Monday 24 March 2014

How to Do a Self-Directed Retreat

By John D. O’Brien, S.J. 

Photo credit: John D. O'Brien

There are many who never get the chance to make an Ignatian retreat. Many, however, have heard of them, desire to do one, and can often carve out a weekend of free time in a relatively solitary place. So in the interest of promoting spiritual growth, here are some basic principles for a self-directed, home-made retreat.

First, where might we do such a retreat? The key is to find a place that will provide as much uninterrupted solitude as possible. This could be the cottage, a place you are house-sitting, a farm, or your own home, as long as the family is away. It can even be in the heart of the city, as long as visitors and electronic distractions will not be an issue.

Next, let’s assume our window of free-time starts on Friday night and will last until Sunday midday. We should schedule our prayer times in advance, even if we might massage exact times later. You might want to do one or two prayer times Friday evening, three to four on Saturday, and two on Sunday. Each prayer time, which we will call meditations, should last around an hour, including preparatory and concluding prayers.

How do I pray in an Ignatian manner? First, allow some time for the senses and the mind to settle down. When you begin, gently brush aside the distractions that come to your mind, but do not worry about them too much. Use your imagination to find Jesus by considering a mental image of him that speaks to you. This will lead to intimacy.

With each meditation, be sure to follow these basic points:

  1. Know ahead of time which passage will be your meditation. Anticipate it. 
  2. Make an opening prayer invoking the spirit and asking for a specific grace. It could be as simple as “greater knowledge and love of the Lord” or something specific to the passage. 
  3. Your prayer can then be lectio divina style (re-reading of a passage several times), or you can single out three points from the chosen text to dwell upon. Meditating is like tasting: turn what comes to you over in your mind, and allow it to speak to your heart. 
  4. Conclude with a time of one-on-one conversation with the Lord and remain in whatever kind of listening-communion you are given.
  5. End with an Our Father (because Jesus always brings everything for the Father).

In preparing the material of your meditations, find scripture passages that mirror the following arc or sequence: Since the first movement in silent retreats usually finds us “taking stock” of ourselves, some of our sin history usually arises. Review this gently as it comes – but with Christ present. We might pray on the story of the Prodigal Son or other similar passages. If there’s opportunity for sacramental confession Friday night or Saturday morning, that would be ideal. We need to clean house before we can go forward.

On Saturday, we then turn to look at the figure of Christ, our model. Your passages for prayer could be the Baptism of Christ, the Calling of the Apostles, the Stilling of the Storm, Martha and Mary, and so on. There’s no “correct” scripture passage— all lead to the well that is Christ.

This should naturally lead to a consideration of the passion, perhaps by Saturday evening. One or two meditations could be on specific parts of the passion, such as the condemnation and the crucifixion. Be with Christ until his death. Go into the tomb with him. Sleep well.

On Sunday morning, pray on the Resurrection and the Ascension. Consider how much love God has for you, and ask yourself where do I go from here? Make an account of the graces you have received and write them down.

Ordinarily, it is ideal to talk to a spiritual director at least once on a retreat. The objectivity of an external guide can sometimes help us avoid certain subjective potholes. But in the absence of one during a self-guided retreat, plan to bring to a director, or any spiritual person you know, the main graces from your retreat later on. Speaking to someone will help us concretely appropriate and properly orient ourselves in the wake of the retreat.

A final point: Remember that tears are not necessarily a sign of desolation or derailment, but a kind of deep soul-wash. Also, keep your journaling to after each prayer period (not during). And remember that you have been made from all eternity to praise, reverence, and serve God – that is, to love God. The aim of all retreats should be growth in our faith, hope and love of Him who loved us from the beginning.

This is just a basic structure for a short retreat, and roughly mirrors the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I hope this helps the life-bound God-seeker. If it does, when you find God in the stillness, pray for this writer, eh?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! Very helpful. Difficult for me to find alone time for an entire weekend but hoping to take a week long silent retreat for my 50th (ugh - talk about desolation!) birthday in a couple years.

    But good for a day process as well. Very accessbile and doabe.