IHSEdinboroughResized5Seven Fountains Jesuit Retreat Center

Chiangmai, Thailand

What is a Retreat?

by Father Nopparat Ruankul SJ

I am sure that many of us Christians have heard the term “retreat”.  There are group retreats, retreats for priests, retreats for lay people.  There are many different types of retreats. Often I will get questions like, “How many days should we make a retreat?” or “Is a strict, multi-day retreat better than a short retreat?”  or “Should lay peoples’ retreats be silent like the religious or priests do?”  In my personal opinion, in order to answer these questions, we should first go back and understand the question, “What is a retreat?”

When we consider the word “retreat” in English or “retraite” in French, we see that it has various meanings. First, retreat means taking oneself away from something, especially coming away from our work or daily routine, things we do regularly over a long time.  In that way we can relax both physically and mentally.  For example, we could stay alone at home, or meet with friends, or go to the beach with our family, etc.   Second, retreat means backing off in order to take one’s stand. We can frequently be caught by difficult situations. (Maybe think about the time of war), and so we need space to get ourselves in order, consult with the people around us, have time to think and consider carefully.  Then, when we return to those challenging situations again, we will be able to deal with those various problems as best we can.  We can see that “retreat” has many meanings and value for us, no matter who we are or what beliefs we have.

In the history of the Catholic Church, a retreat has been used for the development and renewal of the Christian's spiritual life.  We can take ourselves out of our chaotic life situations in the world. We will be able to spend time with God. and meditate on His words (through the Bible); we might have a guide who helps.  We also recognize that the goal of a retreat is not merely to improve one's personal inner life.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the patron saint of retreats, emphasized that a retreat (the saint often uses the word “The Spiritual Exercises”) allows us to “discover the will of God” and to bring inspiration that will enable us to return to the outside world, in order to love and serve God and to serve our friends and brothers and sisters in everyday life. Therefore, it can be said in another way that a true retreat brings about both internal change (our relationship with God) and external change (our relationship with others in society).

In reading the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, we find an interesting word that might be associated with a retreat: the word “Sabbath”.  For the Jews, the Sabbath was considered a holy day, a day when they did not have to work or perform certain activities prescribed by their religion.  They had time to rest with themselves and with God.  However, it is interesting to notice that in the Gospels many times Jesus performed forbidden acts on the Sabbath (such as healing the sick or other miracles), and that earned Him special criticism from the Scribes and Pharisees. Of course we have no doubt that Jesus himself gave great importance to the Sabbath day, because he was a Jew.  But He wants our understanding of the Sabbath to be more complete and profound.  The Sabbath is for love. That is, we use the Sabbath day to take care of our life, not for the destruction of life (Luke 6:9).  Perhaps this new understanding of Sabbath might help us to go back and ponder the question we asked above: “What is a retreat?”

In understanding the meaning of the Sabbath day, we might think of the story in the first chapter of Genesis about God's creation of the world and all its creatures. In the first six days, He created all things, both living and non-living things. This includes the creation of human beings in His image. But on the seventh day, God rested.  If we look closely at these first six days, God is the “creator” and all creation is “being created”.  But we may have a question: On the seventh day, God stopped creating. Where did He go? Has He distanced himself from us?  Some Bible scholars have interpreted this passage in an interesting way: God has not left us nor gone anywhere at all because He loves us so much and is always with us.  But because of this love, God stopped “creating” so that the creatures He loves would grow and develop freely. True love cannot happen if the other party tries to control you all the time and not allow you to grow freely.

This interpretation may help us understand what Jesus was teaching us: the Sabbath must be based on love.  When we truly have time for ourselves and can get out of our daily routine, then we will be able to love ourselves.  We can learn to rest so that our body and our mind are refreshed after so much hard work.  We can also learn to love others more, by not trying to control those around us to be the way we want. Because of true love, we must know how to let go. and give the people we love the opportunity to have their free space, so that they can truly learn to grow on their own. And finally, taking a break from time to time gives us a chance to reflect and to see love and goodness in what we and others do, including the various blessings that God has given us.  In everyday life, we often fail to appreciate the things that happen in our lives because of all the turmoil around us.

Through this interpretation of  “Sabbath”, we might be able to reconsider the meaning and value of “retreat”. In the end, there may not be a definitive answer to the question “How many days should we make a retreat?” or “What form should our retreat be?”  It is the person herself or himself that has to consider these aspects: What kind of retreat helps more for me to love myself, others, and God?  These are the things that make a retreat valuable and which bring about true change, both to our inner and external life.