Retreats: Those spiritual experiences where you find God and yourself

It’s easy to think all priests are crazy busy during Holy Week, especially during the Tridium, the most sacred time of our Church’s liturgical calendar. Yet those of us working on a college campus find it is usually a quiet ministerial time, for the congregation, our students, are away way during the Easter holidays. Students call Holy Week our ‘Spring Break,’ for they tend to run off to warm beaches, hopefully returning to the family Easter celebrations by the Tridium. Many if not most priests at colleges find a local parish to assist with needed extra ministerial help or find other prayerful ways to celebrate the holy holidays. 

For me, I like to take my annual retreat during Holy Week. The eight-day silent retreat is something all Jesuits, as well as most religious, experience annually. It is a blessed time and I find myself spiritually and psychologically renewed after my retreat to finish off the academic year. Cell phone and computer turned off, no meetings or tasks – it is a wonderful time.

In fact, I sometimes wonder why more people of faith do not take an annual retreat. It’s a little secret kept by priests and religious, even though the retreat houses are open to everyone and all. Yet they often remain so empty (except for a few traditional and successful places like Manresa). On college campuses, there are some amazingly powerful student retreats that have developed over the past few decades– among them Kairos and the Awakening retreats. These student-run retreats have become increasingly popular among high school and college students and can build a deep foundation and create a strong faith community that opens the doors of faith to many. So yes, retreats are alive and well on campus. 

 “Be still, and know that I am God”  + Psalm 46

For me, the more powerful retreat is a silent retreat. It’s just me and God, with usually a retreat director who stands aside to let it all happen. When I tell someone I am going off to a silent retreat, so many say, ‘that would be impossible for me!’ I am not sure if it’s finding the time to carve out a week (or even a weekend) or if it’s the fear of remaining silent for any length of time that is more difficult, but both reasons usually deter most people from trekking off to a retreat house to make a silent retreat. That’s too bad.

It can be very difficult to make the time to stop being busy. Our worlds have become so complicated and so connected that the screens that rule us. How do you find the time to take a spiritual vacation away from family and relationships, from work and ministry? How? You simply do. You’d be surprised how many of your loved ones will be supportive of your desire to go off to take time for God and yourself.  

A broken leg and a vocation 

My first spiritual retreat wasn’t even a retreat – it was forced convalescence. When I was in my 20's right out of college, I was in a harsh motorcycle accident while traveling abroad. I returned broken to my family in Chicago, leg in a hard plaster cast. For over three months I was forced to remain in bed to wait for my broken bones to heal and mend. I was angry and I was bored. I had read every book available until one day I picked up a small paperback that a close friend had given to me, called the ‘A Pilgrim’s Journey -- the Autobiography of Ignatius.’  

As I lay in bed with a broken leg, I read of a young Basque soldier trying to figure out his future path, lying in bed with broken bones. He listened to the movements of his heart and soul. I was hooked. I learned of consolation/ desolation and discernment and I was suddenly journaling and seeking to find my own path in life. My pilgrimage began and that small little paperback changed my life. It helped me discover my vocation to become a Jesuit.

Ignatius talks of each of us having a unique relationship with our God. And like all relationships, it takes time – quality time – to nurture and build. Where can you find the time to do this in amidst our oh-so busy lives? As we get distracted, God waits for us. On retreat.

On a retreat, silence is initially hard. We are so connected to our cells, email, social media and the issues of the world that swirl around us. Yet as we move into the silence of our heart, we discover new things in ourselves and in God’s creation which we have not fully grasped. We begin to better understand that God is truly found in all things. As we separate ourselves from the noise and busyness of our lives, we find peace and calm and hope.  

One of the things I like to do on my retreat is pray for each of those in my family, each of my close friends and co-workers. I imagine the face of the person --wonder where they are right at that moment, what they are doing, thinking. In my praying for each –  both those in my past and those in the present -- I discover new depths in my relationships.

 ‘Oh Lord, the sea is so great and my ship is so small’

This Old Breton prayer was inscribed on a block of wood on the desk of President John F. Kennedy, said to have been given by him by Admiral Hyman Rickover. It sits on a block of granite on my desk as well. To me it symbolizes the great sea of life that is so overwhelming at times, that we need to take refuge. Refuge is a retreat where we find God awaiting us.

So as we near the summer, as I stand on my spiritual soapbox, the message I leave with our readers with, is find time – no, make time to refresh the spiritual batteries. Go on a retreat. . . for a weekend, a week or even a day in the park. You will find God awaiting you. 

Ted Dziak, S.J., University Chaplain

For a list of Jesuit retreat houses in the U.S., click HERE >>

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