The same day Cy Laurent’s teenage son was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — as he and his family were still reacting to the shock — Cy left for his annual weekend retreat at Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House (DemontrevilleRetreat.com) in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Forty years later, Laurent has no doubt it was the right decision.
“I was where I should be to support them, being on retreat and having that intimate time with my God and sharing with him my family experience,” he recalled.
Laurent, who hasn’t missed his annual weekend in 52 years, brings what’s on his heart to God in a place of silence where he can hear God’s response through prayer, Scripture and a director’s counsel. He said he goes home renewed and better able to care for his family and take on challenges.
Laurent and his wife, Evie, live in Eagan, Minnesota, and were “first responders” to the call to start the Labouré Society, a Minnesota-based ministry that seeks to provide financial assistance and spiritual support to individuals who must resolve education loans to pursue a priestly or religious vocation.
As Christ frequently withdrew to a quiet place to pray and rest, retreat leaders encourage Catholics to step back from their daily lives at least once a year to go deeper in solitude so they can hear the Lord speak to them. Retreats are “a way to get spiritual batteries recharged, step out of the everyday routine … to spend time in quiet prayer and reflection and think about what’s really important, to be able to take stock of where am I on the journey to find Almighty God,” said Tim Murphy, director of Manresa House of Retreats in Convent, Louisiana (ManresaLA.org).
Murphy and others who lead retreats around the country offered advice on elements and benefits of a good retreat, how to prepare and ways to make a retreat when it’s not possible to go away. The framework for many modern spiritual retreats are the Spiritual Exercises developed in the 16th century by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. A retreat with the Exercises involves silence, prayer and Scripture reading on themes related to God’s love, discipleship and Christ’s passion and resurrection.
Retreatants often meet with a spiritual director.
In the 20th century, Cursillo, an apostolic movement founded in Spain, re-energized the weekend retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises. While some make eight- or even 30-day retreats, retreat leaders recommend at first going away for at least a three-day retreat at a retreat house or other location. Retreats often are silent or consist of talks with some silence.
“Our lives are spinning really fast, and it might take a day or even two days to slow down enough that we could actually begin to hear things God wants to say to us,” said Legionary Father John Bartunek, who has developed online do-it-yourself retreats, as well as conventional retreats.
Access to the sacraments, Scripture, prayer and silence are key elements of a retreat.
The quiet that helps us hear God’s voice is hard to find in our technological world; and for that reason, it’s best to turn off phones on retreat, said Dominican Father Brian Mullady, a Portland, Oregon-based author, teacher and EWTN TV host who serves as a mission preacher and retreat master for the Western Dominican Province. He is also a Register contributor.
“It’s important to go apart once a year to try to refocus your attention on your personal spiritual life, to experience silence, which people experience almost nowhere anymore,” said Father Mullady.
In leaving our daily lives to meet God, we imitate Jesus — in Matthew 14:23 — who went into the hills to pray, said Father Leonard Revilla, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word based in Irondale, Alabama, who leads retreats as an EWTN chaplain. He invites us to do the same in Mark 6:31, while calling us to pray in solitude in Matthew 6:6.
Retreats make it possible to go deeper than daily prayer and refresh our understanding of God’s action in our lives, said Father Bartunek, “to reflect on not just what’s going on today, what God’s asking me today, but to reflect in prayer on the meaning under light of faith and with God enlightening you, on the direction and bigger themes of life.”
On a retreat, we can acquire God’s perspective to better understand ourselves and recognize areas for growth, said Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, a scholar, professor, author and well-known EWTN TV host.
“This is what makes saints: that you seek the Lord God and begin to understand yourself better from his perspective,” he said.
“One of the most important elements of a retreat is seeing yourself as a sinner. Others have that perspective, and they put up with us.”
“I think the key thing when coming on retreat is: Give God a real chance. Don’t come with an agenda or certain expectations of how you think it should be,” said Father Bill Brown, an Oblate of the Virgin Mary who has led retreats for 23 years and previously served as director of St. Joseph Retreat House in Milton, Massachusetts.
But it helps to plan the retreat time to avoid the enemy’s distractions, said Father Bartunek.
“If he can’t keep you from spending time with God in prayer, then he’ll try to make that time used with the least fruitfulness. Retreatants should also avoid the temptation to measure the quality of their prayer by consolations they may or may not be receiving,” he said.
Those who can’t get away for a retreat can dedicate a morning or single day to communing with God. Also, spending time in silence periodically during the day or going to Eucharistic adoration “helps to maintain the presence of God, to always have an awareness of God’s presence in the chaos of life,” Father Revilla said.
Hunters and anglers also can find time for prayer and reflection, said Father Pacwa, an avid outdoorsman himself.
“That quiet is what certain people seek when they hunt,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you seek that when Christ is hunting for you?”
Another option is online retreats, an inexpensive and convenient way to spend time in prayerful reflection, said Father Bartunek, whose online retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org.
Whatever type of retreat one partakes in, Father Bartunek said, “Hopefully through that prayerful reflection you’ll come to renew your commitment to follow God.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.