreat, I wouldn’t do it. I valued what little downtime weekends provided; a retreat seemed like an extension of my work instead of an opportunity to step back from it. 

Since joining the staff of the Catholic Herald more than nine years ago, I have carefully read the retreat sections we publish twice a year. In particular, I pay attention to the ads placed by retreat centers. Facilities in Racine, Oshkosh, Marathon, Arbor Vitae, as well as places in Iowa and Illinois, all offer Catholics multiple opportunities to enrich their spiritual lives. It was while reading these invitations in the Feb. 20 issue that the idea of making a retreat grew into the possibility of making a retreat. 

After reading the ad for Redemptorist Retreat Center and visiting the center’s website, I learned the topic for the retreat being given on that excuse-free weekend was hope. When I called to reserve my place, it was with hope – hope that they’d be booked. 

“Oh, we have plenty of room,” the receptionist said cheerfully.

Silence. Apropos, since it would be a silent retreat.

“OK,” I said. Figuring St. Alphonsus Ligouri, founder of the Redemptorists, had given me a spiritual kick in the butt – or soul, I gave the receptionist my name.

When I got turned around a couple of times driving to the center that night, I was hoping that was a sign from God that I should just go home. However, even on dark roads in Oconomowoc, God helps one find the way.

I had no expectations for what the weekend would hold. I had made the commitment of time, invested $195, made the 45-minute drive from home, and I was going to take whatever those 40 hours offered. 

The opening session was a reminder of an era in the church I had forgotten – a time when parishes would promote separate retreat weekends for men and women. It was obvious some parishes continued to see the value in retreats for parishioners, as most of the attendees had come in groups from parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Diocese of Madison. 

A key moment in breaking down my reluctance at being there was learning that other than observing silence, one was not required to do anything else. Don’t want to attend a conference? Don’t. Want to go for a walk? Go. Want to take a nap? Do it. That last one convinced me. I can’t recall what I skipped, but it was a great nap.

There was time when those giving a retreat would be described as “preaching the retreat.” If the Redemptorists giving this retreat were preaching it, it didn’t come across as preachy. 

Rather, their talks were instructive, prayerful, uplifting, encouraging and, yes, hope-filled. All that they said flowed from Scripture, the Eucharist, eucharistic adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation, recitation of the rosary, a healing service and spiritual direction. Remember, nothing required, but all there for participants’ benefit.

Consider where you are on your spiritual journey, and where you want to be. You might appreciate some help with that. We are blessed to have religious communities whose charisms include operating retreat centers for those who seek support for and/or renewal of their spiritual health.

I knew where I was on my spiritual journey; what I didn’t know is how badly I needed guidance and direction for that trek. Now that I know, I won’t wait another 43 years before making my next retreat.