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2019-06-07

Once-a-Month Retreat Days

Practice of the Week
Once-a-Month Retreat Days

Category: WORTH A TRY, or OCCASIONAL, or MIGHT BE YOUR THING: These practices are "worth a try" at least once, or, say, for one week. Beyond that, different people will relate in different ways to the practices in this category. Some of these practices you will find great for "every once in a while" -- either because they are responses to a particular need that may arise or because they are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. Among these practices you may find the one particular practice that becomes your main and central spiritual practice -- or a Key Supporting Practice.


When I needed someone to confide in, someone to talk with about my own spiritual growth and struggles, I was referred to Sister Barbara, a Catholic spiritual director. In my initial conversation with Sister Barbara, we explored our faith understandings, seeking to determine where we might overlap, or even whether we overlapped. While she believes in a personal god and the agency of Jesus, she also finds process theology and mysticism central to her faith understanding. I have Buddhist leanings and a mystical humanist sensibility. We found we could work together just fine. I began to meet with her monthly for spiritual direction.

Over the months, we connected best on the practical aspects of the spiritual life: disciplines of journaling, dream work, and meditation. She often suggested just the right small spiritual exercise that helped me go deeper with some experience -- "Why don't you play with sketching that dream?" or "You might try writing a letter to them, one that you will not send."

One day I asked Sister Barbara if I could expand my visit from an hour-long meeting to a full day so I could "make retreat” on the grounds of her spiritual community, She agreed, and since then I have tried to make every visit a retreat day.

Retreat Days

Once a month, I arrive at Villa Maria at 10am, for my retreat day and spiritual direction session. I head to the empty sanctuary for meditation. This 1970s-era building, with its great expanses of fluid, impressionistic stained-glass windows, is often flooded with color and radiance. A bubbling fountain helps set a meditative mood.

After sitting for a half-hour, I find an unused room where I read and write in my journal for the rest of the morning. I review my journal entries from the previous month (however few or many) and reflect on them as I write an entry for that morning. At lunch I find an empty table and eat in silence.

The afternoon might include a walk in the woods or a walk on the labyrinth on the grounds. On cold and rainy days, I might hole up in the small library, exploring some of the Catholic mystics and liberal writers: Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, Richard Rohr. Or I might sketch at the Art Barn, a converted farm structure.

My hour of spiritual direction with Sister Barbara is the center of the day. We might explore what I've realized about the past month or where I'm sitting spiritually at the moment. After my session, I sometimes write in my journal about my discussion, continue reading or sitting, or merely wander the grounds.

These retreats are sometimes the most satisfying day in the month. I try my best to attend to myself, to turn inward, to discern what is happening with my spirit.

Create Your Own Directed Mini-Retreats

I have become an impassioned supporter of spiritual direction as a tool for people seeking to advance their spiritual growth. We benefit from a pattern of regular sessions with someone who can be fully present with us as we sort out our current place in the world and the direction of our next steps on the path.

In the past, people typically found a spiritual director by asking their religious leaders for contacts. Several online resources now offer help in finding spiritual directors.

Some directors prefer terms such as spiritual guide or spiritual companion, but the older term is most widely used. Some spiritual directors are comfortable working only within a specific tradition or theological framework, while others are willing to work with a more diverse group of directees. An initial phone call or meeting will help you discern if your styles are compatible

Combining a retreat day with regular meetings with a director adds depth to the experience. I am very fortunate to be able to take a whole day each month for retreat. You might have to juggle your daily life commitments with your retreat time and spiritual direction. You might try taking less than a full day for retreat at first or make a retreat on a week end day.

To craft a retreat day of your own, explore what facilities are available. Friends of mine make retreat at art museums, finding their quiet and beauty the ideal frame for contemplation. Libraries, especially university libraries, can be other good spots for retreat, provided you are not overly distracted by the delights on the shelves. Perhaps a coffee shop or dining area can provide quiet refuge for writing and reading. Being outside and walking or sitting in a park, rangeland, even a cemetery can be restorative. Consider what you really, deeply need in your retreat space. Where will you go when you need to cry? Where will you go when you need to dance?

For most people, detachment is a challenging but important part of a retreat. Staying out of contact is a desirable but sometimes unattainable goal.

Being silent is a core part of my detachment. But it can be hard to be completely silent in a retreat space where other people are not maintaining silence. My approach is to be silent except when interacting with people is necessary -- for example, to obtain my food at lunch. At times, I may offer a quiet greeting but not idle chatter.

Retreat and spiritual direction helped me stay grounded as I faced new challenges; they have helped me find the direction of my own spiritual growth.

When I mention my retreat days, people are often curious and perplexed, unable to imagine that such a thing is even possible or desirable. As a longtime meditator, I'm amazed and gratified that meditation and mindfulness practices have recently become popular in schools, workplaces, gyms, and even churches. These trends fill me with hope. I'm optimistic that the formalized solitude of making retreat, and the one-on-one companionship of spiritual direction, may also become ordinary components of the practice of serious spiritual seekers.

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