How to Make a Good Retreat
If you’ve never made a retreat before, starting a retreat can be daunting; it doesn’t have to be, however, and there are a couple of things you can do to help you confidently enter into the space of retreat.
How do I pray on retreat?
When should I pray?
How should I pray?
What do I do if I'm having difficulties?
How am I ever going to keep track of that Jesuit jargon?
Keep it simple but be consistent
HOW DO I PRAY ON RETREAT IN EVERYDAY LIFE?
A retreat in everyday life is different than one in a retreat house. The daily responsibilities of life won’t go away but you will be invited to integrate guided prayer into your daily rhythm. We recommend that you carve out a consistent time and space in your schedule to intentionally focus on the prayers and practices of the retreat each day; in addition, we encourage you to let the themes of the retreat, prayers, and readings simmer in the background of your daily life.
WHEN SHOULD I PRAY?
The Holy Spirit helps every person pray differently and there are as many times to pray as minutes in the day. In general, you should find a time each day when you are alert, relatively free from distraction, and able to devote fuller attention to the Lord. For some, this time will be in the early morning before the day begins and for others, this time will be at night just before bed. For God, anytime is a good time to share God’s graces with us; the question is when are we best disposed to receive those graces. That will depend on you. You know yourself and when you are most settled: pick that time and stick with it.
HOW SHOULD I PRAY?
How one should pray also varies from person to person. In general, the goal is to find a way to enter into a period of prayer so as to trace the movements in our hearts that guide us towards God’s love and God’s will. There are three keys to getting started in prayer: entering into silence, being prepared, and practicing patience.
By silence, we mean the general absence of external distractions. Distractions are a part of prayer and are often beyond our control; as a result, we should try to control those things we can control in order to reduce distractions. Try to find a quiet space in your home (or a quiet time) to pray or, if you are able, walk outside while you pray in a quiet park or on a sidewalk.
By preparation, we mean the work one does before and after entering prayer. Entering into prayer can be like getting into a cold pool of water: you can jump into the deep end or ease in slowly. We recommend easing in slowly. Before you start to pray, look over the prayer materials: watch the video, read the guides, familiarize yourself with the scripture passage, and try to focus on what you are about to do. Taking a few minutes to recollect yourself before entering into prayer is helpful for keeping distractions at bay.
You might also develop some kind of routine or ritual to help you enter into the time of prayer: lighting a candle, playing a favorite hymn or song, taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself, or saying a short prayer can all be helpful actions to take before you pray.
In addition, we recommend that after you pray, you spend a few moments in a review of prayer. This practice allows you to savor any graces, name any desolations and challenges, and generally get a better sense of your experience. Your prayer will lodge itself more firmly in your memory if you take the time to review it.
Starting prayer can be challenging, so a certain amount of patience is helpful. The body plays a key role in helping us enter into prayer and having good prayer posture will help you be patient in your prayer. Find a good, sturdy chair that isn’t too comfortable (you don’t want your prayer period to become a nap right away) that allows you to sit upright and breathe deeply. Lastly, as you begin to pray, you might be tempted to cut your prayer time short. This response is normal but trust the Holy Spirit and stick with the amount of prayer you’ve resolved to pray; if you’re tempted to cut a 10 minute time of prayer short, pray for 15.
WHAT DO I DO IF I'M HAVING DIFFICULTIES?
Ignatius said every retreat needs to be shaped to the retreatant and her or his needs. No one makes exactly the same retreat and people respond to the retreat material differently. Hence, the Jesuit principle of tantum quantum, which means “insofar as”: insofar as a mode of prayer or spiritual exercises helps a person profit and draw spiritual fruit, that mode of prayer should be employed. If it doesn’t help or is harmful, it should be dropped.
At the same time, Ignatius expects every retreatant to make some progress with the help of the Holy Spirit. The basic movement of Ignatian spirituality is a movement from careful thinking over the material, to prayer of the heart, which ends in a resolution to enter more deeply into love of God and neighbor. A good faith effort should be made to experience all of the proposed prayer periods and exercises. If you are struggling, pause, talk about your difficulties with God, and try again later; if challenges persist, talk with one of the retreat directors.
In other words, discouragement shouldn’t lead to despair. Trust that God isn’t giving you anything that you can’t handle.
HOW AM I EVER GOING TO KEEP TRACK OF THAT JESUIT JARGON?
Yes, there is lots of terminology in Ignatian retreats! We will try to be consistent and when we use our Jesuit vocabulary, these definitions give a good sense of what we mean:
Grace - God’s presence freely given as gift that helps us draw closer to God
Examen Prayer - prayer of St Ignatius that prayerfully reviews our day, seeking to understand where God has been in our lives
Ignatian Contemplation - a form of prayer in which the retreatant uses his or her imagination to compose in great detail a scene or passage from Scripture, imagining how the scene unfolds and plays out; having imagined the scene in rich detail, the retreatant then places herself with the help of the Holy Spirit in the scene she has imagined in order to gain greater insight
Meditation - a form of prayer that involves considering and thinking over a Scripture passage, passage from the Spiritual Exercises, or poem in order to grow in understanding of God, yourself, or the world
Lectio Divina - a form of prayer that involves prayerfully re-reading a short passage of scripture
Repetition - a return to a previous prayer period with the hope of remaining with the grace shared and to enter more deeply and personally into the mystery of God’s presence
Application of Senses - imagining the physical and tangible details of the scene during a contemplation or meditation, including the details picked up by the five senses; for example, an application of senses of Jesus walking on water might imagine the feel of the wooden sides of the boat, or the sounds and smells of the Sea of Galilee
Preparatory Prayer - a time before prayer to focus attention on God
Review of Prayer - a time after prayer to review and reflect upon your reactions, feelings, moods, insights, conclusions, and challenges you just experienced
Colloquy - an intimate prayerful conversation between you and Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit that explores your experience of life and of prayer; Ignatius we speak to God tenderly and from the heart, as one friend speaks to another friend
Consolation - movement toward God, with growth in awareness of God’s presence in your life and any growth of interior faith, hope, and love
Desolation - movement away from God, with a loss of awareness of God’s presence in your life and any diminishment of interior faith, hope, and love
WHAT SHOULD I SHARE ABOUT MY RETREAT WITH OTHERS?
A retreat is a deeply personal and intimate encounter with God in prayer. At the same time, you are not completely on your own during this retreat: your fellow retreatants are going through this with you and your retreat directors are there to assist you. With that mind, insofar as you are comfortable, share what’s going on in your prayer. If your prayer has been rich and filled with a deep experience of God, talk about what that feels like and how you feel. If your prayer has been distracted and dry, talk about that and you might receive some guidance. If your prayer has been difficult and painful, it is very important to discuss with the retreat directors about what is going on in your prayer. In general, if you think you need to share your retreat experience with someone for whatever reason, you probably should.
Some practical guides: first, let the retreat simmer in the background of your life before you start sharing. Unless you’re in great distress, wait a day or two before reaching out with questions. God is directing this retreat and is trying to lead you to the graces that you need so, when it comes to sharing your experience, be patient.
Second, when we do meet for group faith sharing or for individual conferences, keep your sharing focused on what’s happening in your prayer. Tell us about what has happened in your prayer: share with us the things God has shown you or taught you about yourself. Report back on the ways God is helping you grow in faith, hope, and love. Or, share your consolations and your desolations, the ways God has been present in your life or the ways God has seemed absent.
Third, keep each other’s confidence and trust each other’s privacy. We strive to respect confidentiality in this retreat. Your retreat directors will not share anything private or personal you share with us. The only exceptions are if we fear you are a danger to yourself or others or if you report any kind of abuse that we are mandated to report. Otherwise, we will respect your privacy.
Lastly, keep your fellow retreatants in your prayer. Part of your preparatory prayer can be praying for each of your fellow retreatants.
KEEP IT SIMPLE BUT BE CONSISTENT
Ignatius called his retreat manual the Spiritual Exercises and compared the prayer periods to physical exertion. Now, if you were preparing to run a marathon for the first time, you probably wouldn’t start with a 15-mile run; instead, you start incrementally, growing in your capacity as a runner the more you train and gain experience. Being on a retreat and growing in the spiritual life is similar: start with what you can do, build a consistent habit of prayer and reflection, and stick with the retreat through the highs and lows.