Tuesday, 16 December 2014

How should a Catholic retreat look like?

"Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough", John William Godward, 1917

Let me be honest here. I've attended quite a handful of retreats in my life so far, and I have to say that the one I'm most pleased about is that one Protestant retreat during med school. *insert gasps and angry stares here*

Yeah. You would think that since I'm a lay Dominican, my favourite would be one of our Dominican retreats. No. In fact I hate them the most.

The Dom retreats I attended in the past were all New Age-y at best and heretical at worst. Many of the speakers seemed to mistake Christian contemplation with relaxation/breathing techniques, and Christian meditation with yoga. The last chapter retreat even invited an ex-priest who lectured us on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is a pseudoscience and a quasi-religion if taken to the extreme. I think this is simply embarrassing and degrading for Catholics and especially Dominicans; aren't we known for the balance of faith and reason? New Age mocks the faith and insults reason, because it is focused on the "self", while ironically dismissing the concept of the unity of body and soul, and the faculties of the soul (please, even Aristotle who was a pagan had proposed this idea).

Okay, so those retreats were bad terrible. But they did make me think: how, then, should a Catholic retreat look like?

My mind returns to That Protestant Retreat I attended. It has all the typical Protestant (Pentecostal) stuffs: fiery preachers constantly holding a Bible in one hand, altar call, random laying of the hands by laypeople, songs by Hillsong and the likes, and Bible discussion mixed with sharing sessions in small groups. In short, it was very Protestant. Anyone who went to that retreat would not be mistaken of it. [Even non-believers would at least guess that it was a Christian retreat, and this—I hate to admit it—would be pretty close to the truth.]

And that's it, that's the answer. A Catholic retreat has to be Catholic. A Catholic retreat has to be SO Catholic that anyone who attends would not mistake it as a Protestant retreat, a Buddhist retreat, a psychological counseling, a neopagan therapy session, or just as another weekend getaway with "church friends". A Catholic retreat has to ooze Catholicism, and by Catholicism I mean the Catholic faith with all her splendors (devotions, traditions, and so on).

Below are my version of the five must-have's in any Catholic retreats:
  • Catholic facility. A Catholic retreat is preferably held in a Catholic facility for maximum Catholic atmosphere. You know the stuff: a proper chapel, an Adoration room, stations of the cross, Marian grotto, etc.
  • Ample silence. The general objective of a Christian retreat is re-orienting our minds and hearts towards the Lord. I therefore think that a special attention must be paid regarding silence. Not much chatting, minimal use of the cellphones, and so on. It might be difficult for us modern, hyper-stimulated busybodies, but hey, it has to require some efforts, otherwise why join a retreat?
  • Spiritual direction. An ideal retreat should offer spiritual direction tailored for each individual. What often happens is lots of sharing sessions without any clear direction. "Free sharing" has the potential to become a spiritual pitfall—a shared experience might not be "wrong" in itself, but a person, upon hearing such an experience, might arrive to a theologically wrong or questionable conclusion. Care must be taken not to shun the shared experience itself, and to avoid making the person sharing it feel belittled; it is the wrong conclusion that must be addressed in the spirit of charity and fraternal correction.
  • Traditional devotions. Adoration, Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the Breviary, Divine Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you name them. TaizĂ©, while not necessarily "traditional", can also be a good option.
  • Confession and Holy Mass. What's a Catholic retreat without these two?

I've found great examples of retreat themes here and here. Most of them are directed for teens and young adults, but they can be used as ideas or prompts for our own retreats.

More themes that I could think of:

  • Bible-based retreat. I imagine heavy Bible study sessions, maybe focusing on a specific story like the infancy narrative or the Exodus
  • Sacred Liturgy
  • Servant leadership
  • Sin and conversion of heart
  • Mission and evangelisation
  • Gifts and charisms
  • Virtues
  • Vocation as a man
  • Vocation as a woman
  • Theology of the Body (TOB)-related themes (dating, sex, relationship, marriage, and the likes)
  • Sanctity in daily work/jobs (this sounds very Opus Dei, but yes I like their spirituality!)
I personally don't want my retreats to just be "feel good" activities—I can go watch a Hollywood chick flick for that. I want my retreats to be faith-filled and thought-provoking and challenging. All-day silence? Bring it on! And please, stick to the chosen theme, y'all!

Do you have any ideas about how a Catholic retreat should look like? Do you have any specific activities, themes, designs, or sessions that have worked in the past? Please share with us! :)

1 comment:

  1. One particular spiritual director said this:"if nothing is changed inside you after a retreat (ie. you came happy you went home happy or you came sad you went home sad) then that retreat is a fail. However if you are disturbed after the retreat (ie. you came sad and went home happy or you came happy and went home sad even clueless) then it is a successful retreat. Why? Because whenever the Holy Spirit comes and touches you something's gotta change in your life for the better (and remember this warning its often a bumpy ride ;p )


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