I have never been on a silent retreat. The idea intrigues me, but I can’t stop thinking about the time my parents went on one. The custom at this retreat house was to play some edifying audio book during breakfast, while serving a humble meal of cold cereal to the retreatants.
The inevitable result was that the story of The Little Flower or whatever was almost drowned out by the deafening CRONCH-CRONCH-CRONCH of forty jaws busily working away at their bowls of bran flakes. Maybe the acoustics were especially good, or maybe the heightened spiritual atmosphere amplified the situation, but my parents found this so hilarious that they had to leave the room. And it was there, out in the hallway, that they met another woman who had also gone absolutely boneless with silent laughter. She was the only other person who also thought the spiritual crunching was funny, and the three of them stayed in the hallway and laughed until they cried.
And they stayed close friends for the next 35 years or so, until my parents died. I don’t know if they got anything else out of that retreat, but I don’t think my mother ever had a closer friend. They helped each other through so many trials and shared so many joys. Their friendship was a true gift from God.
This is a long way around to illustrating how retreats can come with unexpected gifts, and not necessarily the ones you thought you needed. I have been on several retreats in my life, and none of them have delivered what they promised, but I haven’t regretted any of them.
“This is what a retreat ought to be, perhaps: Not necessarily an experience in itself, but a setting, a stage, an opportunity for an experience. An upper room with an invitation for the Holy Spirit to descend.”
Once, I went with the intention of just taking advantage of the peace and quiet of some time away from my normal routine, and ended up re-awakening my prayer life after a very long dormant spell. Once I zoned out through all the talks and services all weekend long, but then I wasn’t able to sleep; so I took a walk in the dark, found an unlocked chapel, and had an unforgettable experience there, undirected, unstructured, just me and Him in the moonlight.
Once, I went to confession to a priest who turned out years later to be a predatory abuser. But that was still a secret at the time. I know this isn’t easy to hear, but he was still a priest when he heard my confession, and he still had gifts, and it was one of the best, most healing confessions of my life. God brought about some good from an evil man.
This is why I always urge people to jump at the opportunity to go on retreat, or to send their kids, or their spouse, if it’s ever possible (once you’ve done your due diligence that they’re not run by absolute lunatics, of course!). Even if it doesn’t look like your style, even if it’s not quite what you were hoping for, even if it doesn’t look likely to provide all the missing pieces. You never know what God might have planned.
I have read that one of the major predictive factors for whether or not a child will remain Catholic when he becomes an adult is if he has some profound religious experience when he is an adolescent; and many people report having these experiences on retreats. And I’ve interviewed a good many priests and seminarians who say that a retreat was a turning point for them. They can pinpoint it as the moment when they first began to take God seriously — when they first felt the questions of the Holy Spirit as an urgent thing, demanding answers. Something happens, something hits you, someone speaks to you in a way that never got through to you in the same way before, and you can’t forget it, deny it, or shake it for the rest of your life. This explains why so many religious education classes, especially for teens, include some form of retreat.
Which is not to say we can order up a life-changing experience for people in our spiritual care. I’m heartily opposed to shoving still-developing kids into emotionally charged hurricanes and telling them that this is what their spiritual lives are supposed to look like all the time. But it probably can’t hurt to offer kids an experience that is unlike what their normal lives look like, to startle them out of the endless clamoring distraction and make them wonder if the isn’t something else out there. It can’t hurt any of us. This is what a retreat ought to be, perhaps: Not necessarily an experience in itself, but a setting, a stage, an opportunity for an experience. An upper room with an invitation for the Holy Spirit to descend.
Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. Retreats don’t always bring about dramatic life-changing experiences. In fact, they usually don’t. And just like anything else put together by humans, they can be dull or inconsequential or even harmful. That’s always a possibility. And even if they are life-changing, what reaches people is not always something we can engineer. That’s why I started this essay with the story of the crunch-crunch-crunch. I have no doubt that God put my parents together with their friend. Innumerable goods came from their long friendship, and they never would have met if they hadn’t both gone on retreat at that particular place. It was a silly, inconsequential thing that actually brought them together, but it wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t take the trouble to put themselves there. You never know what might happen on a retreat.
Retreats are a chance for people to step away from their ordinary lives so they might encounter Jesus, one way or another. They aren’t magic, and there’s no guarantee that they will supply some missing piece in your spiritual life, or place a necessary anchor for a child’s religious identity. They’re just another way of showing up and presenting yourself to the Lord, in case this is a time and a place He particularly wants to make himself known to you.