Several weeks ago I visited a church in south-west London to take part in a specially arranged mission. The church in question had invited a visiting priest from a religious order to give a special 4 day long mission to the local people of the parish. This included preaching on key church truths such as the four last things, sin and salvation and other central truths of the Christian faith. Vital though our understanding of these important truths is, they are rarely referenced in the weekly life of most churchs, so hearing them preached from men on fire for God help remind us of our place in the overall scheme of God’s eternal plan.
This experience took me back to the time when I was a boy growing up in Derry. The Catholic Church was very different then and my memory of it is distinctly clear. The very holy and devout priests of lour local parish, Saint Marys Creggan, always made sure that a special retreat was laid on for all parishioners one a year. Priests from devout religious orders would come and spend a week in the parish, ministering to the needs of the flock. Missions would be held in the morning at 6.30 am and again in the evening at 6.30, one week dedicated exclusively to men and another week dedicated to woman, a vitally important way of doing things from a retreat point of view. The visiting priest would usually be Dominicans or Redemptorists or zealous Jesuits, yes, there was a time when Jesuits where zealous and on fire for God! Either way, I always found the retreats extremely effective and some of the sermons are etched into my memory to this day.
It is vitally important for all Catholics and Christians to be reminded of the seriousness of life, the importance of God and our relationship with him, to be reminded of impending judgement and of course heaven and hell. So why did the Catholic Church largely stop offering these retreats in parishes? After all, it was and still is difficult for parents to take time off from their family and work life. So this practical idea of bringing the retreat to the people was a brilliant way of solving the problem. I suspect one possible explanation is that the changes that overwhelmed the church as a result of Vatican 2 got in the way of this old retreat idea. I recently suggested the idea of bringing mission to our parish priest here in London as a way of re- evangelising. He wasn’t impressed with the idea at all.
Nevertheless, the idea of an annual retreat is still a necessary one and has not loss any of its validity, even though they may not be happening as much as they should. Saint Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church in his ‘Introduction to the Devout life’ reminds us that the early Christians practised an annual renewal of their spiritual life that included renewing their profession of faith and vows made. The good Saint Francis stresses the importance of annually renewing your devout purpose of serving God, ‘for fear that if you do not, you may relapse into your former condition, or rather into a worse one’.
In fact, all of the Fathers of the Church and saints made a practise and feature of annual retreats in the same way that people have their cars serviced, otherwise they become sluggish in performance and could even seize up!
Ask yourself the question – when did you last go on an annual retreat? We should take the answer to this question very seriously indeed as our place in eternity could be affected by the answer. Going on retreat is also a brilliant way of giving your soul a good servicing in taking time to restore and renew it in a setting removed from the noise and clamour of every day life.
Ideally, retreats offer us an opportunity to get closer to God our maker and renew our commitment to serving him in all aspects of our lives. Successful retreats are beautiful God encounters that renew our faith and remind us what life is really all about. We are all quite happy to spend time and money planning holidays relaxing on a Greek island or skiing in Austria and indeed these kinds of activities are very important as they restore our energy and refresh mind and body. Our souls are in even greater need of attention and a good retreat is effectively a good work-out for the soul. The body after all is only useful to us in this short life. The soul has to last for all eternity so setting a few days and some money aside for retreat purposes every year is vital housekeeping.
The best and most effective retreats are those that are led. Some people think that ‘open retreats’ are helpful, going away to a nice location for a few days and filling in your own time. These types of retreats are of VERY limited value. I highly recommend the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ developed by saint Ignatius of Loyola, a silent experience that will lead you gloriously closer to God. The good and holy men of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in France come to the UK and Ireland every year and give a 5-day silent Spiritual Exercise retreat, an experience I highly recommend. UK and Ireland dates given below:
I will be heading to beautiful Donegal in July to complete my retreat, booking already made. If you would like to do same, click on the this link and then go to Spiritual retreats for booking information.