Spiritual Retreats A time to be with God in silence and seclusion
Retreats are oases of spirituality in the desert of secular culture, says Frank Gelli
t the start of his public ministry, Jesus went alone into the desert and fasted forty days and forty nights, the Gospel relates. To prepare for Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, Christians are not expected to retire to a physical desert but many choose to remember the Lord by going away into a retreat. That means time spent quietly, in silence and meditation or following spiritual exercises. It could take place in a special retreat house or in a monastery or convent. Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, described the point of a retreat as ‘being alone with God’, not to cut oneself off from fellow human beings but ‘to grow in love and zeal, for the sake of God and neighbour’. Retreats can be just for a weekend or one week or more. They are either informal, with the person setting his own programme and timetable, or more structured, in a group. A conductor, usually a priest or monk, can be booked to set biblical readings, give counsel, spiritual talks or just discuss things with the participant. Worship is part and parcel of a retreat, with prayers in a chapel, attending Holy Communion or going to confession. Silence is encouraged. (Mobile phones strictly to be kept switched off. And forget about Facebook or Twitter!) Most of us exist under a daily bombardment of news and
chatter of all kind, often superfluous or even debilitating. Silence can be a useful tool to cut that off for a while, to focus on
a deeper dimension. Sure, some people may think it odd or even threatening to spend meals in silence. Actually, as an experience it can be quite liberating. After a while one begins to discern what are the things that really matter in life. Perhaps the most famous set of instructions on retreats is St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Ostensibly, it is a manual for the retreat director but anyone can learn from studying it. Based on progression of stages, it echoes Jesus’s own tests and trials in the wilderness. According to Scripture, three times the Devil tempted the Messiah during the forty days. Each time Jesus rejected the temptations and the Devil fled.
St. Ignatius de Loyola Statue at Boston College.
Similarly, the person doing the retreat will at times experience difficulties. Like feeling inwardly desiccated, dull or even bored with prayer and worship. The Evil One is likely to be behind those negative feelings. The skilled spiritual director will help the person to deal with them, to ascend to a higher level, one of self-knowledge and joyful, dynamic alignment with the will of God. The Christian retreat tradition of course belongs especially but not exclusively to Catholicism. The Orthodox Church too has a rich spirituality that includes the practice by lay people to spend time in solitude in a monastery.
St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
I once visited perhaps the most iconic of such places, Mount Athos, a mountain and peninsula in Northern