It is true that Margaret and I do a fair amount of traveling every year, but on Monday next [September 25] we will be off before sunrise for a different sort of getaway, a 360-mile drive to Mepkin Abbey, about thirty miles from Charleston, South Carolina. We have been looking forward to our four-day quiet retreat for quite some time; we have not been to Mepkin since the Covid epidemic first struck and the abbey’s outreach was limited to protect the health of the senior monks and the retreatants. But Monday, God willing, we will be back for the silence and the rest, the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the warmth and the silent community support of the monks, the opportunity for spiritual counseling and sacramental confession with a monk who has lived the vowed life for a half-century or more, cozy corners to sit with the Scriptures and the classic spiritual writers of the Church…with the 24-hour Keurig brew master never far away.
There is some irony in the fact that when someone makes a retreat in the context of a religious community, like the Trappist monks, the opportunity is there for that rare intimacy of aloneness with God to discern God’s will in the life of the retreatant. And yet, the healthiness of the solitude is enhanced big time by the proximity to the living, breathing Church of men or women religious who go about their lives in peaceful, prayerful silence—witnesses who remind us, as Jesus reminded Pilate at his trial, that there is a Kingdom at a sacred remove from the personal and environmental chaos where we routinely dwell and call “the real world.”
A TWO-DOLLAR HISTORY OF RETREATS
Socrates, who lived four centuries before Jesus and was considered an atheist, is reported to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For Socrates, the need to” know oneself, one’s reason for being,” was of the very nature of humanity. [And curiously, Church teaching has held over the ages that God’s revelation is accessible through natural reasoning.] No less so for those who walk in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrew and the Christian Canons of the Bible are generous in their descriptions of those who stepped out of their lives for a time to reflect upon their relationship with God and to open themselves to God’s invigorating new wisdom for their future direction. Certainly, Jesus’s forty days in the desert-- ----with his encounters with Satan--is the most famous “retreat” and the event described in all four Gospels is a reminder that honest prayerful insight can reveal much about ourselves that is disquieting, though the Gospel of Mark also records that the angels came into the desert to minister to him. Christian history has generally treated favorably the idea of meeting the Lord is a quiet space over a time—be it a day or a lifetime.
In the Christian era, Roman Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians. Individual. and collective escape to the quiet and solitude began in the 300’s A.D. when Romans employed by the empire [50% of the citizenry, by some accounts] hastened to baptism just to hold good place with Constanine, and not to “take up thy cross.” Many sincere Christians in Rome found it nearly impossible to live a true baptismal lifestyle surrounded by the ribaldry around them. Hermits, and eventually clusters, gravitated to North Africa to pray and live outside of the madness of public life, from which arose the age of the “desert Fathers” or “desert mystics.” A brief but excellent summary of the beginnings of the healthy spiritual movement away from the world can be found in the Britannica’s Life of St. Antony of Egypt. Recent history has publicized the leadership of the “Desert Mothers” as well as the “Desert Fathers” in this era.
As the disorganization of the Dark Ages in the Western Church gave way to the more structured Catholicism we are accustomed to today, Religious Orders such as the Benedictines would open their monasteries to assist lay men and women in physical and spiritual need. I should note that there were many monasteries of women—living the same vows as their male counterparts—till at least the thirteenth century. Around 1200 Pope Innocent III ruled that all monasteries must be unisex, which certainly throws a different hue on those boring old Middle Ages.
Alongside the vowed communities of renewal, itinerant religious groups such as the Franciscans in the thirteenth centuries established communities of witness and service to the laity of Italy and eventually elsewhere. In a vision, Francis beheld Christ speaking to him thus: “Francis, rebuild my house.” While I was in Bruges, Belgium in August, I came upon the extensive site of the community of the Beguines, founded around 1240, a loose confederation of lay women who lived in voluntary simplicity and did not marry, though they took no canonical vows. They assisted in the corporal and spiritual outreach to the laity, under their own governance. The last Beguine died in the early twentieth century. I have gone out of my way to highlight the renewal work of women in the history of the Church because I believe that in the discussion, we may see history repeat itself in the next generations of the Church’s life.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT RETREATS OVER THE YEARS:
When I came into this world in 1948, it was not uncommon for a Catholic adult to sign up for a weekend retreat at a local “retreat house” or religious institution. There were men’s retreats and women’s retreats. They typically ran from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. The format consisted of conferences or spiritual talks, Mass, devotions, and confessions/personal spiritual conferences. In fact, it was during such a spiritual conference in 1960 that a Franciscan retreat master talked a mother into sending her oldest son to a friars’ seminary instead of to the “Little Seminary” of the Diocese of Buffalo. [You guessed it.] As I recall, there were a decent number of choices for making retreats in the Buffalo area, along the Lake Erie and Niagara River shorelines. The retreats were always given by priests—partly because of the sacramental duties involved, and partly to strengthen the institutional commitment of the Catholic participant to the life of the Church.
In the United States, the concept of the private retreat evolved along with many other church practices in the Vatican II era. In 1969, as a collegiate seminarian student, I signed up to work on a retreat team with fellow friars—composed of seminarians a bit older than I was—to serve the high schools and religious education programs inside the D.C. beltway. In two years, I was one of the two directors of the program, sometimes referred to as “the God Squad.” I look back on those retreats—three-day jaunts with 50 or more “teeny boppers” to rustic outdoor sites rented to use from Protestants, who had a wealth of summer Bible camp experiences and built their sites accordingly. My favorite retreat site for our kids, though, was Camp Maria, in Leonardtown, MD. On a personal note, I spent the day before my ordination reflecting at Camp Maria, as the site was holding no programs that day.
When I started in the retreat ministry, on paper we were using a program called “Teenagers Encounter Christ,” or TEC, still in existence 50+ years later, a national ministry established a few years earlier to assist dioceses and parishes in building regular faith support communities of their high school members. The TEC weekend retreat was the first step in undertaking follow-up programming; we assumed that the church and school communities would do that. I was always surprised that the same schools invited us back every year. Nobody, not even our professors, had the time or experience to help us critically assess what we were hoping to accomplish or to break down the skillsets necessary to comprise a unified retreat experience—public speaking, small group leadership, counseling, leading prayer services, etc. Pastoral ministry in 1969 was in that state of flux. We worked from the seat of our pants much of our time, our primary goal was to bring the students closer to God and the Church in an optimum way. I like to think we were successful to some degree at that. Many of our “retreat alumnae and alumni” would join us at the friary for our Sunday morning conventual Mass.
I continued to give retreats for the first five years of my priesthood, this time without a team. The Sisters of Mercy in New Hampshire and other religious communities in New England invited me on several occasions, thanks to my summer school connections, and then a retreat house in the Finger Lakes of New York put me on its rotation to give retreats to laity. It is hard to describe how pastorally satisfying it was to give those retreats. It is one of those rare opportunities as a priest to do all the things you were ordained to do—Mass, confession, conferences, spiritual direction—and none of the things you must take care of at home—i.e., administration. My Order did have a “retreat band” of priests who worked full time on the road, and this work looked more and more attractive. But having given retreats to many women religious, I felt it would be dishonest to preach and minister to them without serving some time in the nitty-gritty of parish life. Thus, I applied to become a pastor in Florida…and the rest is a story for another time.
CHOOSING RETREAT OPTIONS TODAY
One big factor in 2023, a major change from years ago when I was still in the “family business,” is the reduction in the number of priests, and this includes religious order priests, many of whom specialized in retreat work, full or part time. Many of the buildings and institutions that welcomed retreaters a half-century ago no longer stand. Several dioceses, including my own, have established spiritual development centers over the years, offering a wide range of services including retreats, though in fewer numbers than decades ago. In Orlando, for example, we used to have a community of religious priests at the site, but this is no longer possible. If the figures I am seeing are correct, most religious educators, speakers, and scholars in our major schools and university are women, and the retreat ministry in the U.S. may become a woman’s enclave, if it has not already.
Today a prospective retreatant must decide if he or she wants a silent/private retreat or a structured/content retreat. If you read the websites of various retreat centers, you may be asked your preference. How to decide, of course, is up to you, but it is a good question to bring up with your pastor or confessor. A “structured retreat” implies that you will participate in the religious exercises [prayer services, etc.] and the “talks.” The contents of the talks should be made available to you before you commit, as you would have the chance to assess which topic would be most helpful to you—I have seen retreats for those in grief or twelve-step programs, for those seeking deeper insight into prayer or the Scripture, etc.
I am most at home with Mepkin Abbey, for while it does offer directed or private choices for retreat, the Trappist atmosphere of silence conveys a round-the-clock sense of peaceful sanctity. I choose the silent/private route, though I join the monks for the major Liturgies of the Hours and Mass, as well as confession/spiritual direction. For this week’s retreat I purchased Shaped by the End You Live For: Thomas Merton’s Monastic Spirituality, as well as packing my Gospel of John.
Mepkin Abbey now publishes a requested stipend or offering for a four-night stay. The costs of maintaining a community of primarily senior monks as well as the fine retreat accommodations and meals is not insignificant. However, any offering is graciously accepted. Moreover, the monastery has several ancillary services on-line to follow-up their retreat; Margaret and I belong to a circle of retreat alumni who meet monthly via Zoom to discuss assigned spiritual reading. Other religious providers have similar assistance.
I am told that it is time to pack, so I will have to cut it short here. My first retreat at Mepkin was twenty-five years ago. We were doing our paperwork with our pastor to marry in October 1998. He told us not to worry about a pre-Cana program, but he suggested we make a reflective retreat at a place called Mepkin Abbey. We did…and here we are, on the eve of our 25th anniversary, returning to the hospitality of the good monks.
On My Mind