The spiritual benefits of retreats

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Lent is a period of prayer and preparation, and some Catholics like to include a retreat in anticipation of Easter. Even the pope and his closest advisers in the Vatican schedule a retreat during the early days of Lent.

I’ve found that many Catholics still haven’t had the rejuvenating experience of making a retreat, and some don’t really know how to go about doing so. A good retreat can be a “milestone” experience in a person’s faith journey, and I hope that you might consider doing one.

Just what is a retreat?

The word retreat can have negative connotations. When an army retreats, it’s usually because they are having a difficult time against an enemy. Things are not going well.

In many ways, our Christian life can be a battle, can it not? And oftentimes it does not go very well. Just as soldiers retreat in order to regroup, catch their breath, and think about a different strategy, we sometimes find it worthwhile to retreat from “the world” and strengthen ourselves so we can go back into “the battle.” 

So retreating can be a positive thing if one has the deep desire to return to the battle lines!

Who goes on retreats?

People who are serious about living as disciples of Christ often make a point of scheduling time for a retreat. Just as any Catholic can go to Mass, any Catholic can go on retreat. It’s just a matter of finding a place to go and scheduling the time for it. It might seem impossible, with overwhelming family, work, and personal schedules, but making time for a retreat can often be better than a vacation!

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Why retreat?

If we’re doing our best at living a faith life as Catholics, we actually go on retreat more often than we realize. Do you make an examination of conscience at the end of the day as you pray your night prayers? Do you stop by church for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or come early to Mass for quiet time? Such moments are actually a kind of mini-retreat, withdrawing briefly from the world, putting yourself in God’s presence, and assessing your own spiritual life to see where you need to do things better. A formal retreat is kind of like that, except that you usually have someone to guide you through the process, and you’re given lots of time to spend in prayerful consideration of your life in Christ.

What happens on a retreat?

That guide — often called a retreat master — likely will give a number of talks to you and others making the retreat. Often a priest, he will guide you through the steps you’ll need to make the retreat as successful as possible. Usually there will be daily Mass, a Holy Hour, and a chance to go to confession. It could very well be the best confession you’ve ever made, because of the extra guidance you’ll get during the retreat.

When should I go?

There are retreat houses that offer retreats year-round. There are church societies, such as men’s or women’s groups, that sponsor retreats. So there is always a good time to go on retreat — according to your schedule. Lent, of course, is a perfect time to go, as this is a period of more intense prayer and self-examination in preparation for the great paschal mysteries we will celebrate during Holy Week and the Easter season.

The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Photo by Vblinov/Shutterstock

How do I find a place?

Nowadays, good old Google can help you find a retreat house. If you’re unsure, ask your priest for advice and recommendations. Or contact your local diocesan office of spiritual life or similar ministry, or a local religious order. There also might be parish organizations that sponsor occasional retreats, such as the Knights of Columbus.

Does it cost a lot?

Retreat houses have to charge a nominal fee for the food and lodging they provide. After all, they have expenses, and they have to pay support staff.  If money is an issue, oftentimes a retreat house will simply ask for a donation, according to whatever a person can pay.

God willing, you will have a good retreat and will feel spiritually renewed at the end. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve “made it” and that all of a sudden you’re a saint. Chances are, you’ll discover some area or areas of your life that you’ll need to keep working on, but very likely you will come away with a renewed desire to do that work and live the best Christian life you can. My hope is that you will want to go back for another retreat in the future. 

The Christian life is a work in progress, and you’ll have the chance to keep working on it through the year — by going to confession on a regular basis, being faithful to daily prayer life, participating more fully in Sunday (and maybe even weekday) Mass, and living the Beatitudes in your daily interaction with family members, friends, coworkers, and strangers. And a regular retreat can be a great way to help you keep going in “the battle.” 

God willing, you will have a good retreat and will feel spiritually renewed.

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