Last month, I was happy to join other bishops from New England for our annual retreat. One Catholic dictionary defines a retreat as “an individual or group withdrawal (normally to a religious house set apart for this purpose) to awaken and deepen one’s spiritual life through silence, prayer and spiritual exercises.”
The bishops gathered at the retreat house of the Edmundite Fathers on Enders Island. Our retreat master, Msgr. James Moroney, rector of St. John’s Seminary in Boston, offered us a series of conferences, and each bishop devoted time to reading, reflection and prayer.
In today’s hyper-active and hyper-connected world, there has never been a greater need for spiritual retreats, and yet that same world makes it harder for people to find time. If anyone is tempted to think that a retreat is time wasted that could have been devoted to some form of useful or charitable activity, the example of Jesus should give us pause.
Before he began his public mission, we are told that Jesus retreated to the desert where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. Intense prayer on his part is also connected with important actions like the choice of the 12 apostles. For all his pity at the crowds who were “like sheep without a shepherd,” for all his long days and nights of teaching and healing, Jesus, Scripture says, often prayed on the mountain alone, in seclusion, even when “all the world is searching for him” (Mk 1:37).
In his sacred humanity, Jesus showed us the importance of being alone with God. When the necessities of life impose themselves on us, we remember what our Lord said to Satan: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When the distractions and noise of the world besiege us, our Lord invites us to intimate discipleship – to be with him and to pray with him in the quiet of the Mount of Olives.
If Jesus needed to seclude himself from time to time, so do we, whether in the quiet of our room, or perhaps a garden, or, best of all, by making a periodic retreat. To mature as human persons created body and soul in the image and likeness of God and endowed with an intellect and will, we need to stop and think, to stop and pray, to be silent in the presence of God and try to measure ourselves in the light of Christ and the Gospel. This is not easy – a retreat takes some time – but silence and recollection are necessary if we are to grow as human persons.
I invite everyone to consider making a retreat. Many parishes or church groups offer opportunities to do so.
In today’s world, however, we need to be careful as to whom we entrust our spiritual wellbeing and growth. Retreat houses that radiate Catholic faith, spirituality and devotional life, rooted in the creed and the catechism, can provide very sound direction and resources, as well as the celebration of Mass and the sacrament of penance, which are an integral part of a Catholic retreat experience.
Other retreat-type experiences are offered by a variety of people in a variety of settings, both religious and secular. These include retreats that reflect spiritualities and causes not in harmony with our Catholic faith, and even harmful to it; for example, so-called “new age” spiritualities and those based on sometimes bizarre, and profoundly un-Christian notions of God, the human person and creation. Where there is no explicit mention of God, Jesus Christ or anything resembling the traditional language of Catholic faith and piety, one ought to steer clear.
Not everyone can go to a retreat house. But everyone can resolve to make time to be alone with God, to be recollected, to be silent in his presence, and from him derive the strength not merely to exist, but to truly live.