The Christian Practice of “Retreat”
The concept of a “retreat” has a long and varied history. In the Christian context the invitation of Jesus to “come away and rest awhile” (Mark 6.31) is often thought of as the first invitation to “make retreat.” The original inspiration for “retreat” can be traced to the notion of a “retreat of the whole Church” in the forty-day season of Lent as codified after the Council of Nicaea (325) and to the development of monasticism as a form of collective retreat.
Purpose of Retreat
The term “retreat” can be misleading in that it could easily conjure up the idea of “escape” from the world. The experience of “retreat” does include a “stepping aside” from ordinary routine for a time to reflect and to pray, to slow down, to be still, and to listen. This “coming apart” is meant to aid retreatants in integrating their relationship with the Divine, their spirituality, as that is experienced in the marketplace and home—in the world. Ideally, the experience of retreat motivates the individual to recognize the significance of prayer, quiet, and solitude in the everyday in order to be a more “balanced” participant in every aspect of life. Spirituality concerns the whole of life and how all of life is lived in the presence of God. Retreat times, ideally, help us to wake up to the fact of the ever-present Reality in which “we live and move and have our being.” Service, in the world, ought to be one of the fruits of such spiritual awakening.
Types of Retreats
In the early days of the retreat movement, the “closed retreat” would be a common phenomenon. Retreats for men only, women only, girls only or boys only were held, consisting of conferences by a “retreat master,” time for the retreatant to reflect on input, celebration of Mass, and often Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with exposition. During some of these closed retreats, there might be an opportunity for retreatants to speak privately with the retreat master but otherwise the general order of the day was silence.
Through the years, a great variety of retreat styles has emerged. It is still common to find many retreat centers offering some form of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in the “directed retreat experience”, lasting from a short retreat of several days to the traditional four-week format. The Nineteenth Annotation retreat is also becoming more and more popular. This is a method of experiencing the Ignatian Exercises in the midst of daily life where retreatants commit them-selves to a certain time of prayer each day with specific Scripture passages and then meet with a spiritual director at regular intervals, often weekly, to reflect upon what has happened in their prayer or meditation as it impacts on daily life.
Topical or thematic retreats have also become commonplace. A group of persons gather at a retreat center and spend time reflecting and praying around a specific theme such as “forgiveness,” “compassion,” or “the life of Jesus.” Usually there is a retreat leader who offers some thoughts and reflections, passages from Scripture, or other anecdotal material touching upon the chosen theme. Retreatants are then given time and space to pray with the material they have heard. Sometimes there are opportunities for conversation among the retreatants concerning what is happening for them in this process. At other times silence is maintained throughout. This type of approach is often referred to as a “guided retreat” and usually does include some type of communal worship service depending upon the setting and the group.
Many persons opt for a “private retreat” experience where an individual retreatant takes some time for prayer, reflection, silence, and solitude at a chosen place. Many retreat centers have “hermitages” where private retreatants may stay if they choose. The hunger for a spirituality that both nourishes and challenges is being expressed everywhere by persons from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, and religious affiliations. It is to retreat centers and houses of prayer and renewal that many of these persons go seeking a place of hospitality, safety, and peace—a place where conversations that matter may take place, where real questions may be voiced, and where some guidance is available.