Why retreat?


Open House’s arts editor reflects on the retreat experience, its history, those who seek it out and those who offer it today.

A friend of and contributor to this magazine, from much experience, coins the phrase, ‘Re-treat’.  As in, ‘Be good to yourself: again.’  There is perhaps more to that than simple verbal neatness.  A few days of silence and prayer doesn’t have the appeal for most people of a weekend at a spa, but for some it is an essential fixture in the calendar year.  Historically those would have been more or less exclusively priests and religious but that demographic has changed.  The question as to how and why that is, and how it changes the place of the retreat experience itself, is worth contemplating.

The earliest desert fathers and mothers were the first in the Christian tradition to stress the essential nature of silence and withdrawal as features of prayer.  Hardly ones for narcissistic indulgence, they told us that ‘If the inner person is not watchful, the outer person cannot be watched.’  In other words, when we stop attending to what is going on internally our outward presentation becomes less authentic.  Who hasn’t learned that lesson?  Freud certainly did and made something else of it.  Arguably our contemporary culture is still reeling from the impact.

It’s a particular kind of ‘watching’ of course.  It’s the kind Abba Moses meant when he said ‘Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.’  It is predicated on the (not exclusively) Christian belief that God has a profound and unique interest in each individual human being and that that ‘interest’ is being worked out constantly whether we’re paying attention or not.  Put crudely, a time of retreat provides us with an opportunity to tune in to that experience and to tune out everything else.  One wonders of course what ‘everything else’ could possibly have been in the more remote areas of the third to the fifth centuries: no social media; no 24 hour news; no iphones; no Celebrity Big Brother.  What exactly did they feel the need to withdraw from?  And yet it was there and then (and even before), not here and now, that such a need was properly identified and addressed.  Does it speak, therefore, of an inherent, timeless human instinct and desire?

The temptation is to conclude that it does.  That everyone has some need, at varying levels, to ‘shut off’, take ‘time out’, recharge: there are many modern idioms that appear to refer to what it is people are doing when they ‘go on retreat’.  A cursory glance at the annually published directory of retreats in the UK will also evidence a smorgasbord of options for anyone looking to dive in.  You can dance, paint, write, walk, do yoga, do the garden, study nature, study yourself, sail, sing or sculpt.  You can do any of these alone or with others; silently or with conversation included; in the mountains, by the sea, or amid the city throng.  Like everything else in neo-liberal culture we can buy any version of it in the confident belief it will make us feel better.  Not exactly what Abba Moses had in mind but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.

To get a handle on what the modern business of retreat going and giving has become, and how it relates to the ancient practice, we need only to look at the experience of religious retreat centres.
Traditionally these have been run by religious orders and for the most part still are, albeit in reduced numbers.  The Catholic ones, which still draw on the charism of founders, are now as likely to attract all sorts of people from all denominations including, in England and Wales at least, significant numbers from the Anglican tradition.  ‘Spirituality’ rather than denominational tradition is the hallmark of today’s retreat centre.  That may include some, if not all, of the optional activities listed above but it will almost certainly contain one distinguishing factor: while by its nature the experience draws us inwards, the focus is ultimately other.  Feeling better is not only permitted, it is entirely possible, but for Christians it is never ultimately the point.

This principle was developed incomparably of course by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.  Following the Reformation the theology of a personal relationship or experience of God through Jesus wasn’t exclusively held by the new Protestant churches.  Not a man to half-bake anything, Ignatius brought together loyalty to the church and Pope, personal devotion to and connection with the person of Jesus through the Gospels, and the marrying of both of these to the individual character and temperament.  He did it primarily by creating a systemised version of retreat known as ‘the spiritual exercises’ which form a routine of silent prayer and reflection usually shared daily with a spiritual director over a period of thirty days.  The object is to enable the individual to model herself and her life choices on the example of Jesus and to discern her own way forward in the light of this: ‘Whatever you are doing, that which makes you feel most alive is where God is’.  For Ignatius there was always a congruence between our deepest satisfactions and God’s desires.  The challenge is to understand what it is that really does make us feel ‘most alive’.

The modern British Jesuit province now locates all of its residential retreat giving resources at St Beuno’s in North Wales.  It was once occupied by one of their most famous brothers, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose words and insights still shape the mood of the place, and retreats with themes like prayer through poetry and art are common.  The backbone, however, remains the ‘thirty days’ (a demanding experience now also being taken up by a wide diversity of people: not necessarily with unambiguous ‘religious’ identities; many at points of life-change; some seeking rather than confirming) and all of its attendant versions adapted to shorter periods.  The same pattern of appeal to a wider, more eclectic demographic is evident here too and reflects, perhaps, the increasing shallowness and complicated nature of our culture.  It has become almost clichéd to refer to the clichés of Twitter but when we occupy a marketplace in which you only get a few seconds to both say and hear, what on earth can happen in thirty days (or eight, or six, or two) of complete silence?  It’s worth finding out, and it’s heartening that a greater variety of people appear to want to try.

Currently in Scotland there has been something of a dearth of quality opportunities to make retreat in both comfortable and resourceful surroundings.  The widening of the market in this respect may be impacting positively as those circumstances appear to be shifting. The long established Redemptorist centre at Kinnoull has undergone some recent renovation and continues to offer a range of retreat options in peaceful surroundings.  Pluscarden Abbey too has upgraded accommodation to allow visitors and retreatants to benefit from a few days of life in monastic community.  In its ambitious plans to complete the final wing of the building there is included accommodation for women to replace the present temporary building.  Those hoping to make a retreat there are advised to book well in advance.

The richness of all of these is that a point of entry can be found by anyone into the experience.  It’s not necessary, or perhaps advisable, to start by biting off a ‘thirty days’ but the taste of a weekend of silence might be just the job.  What still distinguishes the Christian retreat, in all its variety, from the many others which reasonably adopt the term is the question at the end: ‘what now?’  Or as Ignatius more directly put it: ‘Go forth, and set the world on fire.’


Lynn Jolly works with people with learning difficulties in the prison system.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.