When I was in Secondary School, back in the ‘70s, we had a retreat with the Chaplain and a team once a year and I always looked forward to those few days. Of course, it made a change from the daily routine and afforded me a break from the dreaded Maths classes!
It provided all the class with a chance to unwind and to be active together outside of the usual daily restrictions. The emphasis was on our spiritual lives and our encounters with God, others, and ourselves.
Looking back, I can honestly say that we fully embraced the whole experience and after a few initial giggles, we did not skit around. Indeed, we were grateful for the chance to reflect, and we certainly got to know each other a bit better. A retreat provides a forum for delving into different aspects of the person, which would not necessarily come to light in the classroom. In this way, it proved to be an even deeper learning process.
Withdrawing to Engage
At its best a retreat is not a withdrawing, it is an engagement. While you do of course, on one level withdraw for a while from worldly cares, on another your mind, heart, and soul and began a journey of healing.
The word itself comes from the old French, retret, retraire, to withdraw and the Latin, retrahere, to pull back. In the early fifteenth century it came to be defined as a “place of seclusion”.
The meaning of retreat is to escape/withdraw, but in running away you are, perhaps paradoxically, running towards. When you make the decision to escape (in a good way), you give yourself the time to reflect and heal without the constraints of your ‘to-do’ list and the demands of other people around
In Christian Life
Down the ages, the Christian tradition has understood ‘retreat’ to be an important part of spiritual formation. It is time consciously set aside for God, a change of focus, a deliberate act of stepping away from usual daily concerns, by withdrawing, as opposed to not running away, from the noise and pressures, the immediate and insistent claims of our social, domestic and workday responsibilities in order to be in a quiet place where all the senses are open to listening to God.
Many retreats encourage participants to reflect on who they have been, who they are now, and where God desires them to be in the future. Retreat offers a unique opportunity to concentrate on prayer more than we do in day-to-day life.
We can take this chance to more clearly hear God’s call and to seek His healing grace and an ongoing conversion of the heart which is critical to a deepening of our Faith. The Catholic Encyclopaedia describes the necessity of such retreats: “In the fever and agitation of modern life, the need of meditation and spiritual response impresses itself on Christian souls who desire to reflect on their eternal destiny and direct their life in this world towards God.”
Basis in Scripture
We have examples in Scripture for understanding the importance of retreat. Near the beginning of Mark’s gospel, we are told: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went out off to a lonely place and prayed there. “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed; “Everyone is looking for you!”
He undertook his solitary respite not when there were no other important matters to attend to, but because of the essential need to make time for prayer despite all that had to be done.
Sometimes Jesus would spend an entire night in retreat: “Now it was about this time that he went out into the hills to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12).
Example of St Martin
When Martin was in the Dominican Order he never stopped working tirelessly for others. Obliged to spend his time among so many occupations, he understood that he must do everything to nurture his life of prayer.
He was always in the presence of Mary. At free moments during the night, or during the silence of the Virgin Mother. He went there to tell her of the of the desire burning in his heart to love her Son, just as took every difficulty to her, and there every night he begged her to watch over him.
Martin had his own unique version of ‘retreat.’ On the altar in the chapel of the Rosary stood the Tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament was kept. Sometimes, instead of praying in the chapel, Martin climbed up under the roof of the church where he had discovered an ideal nook. There he could gaze at the tabernacle for as long as he wanted without being seen by those below!
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan