Some Thoughts on Making Retreat:
Hints to make your retreat experience special
When we go on retreat we leave with such high expectations. Whether this is your first retreat or your 100th, as you leave your home to travel to a sacred place, your heart anticipates great joy and peace to come. To make this a reality it is recommended you prepare a little ahead of time to make sure you truly benefit from the peace and tranquility that comes with retreat.
Familiarize yourself with the retreat center and its spiritual life
When I first went on retreat at my beloved Episcopal, Benedictine monastery, Holy Cross, in West Park, New York, to find out something about the place was a chore. I actually didn’t know anything about the Divine Office or monastic spirituality until I got there. Oh, they sent me a brochure. But it didn’t tell me much.
Today, Brother Google to the rescue! To find out about your retreat center or monastery, well, just google it. All of them will tell you about the rhythm in the house, the services provided, the schedule of each day. You need not fly blind, like I did, back in 1978.
Do some homework before you go so that you aren’t starting from ‘scratch’ when you arrive.
Take 24 hours to get in the rhythm
You will find once you get to your retreat center it takes some time to get into the rhythm of the place. Sometimes it will take you a full day to feel release and to experience the joy of being away from the hustle and bustle of your life. A monastery or retreat center has its own rhythm that continues with or without you. You will enjoy your time in contemplation much more if you get into that rhythm as soon as you can. Here are some things to consider:
- Go a day early –yes, even if you have to stay in a hotel near the site, going a day early means you are getting away from your everyday existence before you actually begin the program. Just this change in venue will help you relax and open up to your retreat.
- If you can’t go a day early, you can actually start your retreat a day early at home. Tell your loved ones you are starting to ‘slow down now’ in preparation for your time at the retreat center. They will understand and may even join with you in a more contemplative way for the time being.
- Ride to your retreat in silence. Leave the radio off in the car or wear headphones if you are traveling by plane to just begin experiencing some level of silence before you get there. And reduce the amount of talking you do. Making a conscious decision to do this will help your body make the transition with you.
- When you get to your sacred center immediately work to understand the rhythm of the place. If it is a monastery and there are daily offices, begin going right away, respond to the bells calling you to prayer, even if you can’t find the right page in the breviary when you first get there.
- In a retreat center if the program starts right away, don’t hesitate-dive right in. The sooner you become part of the place the sooner your body and mind and heart will slow down with you and help you be open to the beauty of your program and those conducting it.
Depending on how long your retreat is this first step is really important. If you are only going for a couple of days, spending one whole day slowing down and getting into the rhythm leaves you little time to fully experience the contemplative nature of your experience. You can take steps beforehand to shorten this ‘orientation’ period.
When you get there, acclimate yourself right away
Every retreat center or monastery is different. But all of them have some of the same kinds of places-all will have a chapel, prayer space or meditation hall. You can be sure a refectory or cafeteria where you will take meals and find coffee or tea will be there. And, all will have bathrooms, hopefully! Find them as soon as you get there. Know where they are and how to get to them so you don’t waste valuable time worrying about getting directions or getting lost.
- Walk around the entire area if you can. Get a feel for places of silence and places of action. If there is a labyrinth, find it and make a point of returning if it is a meaningful tool for your spirituality. If there are nature areas for contemplation, scout them out early so you can spend less time in transit and more time in silence or in your program.
- Acquaint yourself with the schedule right away. Sometimes you will have received it ahead of time so you can come prepared. But if you get the schedule when you arrive, spend some time with it and really know where you are going to go and when, including where you might decide to skip a session or two.
- Meet the leader and others in your group quickly and get the introductions and chit chat over quickly. Remember you are probably going on retreat to be alone and, perhaps, silent, not to make new friends (though you will make many new friends on retreat for sure).
- Find the coffee pot and tea area! Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Your time will be structured for sure, but there will hopefully be much down time for you to pray or meditate or just be in silence. Spending time with a hot cup of tea or a glass of juice can add to your retreat.
Make your room your cell
In the monastery, a monk or nun has his or her own room called a cell. There the most basic of needs are met-a bed, a desk, a comfortable chair and little else.
In a retreat center you will also have a room to yourself, probably. Make it your own. If you have brought books like a Bible or your favorite Book of Common Prayer, perhaps some icons or other symbols of your faith, lay them out in perfect places in your ‘cell’ so they can be visual reminders that this place, though temporarily, is yours and it is there to help you on retreat. Your room on retreat is also a place of peace. You can make it even more peaceful by making it more personal.
Some other things to help your time on retreat is special
- Bring as little clothing as you can. You are on retreat. That means no one is going to look at what you are wearing or whether your shoes match. Take comfortable, well worn, personal clothing. And if you wear the same stuff every day? So what?
- But make sure you also bring enough clothes. Check the weather where you are going and make sure you have packed for every possibility. Nothing can ruin your time on retreat more than always being cold or always being hot. Pack accordingly.
- Place your clothing and other personal items away. Don’t leave your clothes in your suitcase…hang them up and put them in the dresser provided. Remember this is your ‘cell’ while you are there. Make it your cell
- Get to know your room. This sounds a little weird but it isn’t. Really look at your sitting chair and desk. Make sure to notice the art on the walls (which will probably be sparse). Open the drawers and get a good feel for the place. It’s yours remember and it too plays an important role in the success of your time on retreat.
If you want silence, ask for it
Some retreats are active, some are silent, some are both. Whichever yours is there are times when you are going to want to just be. If you need to, tell people you are hoping to be mostly silent on your retreat. Some retreat centers actually provide badges that say “thanks, I’m being silent” or something like that. The bottom-line is don’t let others ruin your time and that means they have to know what you expect of them.
Kurt Aschermann finished a three year term as a Lay Pastoral Leader at a small Episcopal Church in Virginia last year. He has led retreats at the National Cathedral and various parishes and has been an Associate (oblate) at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY for 36 years. This post comes from a larger piece with the same title.