Retreats prepare you for life

retreat_logoThere is a human instinct, some call it a divine nudge, which leads a person to interrupt the unforgiving daily grind with some gentle time away. Most often the call begins, “I’m not sure why I’m calling, but I’m looking for some quiet.”

I’m the associate director of the Benedictine Retreat Center in Maplewood, MN, and I’m the person who answers many of these calls. We’re a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of St. Paul’s Monastery, and people see this place as a source of answers, guidance, spirituality, retreat and peace. It is a service we joyfully provide.

Whether they seek just a few hours while the kids are in school or a couple nights in the prayer-filled atmosphere of a monastery, these first-time callers are relieved to hear they are not alone in their initial uncertainty. When we tell them, “You are welcome here,” we affirm their inclination to seek renewal and rest.

The conversation continues as they ask for details related to arrival and departure times and wonder about cost and arrangements; but the next question betrays the great hurdle they seem to face: “What will I do when I get there?”

Even exhausted by doing too much with too little time, the temptation is to seek out more activity. Doubts will persist about “using the time wisely” until they learn how, in their own way, to slow down for the sake of life.

Esther de Waal, an author and Benedictine scholar, makes a helpful distinction about the retreat experience. A retreat, she says, is not fundamentally an oasis, as if it is a place to escape the world and be with God. Instead, a retreat is preparation for life. According to de Waal, we listen to God in prayer before immersing ourselves in the world.

Each person’s listening to God takes a unique shape. For some it involves painting, journaling, or a long walk on a sunny day. Others use this time to tie trout flies or sit with a spiritual director. But for all of them there is a sense of letting go and entering a rhythm that is larger than one’s self.

The rhythm of Benedictine monasteries often provides a helpful framework for anyone making their first retreat: they will experience work, prayer, learning and leisure. Practices of study and work are punctuated with times for communal prayer in the morning, midday and evening. Time reading the scriptures enriches the day with a sensitivity to God’s voice and an appreciation for leisure as a healthy part of wholeness.

Monasteries have been a resource for spiritual seekers over the centuries, but it may be helpful to paint a modern day picture. The words our guests utter most often when they enter the door at St. Paul’s Monastery are these: “It’s so peaceful here.”

If you’re making a retreat at the Monastery, the following is how we help you experience that peace.

Upon arrival, you enter a space filled with works of art and glowing with natural light. One of the sisters greets you and helps you settle into the bedroom, and find your way to the dining room, chapel and other key locations. Most guests begin their retreat with a nap and are surprised at their body’s need for permission to rest.

After a meal in silence or in conversation, you can browse the current art exhibit or check out the latest titles in the monastic library, perhaps taking a cup of tea and a book to read for the evening. After a solid night’s rest – maybe one of the few you’ve experienced lately – you can take a walk in the morning before breakfast and prayer.

The day continues as you are led. Given a little freedom to live without a to-do list or schedule, you may find that the environment helps you listen more closely to how you would ‘like’ to be in the moment rather than how you ‘should’ spend your time.

Noticing your own habits might help you relax into the retreat experience. Each of the following are reasonable and common responses to being on retreat. Perhaps you will find yourself relating to one or more:

  • If you find yourself wanting to do everything at once, choose one book that may nourish you and stay with it during your retreat. Consider staying with one section that moves you and take the remainder home.
  • If you find yourself thinking about stretching out for a bit of a nap, give in to sleep. It may be just what your body needs.
  • If you find yourself longing to spend your time in nearly complete silence, allow yourself the freedom to offer another person a “Good morning” without feeling guilty.
  • If you choose a private exercise, remain open to time with others if you sense God’s invitation.
  • If you find yourself not having a clue what to do first, unpack your bags and go for a walk. Go outside if you need to wind down or take a tour if the weather is poor. Without being rigid, see if you can explore something life-giving while on retreat.
  • If you find yourself returning for a repeat visit, do what you need to get settled into your pattern at the monastery. When you find yourself doing something “just because,” take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What would I like to do?”

Retreat centers are usually flexible in meeting the needs of busy people. If you must, for example, you can schedule a retreat at the last minute when a window opens in your schedule. Better yet, set the time aside and make a reservation well in advance and then savor the ways you look forward to your retreat; see how it shapes your approach to the daily grind until then.

A retreat is not escape from the world, it is preparation for living life well. In the quiet we learn to listen and to embrace our identity in God. The classic retreat formula is simple: Slow it down. Repeat as necessary.



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