A cozy sweater. A question about life’s direction. A toothbrush, toothpaste. A pandemic-weary heart.
Along with everyday items, people making retreats often “pack” questions or concerns that they hope to engage with during their time in quiet, away. These vary from person to person, influenced by personal experience, present concerns and even, perhaps, anxiety about personal piety or “worthiness.”
The type of retreat can frame questions too. A preached, group retreat might focus on a particular topic about faith or spirituality, whereas a self-directed retreat might provide less structure and more spiritual breathing room.
But whether for a 30-day Ignatian experience or a weekend of faith exploration, one of the blessings of a retreat is that neither the packing nor the person making the “getaway with God” need be perfect. Unexpected peace, new forms of prayer, insight, relaxation and reflection — these and other, less tangible “objects” can bring the retreatant, however imperfect, into a profoundly rich experience.
“Retreats aren’t just for pious people. They’re for people trying to find God in their lives, in whatever clumsy or bumbling way. You don’t have to be perfect to walk in the retreat door,” says Jesuit Father William Campbell, director of Gonzaga Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
“Once the person is here, we begin from a place of Ignatian spirituality,” Father Campbell says. “We’ll often ask the directee or retreatant, ‘Why are you here? What’s the desire within you that’s prompted you to make the retreat? In the midst of this desire, who is God for you, now?'”
He added, “Focus on the present can be a blessed beginning for first-time retreatants afraid of being ‘inadequately prepared.’ It can also encourage those with more retreat experience, but who might have been so distanced from faith during the pandemic that they are not sure how to reengage.”
Questions someone expects to encounter might flow into those leading to a broader spiritual perspective.
“In general,” says Father Campbell, “you are entering a space that I hope has been set up to be welcoming and an environment that will be encouraging, wanting to meet the individual where he or she is already. It’s inappropriate to be judgmental about where someone is.”
A blessing on any retreat, more time to pray can spark insight and connections with profound faith traditions.
At St. Andrew’s Abbey Retreat Center in Valyermo, California, the guestmaster, Benedictine Father Patrick Sheridan, notes that experiencing a religious order’s spirituality, however brief the stay, can open new avenues for personal spiritual development.
“We have many Catholics who are practicing,” says Father Sheridan. “They want to immerse themselves in Benedictine spirituality — Scripture and hospitality. On a self-directed retreat, I’d urge people to attend at least some of the Divine Office. Get an idea of the rhythm of our (monks’) life. Also, don’t feel guilty about sleeping. St. Benedict makes allowances for his monks to get sufficient sleep and food to encounter the Lord and their work.”
The special encounter with prayer and liturgy in a retreat’s quieter and usually lovely setting can be a good way to ease back into parish life.
“People want to reconnect with their faith,” says Father Sheridan, “and do it in a place that’s a little less crowded, a little more calm than their parish.”
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat and Spirituality Center in Venice, Florida, offers a variety of lengths and styles of retreats, but during the pandemic, interest in individual retreats was high.
“People did want to come by themselves to pray, have spiritual direction,” Oblates of the Virgin Mary Father Mark Yavarone, director of spirituality at the center, says, adding that the pandemic has also surfaced different themes.
“There is more stress and anxiety. To go somewhere by oneself with the Lord and have spiritual direction is what they are looking for. Anger and stress often go together. People (might come) in angry about some aspect of the pandemic, or with one particular political party or another. Or they’re trying to get a handle on how to better live with their spouse or family members because they’ve been in closer quarters,” says Father Yavarone. “The thing I hear from a lot of people who come here … is that they find peace.”
With some retreat centers increasing their capacity and more about to reopen, now is an ideal time to start planning.
Father Yavarone says, “I would echo Pope John Paul II. ‘Be not afraid.’ God loves you more than you do.”
Not sure where to start?
“The beauty of the individually directed retreat,” Father Campbell says, “is the attention one’s spirituality gets.”
Afraid you’re not “perfect” enough for a retreat?
“The whole point is to relax in the Lord,” says Father Sheridan. “Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. Let the Spirit move you. A retreat can be an opening of a different approach to life, a process, rather than a one-off experience. And hopefully, you’ll come back again.”
Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.