A retreat — taking time away from one’s regular activities to spend extra time with the Lord — is a practical way to grow in faith, especially during this new Year of Faith.
Why are retreats important in the Catholic journey?
Jesus himself set an example for us, pointed out Edmundite Father Thomas Hoar, president and former director of St. Edmund’s Retreat in Mystic, Conn. (EndersIsland.com).
"Jesus would go away to a quiet place and pray before the major events of his life," Father Hoar explained, noting that even the night before Jesus went to the cross he prayed at Gethsemane.
"From the very early experiences of the Christian people, we have taken opportunities to go to a quiet place and pray."
In the midst of hectic modern life, quiet time with God is so essential.
"In the modern world, it’s so very much paramount that we find these quiet moments," Father Hoar continued. "Because we live in a culture so filled with noise and with so many things that are calling for our attention, it’s important for spiritual growth and development to take a moment — whether an afternoon or hour before the Blessed Sacrament, a weekend or few days — and go to a quiet place for reflection.
"It helps open our hearts and redirect our lives to the challenge of Gospel living. It is an ancient tradition, yet a modern necessity for people serious about growing in their faith to find these moments of quiet reflection and prayer."
Bestselling author, speaker and retreat director Matthew Kelly (DynamicCatholic.com) honed in on similar reasons why retreats are invaluable.
"We all need to step back from time to time and take another look at who we are, where we are and what we are doing," Kelly said. "Retreats provide the perfect opportunity for that."
"The world leads us ever deeper into the tyranny of the urgent," he explained. "With this focus, we obsess about doing urgent things all the time — but the most important things are hardly ever urgent. Those most important things include daily prayer — and a regular retreat."
In this busy, noisy world, "silence and stillness are essential for spiritual growth," Kelly added. "With this in mind, modern Catholics need to go on retreat more than ever before."
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, is of like mind. He has given numerous retreats for college-age students and adults of all ages. He is an adviser to Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry in Vandalia, Ill., which offers retreats throughout the year.
"The idea is that, with a retreat, you disengage from normal activity and the world to concentrate on your relationship with the Lord," he said, then paraphrased Blessed John Henry Newman, who said that you’re not left alone when you’re totally alone with the Lord.
He noted that we should set aside regular time to worship God, to recreate and to be re-created. And just as on a regular basis we need significant time away from work to rejuvenate, such as on vacation, we need that for the spiritual life, too.
Father Hoar, who preaches many retreats to priests and laypeople, sees the effects of being "unplugged from the world" all the time.
"I discover people are so overwhelmed," he said. "There’s a real hunger for peace. There’s lots of ‘pop spirituality’ out there that promises to make you happy. But the spiritual life draws you into an intimate relationship with God that promises people not necessarily happiness, but peace that the world can’t give — peace that allows us to deal with all the ‘stuff’ in our lives.
"When we have that intimacy with God, with his healing, renewing, living, redeeming love, we can deal with the heartaches and struggle of daily living. Even dealing with that ‘stuff,’ there’s overwhelming peace in our lives."
"Christ doesn’t call us to be happy; he calls us to be holy," added Father Hoar. "That holiness brings a sense of peace that transcends the struggles of living our lives. That’s what a retreat can do: It can help us to redirect our lives, to be revived and reinvigorated on our journey of faith."
A variety of retreat formats can provide this reinvigoration of faith. Among different kinds are day retreats, weekend retreats, weeklong retreats, silent retreats and self-directed retreats.
"If people haven’t been on retreat, they might think going on a weeklong retreat is daunting," said Father Hoar. "But a weekend retreat or a day of recollection is a wonderful way to start this Year of Faith."
Like Father Hoar, Msgr. Swetland agreed that attending a preached retreat by a priest is a good way to start. This Year of Faith, he pointed out, will offer many such opportunities.
Regular retreat attendees like Tom and Sharon Maedke of Steubenville, Ohio, know the inestimable value of faith-building retreats.
Now in the diaconate-formation program for the Steubenville Diocese, Tom averages two retreats a year, normally weekend retreats.
He has found the main purposes of these retreats to be: to pray and become closer to God in that way and to learn more about the richness and the depth of the Catholic faith, along with discovering how to draw others closer to Christ.
Tom said he gains strength on retreat not only from Christ, but also from relating to others on retreat: "My best friends in life are those following Christ. I think going on retreat is the same — because the others are close to God and seeking to do his will."
He and his wife also go on retreats together.
"We find it draws you closer together; you match up your spiritual life after the retreat — it’s extremely rewarding … to strengthen your bond of marriage and at the same time grow closer to God," he affirmed.
"It’s such a wonderful time because it takes you out of your ordinary daily routine, away from the busyness of the house, so you don’t have all those responsibilities to think about," noted Sharon. "You can concentrate on being together and what God is calling you to. God blesses that."
And their weekly Eucharistic adoration time, according to Sharon, "is like a mini retreat, having that hour together with the Lord."
Tom shared another beautiful aspect of retreats: "The retreats are normally held in amazingly beautiful places, many times in the country or secluded places. That makes you appreciate the wonders of creation (as you) have solitude to pray in a very spiritual atmosphere."
Such an atmosphere reminds retreatgoers of the purpose of their time with God, Kelly said: "A tourist demands that everything goes according to plan. A pilgrim looks at what happens and tries to determine what God is saying through that event."
As Tom Maedke knows firsthand, a retreat "rejuvenates your life. It’s so joyful. It gives you the strength to go back into the fight of the daily struggles."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.