I had known for some time that I needed to make a retreat. I had found plenty of excuses not to go—I don’t have time, I don’t have any major decisions to discern right now, there aren’t a lot of options for lay people, I don’t need it because I go to daily Mass… did I mention I don’t have time… But when an opportunity basically fell in my lap, it was hard to ignore the feeling that I just needed to get away. As I looked at the calendar, I realized over the span of the next month I was giving two women’s retreats, a bible study, and two other talks. I needed to be filled, or else I would have nothing to give. I needed to get away for a while.
Even if you don’t work for the Church, the Lord is saying to you, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). We all need to be filled by him. It doesn’t matter how busy you are or how much you pray on a daily basis. You need to go on a retreat.
Fathers and mothers, businessmen and women, whether your work is at home or in the fields or in the cities—we all need retreats. They aren’t just for clergy (priests and deacons are required by canon law to go on retreat on a regular basis) or religious brothers and sisters. While “living in the world” might make it more difficult for us to get away on retreat, it makes it just as important!
This retreat was a silent one, which gave it that extra boost of detachment our souls need. Forty women lived for two days together without talking—not even at meals! And while that may sound horribly boring to some people and impossible to others, it was actually quite freeing. There was no need to make small talk over our morning cereal or chat while walking down the hall to our rooms. Despite the presence of other people, the retreat house became a “deserted place” where we all could selfishly spend time with our Lord and make room to hear his voice.
During one of the breaks in the first half of the retreat, I wandered upstairs to the great room, where women were scattered about, reading, drinking coffee, or looking out the window. I thought how different the scene would look on any other day. We would likely have had our phones in our hands, even if we were sitting next to one another on the couch. Some would be texting their children, perhaps others would be reading an email from work, or maybe I would be aimlessly scrolling through Instagram. But there was no phone in sight.
I laughed to myself, thinking how present we could be to each other without the distractions… but we were on a silent retreat! It was time to be present to the Lord. When was the last time I had made so much space in my life for him?
A retreat is like holding down the power button on your computer for thirty seconds. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems like that solves the craziest of problems when it comes to any number of technological gadgets. I’m sure someone could explain why it works, but there have been a number of times when even shutting down my computer doesn’t help anything, and the tech team will ask, “Did you hold the power button down for thirty seconds?” A retreat is like that hard reset. We all need to pray daily, but nothing is like the hard reset of a retreat.
The last morning of the retreat, I sat in my room and looked out the window. My phone sat temptingly on the desk, untouched since I had turned off my alarm that morning. I had about a half an hour until the next meditation in the chapel, and my thoughts went to the world outside—what was happening out there? Who had emailed me? What about those texts I had ignored the day before?
I resisted the urge, closed my eyes, and remained detached. The earth would keep rotating.
I am not here to tell you that Jesus appeared to me this past weekend, or even that I heard a voice or received great consolation. To think your time away will produce life-changing results or earth-quaking encounters will set you up for disappointment. In fact, I was grateful to read Ronald Knox’s essay “Discouragement in Retreat” before I started the weekend:
“Don’t let us start our retreat, then, expecting too much of it; don’t let’s entertain exaggerated ideas about what it ought to be and do for us. There is no strong probability that, for you, it will be a sensational experience.” Ronald Knox, from A Retreat for Lay People
Nothing like minimizing your expectations to avoid disappointment! But honestly, the essay was a great reminder that not every retreat will be some sort of Mount-Tabor-Transfiguration-moment. Perhaps very few will be. But that doesn’t negate the importance of them, nor the spiritual graces received there—even those we don’t “feel.” Knox continues later, “No, try to hold yourself steady and humbly in the presence of God, telling him it’s his will you should be making this effort, and there must be something he means his Holy Spirit to do in you; you are content to lie fallow and let the seed strike; you have no idea what it is, and very likely you never will.”
Like most other things in my life, it’s very rarely about what I do or feel and much more about what the Lord is doing.
While the rest and the silence of the weekend retreat ended on Sunday at noon, living for even forty-eight hours in that “deserted place” opened my eyes to small resolutions I needed to make in my life. I can’t spend my life on retreat, but the time away gives clarity to life. I may not have heard the voice of Jesus speaking my name, but I came away with the grace to continue to fight the good fight.
There are plenty of ways we can incorporate mini retreats in our daily lives, whether it is fasting from technology for stretches of time or praying the Liturgy of the Hours. There are ways to make “deserted places” in the busyness of life. But nothing substitutes for a real, honest-to-goodness retreat. Even if it’s just over a weekend, we all need to step away from the routine and from the chaos and the noise. There are many ways to rationalize it away, but God deserves the sacrifice of your time. Your family, your work, and your friends need you. But they really need you after God has worked on you a bit.
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).