What’s a Retreat?

I’m preaching a retreat for priests next week and I’m wondering what to say. As usual,  I ask myself –what is a retreat anyway?

A car tune-up comes to mind.  I usually delay getting it done because I wonder if I really need it; after all, the car still runs. Why go on retreat we say; we’re still going along spiritually? But the car needs to be tuned up; the oil needs to be changed; the tires need to be balanced and any unusual noises need to be checked out.

The concept of balance stands out. A retreat is a time to regain spiritual balance. That’s suggested by a commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian I read recently.

God is “our” Father; we pray for “our” daily bread; we ask that “our” sins be forgiven, the saint stresses. Early commentators like Cyprian emphasized  a common approach to God as they reflected on the prayer taught by Jesus.

It’s not just me and God.  We go to God together, not alone, the saint says. My voice joins with others. I have to ask for others as well as myself. I have to pray that “Our bread–that is, Christ,” the cosmic Christ who embraces us all, be given to us all.

“ We must fear and pray lest anyone should be kept at a distance from salvation who, being withheld from communion, remains separate from Christ’s body. For he has given us this warning: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. And therefore we ask that our bread – that is, Christ – may be given to us daily, so that we who live in Christ may not depart from his sanctification and his body.”

We live in an age of  “expressive individualism,’ as Charles Taylor describes it, and we need to rebalance ourselves by entering into communion with other realities besides ourselves.  We’re imbalanced towards individualism, and  imbalance is dangerous.

What realities? Certainly we need to open ourselves to other human beings. We belong together and we need each other. We tend today to become preoccupied with ourselves, which leads to isolation and loneliness. We  might need rebalancing.

“As generous distributors of God’s grace, put your gifts at the service of one another.” ( 1Peter 4,9) It’s not enough for me to have gifts; it’s wrong to hoard gifts;  I have to use them for the service of others. That will cover a multitude of sins, St. Peter writes, our personal sins.

In an age of expressive individualism, it’s easy to fall into a selfishness that causes us to look out for ourselves and turn away from others.

It’s not just the human world we must commune with. What about the natural world? The fragile world of nature so endangered today? Some say we have become imbalanced because we have lost our connection with the universe. We come from the dust of the earth;  besides giving ourselves to our human family, we need to put our gifts as the service of our natural world as well.

Finally, we must remember our union with God, our creator, the One who sustains us; the one who calls to intimacy and lasting communion. “God is my refuge and our strength,” we say in the psalms. “Without me you can do nothing, “ Jesus says.

In the recent issue of the Jesuit magazine American (June 6-13,2011) Fr. Richard Hauser SJ reviews a book by Louis Savary call The New Spiritual Excercises: In the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, (Paulist Press)  It’s an attempt to re-envision Ignatian retreats in the light of de Chardin’s evolutionary and cosmic perspectives. Good idea, the reviewer says.

Is a retreat a time of rebalancing, renewing our communion with God, our human family and our world? Is a retreat a time to become aware of where we fit in the evolution of things, in the cosmic picture? I think so.

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