At the start of his public ministry, Jesus went alone into the desert and fasted forty days and forty nights, the Gospel relates. To prepare for Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, Christians are not expected to retire to a physical desert but many choose to remember the Lord by going away into a retreat. That means time spent quietly, in silence and meditation or following spiritual exercises. It could take place in a special retreat house or in a monastery or convent. Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, described the point of a retreat as ‘being alone with God’, not to cut oneself off from fellow human beings but ‘to grow in love and zeal, for the sake of God and neighbour’.
Retreats can be just for a weekend or one week or more. They are either informal, with the person setting his own programme and timetable, or more structured, in a group. A conductor, usually a priest or monk, can be booked to set biblical readings, give counsel, spiritual talks or just discuss things with the participant. Worship is part and parcel of a retreat, with prayers in a chapel, attending Holy Communion or going to confession. Silence is encouraged. (Mobile phones strictly to be kept switched off. And forget about Facebook or Twitter!) Most of us exist under a daily bombardment of news and chatter of all kind, often superfluous or even debilitating. Silence can be a useful tool to cut that off for a while, to focus on a deeper dimension. Sure, some people may think it odd or even threatening to spend meals in silence. Actually, as an experience it can be quite liberating. After a while one begins to discern what are the things that really matter in life.
Perhaps the most famous set of instructions on retreats is St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Ostensibly, it is a manual for the retreat director but anyone can learn from studying it. Based on progression of stages, it echoes Jesus’s own tests and trials in the wilderness. According to Scripture, three times the Devil tempted the Messiah during the forty days. Each time Jesus rejected the temptations and the Devil fled. Similarly, the person doing the retreat will at times experience difficulties. Like feeling inwardly desiccated, dull or even bored with prayer and worship. The Evil One is likely to be behind those negative feelings. The skilled spiritual director will help the person to deal with them, to ascend to a higher level, one of self-knowledge and joyful, dynamic alignment with the will of God.
The Christian retreat tradition of course belongs especially but not exclusively to Catholicism. The Orthodox Church too has a rich spirituality that includes the practice by lay people to spend time in solitude in a monastery. I once visited perhaps the most iconic of such places, Mount Athos, a mountain and peninsula in Northern Greece. Inhabited by about 2000 monks, it houses twenty independent monastic establishments. I was there for two weeks of almost complete silence. The atmosphere was bracing to such an extent that I briefly considered becoming a monk. Wisely, my spiritual director dissuaded me. He was right. It was only an ideal, not a genuine vocation. However, Mount Athos is a superb place for a retreat. I have recommended it to parishioners and friends ever since.
Although the holy season of Lent is customary for doing a retreat, the idea is not limited to that time only. Any time is good for a spiritual refresher. Sometimes it is necessary to make an important decision, about a job, a career, going abroad or getting married. Going away to be quiet, to pray, meditate in silence and consult with a good spiritual adviser are excellent ways of being certain about your choices, what is right for you. And God may speak to the believer’s heart whenever the time is ripe. Sometimes the Almighty manifest himself as ‘a still small voice’, as he did to the Prophet Elijah, after he too had been, like the Messiah to come, on a retreat of forty days and forty nights on this way to Horeb, ‘the mount of God’.
Some Muslims may see in the idea of a retreat an analogue to their tradition of I‘tikaf. Like when believers during months of Rajab, Sha‘ban or Ramadan withdraw to a mosque, away from worldly affairs, for a period of prayer, fasting and reflection. They listen to regular recitations of the Qur’an, attend classes and lectures on Islamic teaching, learn and discuss. Appropriate moral and spiritual behaviour is expected from participants, such as refraining from gossip, seeking to appear superior in discussion and the like. Usually a scholar conducts the programme and offers advice and directions. The commonalities with the Christian tradition are obvious.
Inspired by the example of the hermit Charles de Foucauld, the Italian writer Carlo Carretto passed ten years of his life as a solitary monk in the North African desert. Later he realised a tougher challenge lay in locating, but also combating, ‘the desert in the city’ – actually the title of one of his books. A desert not in the biblical, positive sense but as a heedless condition opposed to spirituality. Given the rampant desacralisation of life in the cities of the secular West, retreats are like oases of cooling water. They represent ways of connecting up to the One, eternal source of life and love, the Creator. May they prosper and continue.