Learn How to Do Your Own Spiritual Retreats
When was the last time you went on a retreat? How recently did you really take the time - a few days, a weekend, or even a full week - to stop your daily activities, your obligations, your concerns, and focus less on doing and more on being - specifically, being with God? In the modern, fast-paced world that we live in, putting everything on hold and going away for a few days can seem nearly out of the question. There are simply too many obligations on our plate to justify going on a retreat. Further, retreats can be expensive and, depending on the location, may be so far from home that the drive itself can be a source of stress.
The great paradox is that the reasons why it’s so hard for us to get away are precisely the reasons why we need to get away. Our lives are too busy! We need time to simply be with God, to connect with our loving Father, and to hear what He has to say to us. Without cultivating our interior lives, we lose touch with the one thing that matters most in this life: our relationship with God. He created us to be in communion with Him, and anything we accomplish in this life is meant to be for His glory and for our salvation. Secondarily, our temporal business actually suffers when we don’t take time off. We become burned out, irritable and unable to do our best.
The great news is that the decision to take a retreat doesn’t need to be simply another item on your To-Do list. You literally can construct a retreat of your own making! A do-it-yourself retreat might seem like an impossible task, but with a little creativity and determination, you can craft a weekend that meets your spiritual needs and is conducive to your schedule.
If you want your retreat to be an opportunity for you to physically get away from home, there are a number of logistical considerations that you will need to decide. The first obvious question is the location. Your retreat could be held at your parish, a nearby retreat center, or even a rented condo. Since it will be most cost-effective to do the retreat with a group of friends or fellow parishioners, you will need to decide questions of rooming. Will each retreatant have his or her own room? Will you sleep two to a room? A combination of single-person and two-person rooms? The answers will affect what kind of lodgings and facilities you choose. Be sure that the place you choose has adequate amenities such as a kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room.
You will need to decide how long your retreat will be. The typical length for a retreat is a weekend (from Friday evening to Sunday evening), but yours can be as long or as short as you wish, depending on everyone’s budget, availability and interest.
How will food be provided? You can organize it potluck style, in which each person brings a part of the food that you will all share together. Or, each person can be responsible for his or her own food and drink for the duration of the retreat. This latter option might be better if there are people who have special dietary requirements.
You also need to consider the structure of your retreat. Will there be a priest available to say daily Mass, hear Confessions, and provide opportunities for Adoration? Will you have speakers give talks or reflections on particular topics at definite points during the retreat? Who will give these talks, and how long will each talk be? If the retreat is meant to be simply an opportunity for each person to do his or her own spiritual reading and prayer individually, you will not need to worry about scheduling and planning talks. You might want to allow time for group recreation such as sports, hiking, or socializing, depending on the interest of the retreatants. If this is a silent retreat, group recreation would not be appropriate.
Regardless of how structured your retreat will be, it is always a good idea to include times of private reading, reflection and prayer. Each retreatant ought to bring along a Bible and one additional book for spiritual reading. Each person can bring whichever book will be most beneficial for them at that point in their faith journey. Some examples of great spiritual reading include the Diary of Saint Faustina, Saint Therese’s Story of a Soul, or The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
If your retreat is going to have a single overarching theme, it might be a good idea to pick one book for all retreatants to read together during the weekend and specify certain times for everyone to come together and discuss what you’ve read, perhaps once a day, for fifteen or twenty minutes. This will provide some structure and consistency for your retreat and will help the retreatants to grow closer to each other spiritually.
These are just some of the basic questions that you need to answer in order to have a successful do-it-yourself retreat away from home. But what if you simply can’t afford to book a separate location for a retreat, due to constraints in time, money, logistics, or all three? If that’s the case, you can still allow yourself an “at home” retreat.
In an “at-home” retreat, you simply modify your regular daily or weekly schedule to allow for more periods of intimate communication with God. In fact, this kind of prayer is perhaps what Saint Francis de Sales had in mind in his classic Introduction to the Devout Life. Saint Francis said that all people – not just priests and religious – are called to holiness, and that every legitimate vocation or state in life is an opportunity to grow in holiness and in love for God. An at-home retreat might be more helpful to you than a “going-away” retreat, because it will teach you to pursue holiness not in spite of, but in the midst of, your daily and weekly life and your obligations.
For an at-home retreat, give yourself a few days or a week in which you adjust your routine and make it more conducive to prayer. If your schedule (and your body!) allow it, try waking up a little bit earlier or going to bed a bit later, and spending some quiet time at the beginning or end of the day in reading or prayer. Follow the example of Our Lord, Who often rose early in the morning to pray, and even spent all night in prayer. You don’t need to spend literally all night awake in prayer, but an extra half hour or so at the beginning or end of the day can bring so much peace to your life.
Find opportunities for silence. If you have children this might be difficult, but perhaps if you’re in the car alone, you can turn off the radio and relish the silence. Spend your extra half hour in the silence of a church, either in the Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, or simply before a crucifix. Read a good spiritual book, quiet all external stimuli, and simply be with God. Listen to whatever it is He wants to tell you. By making these simple adjustments to your routine, you are setting yourself up for cultivating good habits that will enrich your spiritual life, and that you can continue to practice for as long as you want.
Regardless of the location, nature, and complexity of your retreat, there are some things that all retreats have in common. The purpose of any retreat is to strengthen and deepen your love for Jesus, and to draw you more intimately into the familial love of the Blessed Trinity. A good thing to keep in mind is to keep your prayer simple. Throughout your retreat, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, and to enlighten you as to what it is that He wants to tell you. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a seventeenth-century lay Carmelite brother, wrote a helpful reflection on prayer. It is worthwhile to quote it here:
“We search for stated ways and methods of learning how to love God, and to come at that love we disquiet our minds by I know not how many devices; we give ourselves a world of trouble and pursue a multitude of practices to attain a sense of the presence of God. And yet it is so simple. How very much shorter it is and easier to do our common business purely for the love of God, to set his consecrating mark on all we lay hands to, and thereby to foster the sense of his abiding presence by communion of our heart with his! There is no need either of art or science; just as we are, we can go to him, simply and with single heart.”
This general attitude should guide your retreat. Simply go to God, your loving Father. Be His child and let Him love you in the way that only He knows how, in a way that is perfectly suited for you. If you approach your retreat with this mindset, then it won’t really matter whether you are away or at home, with others or alone. If you let God love you and lead you, your retreat will be one of great spiritual nourishment, and can be the start of a new level of love between you and God, your all-loving Father and Creator.