Opening a Retreat

By Albert F. Ernst, O.S.F.S.




A retreat is a time of great grace, of prayer and self-examination.  During the retreat a person must put aside worldly thoughts and worldly interest so that he may better consider one thing that is necessary, the bringing of the kingdom of God into his immortal soul.  The few days of a retreat are days in which the Lord may be found because He is very near.  There are ways in which He will speak intimately to the soul.  Listen to His words of mercy and pardon.  Listen to the advice He gives you.  The days of the retreat, therefore, are days which must appeal to your faith, your devotion, your zeal and days for which you must answer to Almighty God.


Why every year are the men of the parish asked to devote three days to the exercises of a spiritual retreat?  The answer is not far to seek.  It is very much with the spiritual as it with the material.  There is for both the wear and tear of every day life.  A years’ use takes quite a lot out of all things material.  It even destroys some.  Take a baseball.  If it is batted around day after day for one season it will be of little use for the next year.  Frankly in most cases it will not last for one season, and a baseball is pretty hard.  The same goes for a toy.  It may be new at Christmas but by the following Christmas there is need of examination and repairs even thought made of iron or steel.


This wear and tear, calling for repairs and renovations now and then are noticeable in our school building.  A good part of the summer is spent in a thorough cleaning of windows and floors and in repairing whatever needs repair.  It is the same thing with the clothes we wear.  They must receive not only the daily attentions we give them, but at times be sent for a thorough cleaning and pressing which almost makes them like new again.


Even our very hands, face and body teach this same lesson.  We do not spend a hard day working in the mine, foundry or garage and yet we know by experience that the very dust that fills the air settles on them.  The various objects we pick up (books etc.) leaves them soiled and dirty requiring that they be cleaned frequently in the same day, and need a still more thorough cleaning when the former washing did not suffice.


Now there is the dust of human weakness and frailty always settling upon the soul, there are the stains of sin which soil it, we know that.  Sad experiences teaches us this lesson.  When you take time out during a retreat to look into yourself you will become aware of this fact.  You will be surprised at the number and kinds of sin you have committed.  It will all seem fantastic, unbelievable.  And yet, it is true.  It is you who have committed so many sins.  It is you who have turned against God so often.


Another, and very important reason for making a retreat is to imitate our Lord.  Though not at all in need of a retreat, but to set us an example, our Savior went into retreat frequently when there was an important step ahead.  Before His public ministry, before His missionary career, He made a most rigid retreat of forty days.  Before His bitter passion and death He made a short but a most intense retreat in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Before He chose His apostles He retired onto the mountain for a night of prayer.  Without being forced to do so by a law of the Church, the saints of all ages felt the need of a periodical retreat.  It is the proper and the sensible thing to do.


Our Lord took His disciples into their first retreat. “Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little.”  Why did He take them to a desert place?  The Gospel tells us, “For there were many coming and going and they had not so much as time to eat.”  God loves to speak to His friends in an out of the way place, and in seclusion, away from the crowd, away from the things of the world.  Moses was alone in the desert when our Lord appeared to him.  Jesus talked with Nicodemus in the loneliness of night.  Lovers feel the need of being alone.  Hence they arrange a place where they can meet and talk unobserved; where they can be together as long as they want.


The retreat is a time when God has an appointment with you.  He wants to have you all to himself.  Don’t disappoint Him.  Don’t snub Him by doing a lot of talking to others and while so doing ignoring Him.  Try to be recollected.  Think about our Lord, how you treated Him in the past, how you are going to treat Him from now on.  Talk things over with Him as the expression goes, man to man.  Don’t worry about what the others are doing.  It’s praiseworthy to be interested in seeing others but your most important job is your own personal salvation.  In the business of saving souls, charity begins at home.  No zeal, however intense, and no success however great in saving the souls of others will ever make up for the lack of care of one’s own salvation.


They speak about living as the game of life.  That is true to some extent.  Accordingly we ought to act very much the same in the game of life as we do in a game.  In a basketball game, for example, whenever our team starts to slip or fall behind we call time out.  We talk things over with members of our team and try to get some pointers from the coach.  We gather around the coach and ask him what seems to be the trouble.  What can be done to pull the game out of the fire.  So in the game of life, every now and then we take time out to talk things over with the greatest of all coaches, the coach who never lost a game, Jesus Christ.  We must not only listen to what He says but also do it.  Otherwise His help will be wasted.  The retreat is one of these time-outs.


“Come apart into a desert place and rest a little.”  When our Lord said, “Come. . . and rest a while,”  He intended the retreat to be a rest for the tired weary disciples.  He wants it to be the same for us!  He doesn’t want it to be an ordeal.  He doesn’t want us to rack our minds and hearts, He doesn’t want us to disturb our emotions.  On the contrary, it should be a welcome relief, an inspiring diversion and recreation for our whole being.  When Jesus invited the disciples to their retreat He didn’t have the air of a master or a tyrant, but of a father, a savior, a friend.  His special characteristics then were all tenderness, kindness, sympathy, forgiveness and love.


While the retreat aims at being a rest, it doesn’t mean that you should fall asleep on the retreat master.  You have to make the retreat.  The retreat master cannot make it for you.  He can only help make it a little easier for you.  The disciple Judas, before his downfall, led many on the way of salvation by his astounding miracles and his fervent appeals.  But meanwhile, he began to neglect himself.  You know that happened to him.  Paul was more careful as he himself says, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection lest while preaching to others I myself become a castaway.”  All the disciples made the retreat, Peter, James, John, Judas, with different results.  Why?  Different attitudes towards it.


The retreat is like the seven fat years of Egypt.  Recall the story of Joseph and the dreams of Pharaoh.  He though he stood by the Nile River.  Seven cattle, very beautiful and fat came up from the river and grazed in green places.  Another seven came out of the Nile, but they were ugly and lean.  They stood beside the seven first cattle on the river bank.  The ugly, lean cattle devoured the seven beautiful and fat ones.  Then Pharaoh awoke.  He fell asleep again and dreamed another dream.  Seven full and fair ears of corn grew on one stalk.  Then seven thin ears grew and devoured those which were full and fair.  And Pharaoh awoke.  When morning came he was struck with fear.  He sent for all the interpreters and wise men of Egypt and told them his dream.  But no one could interpret it.  Then the imprisoned Joseph was called.  Joseph said to the Pharaoh, “Both the king’s dreams have the same meaning.  God hath shown to the king what He is about to do.  The seven beautiful cattle and the seven full ears are years of plenty.  The seven lean and ugly cattle and the seven thin ears are seven years of famine.  Now there shall come seven years of great plenty in Egypt. After these shall follow seven years of famine during which all the abundance that was in Egypt shall be forgotten.  The fact that you had a dream about the same thing a second time is a sign that God has resolved to carry it out and will speedily fulfill it.


Now, the seven fat years were abundant in their bounty but the people had to work hard to gather enough grain to tide them over for the lean years ahead.  Accordingly, the hard work of gathering the grain was agreeable.  The same hold true for a retreat.  A retreat is a time of abundant graces.  We must gather all that we can for spiritually we may have some terrible lean times ahead; fierce temptations and ugly assaults of various kinds.  We need not fear them, if we store up the strength God will give us during the retreat.  The retreat is the filling station of the soul on its road to heaven, up the mount of perfection.  At a filling station it pays to be busy getting a supply that will be sure to last, rather than get a supply that may merely last.  This is especially true if we get the supply for nothing as is the case in a retreat. 


St. Alphonsus said that whoever makes a good retreat and dies within a year will be sure to go to heaven.  Because of the good retreat God will either give Him the grace of perseverance, or if he falls into a mortal sin again, God will give him the grace to go to Confession before death.