Retreats can be the panacea for all, write Judith Blore and Isobel McDonald
FOR those who have never been on a retreat, the whole idea may conjure up rather daunting images of long days spent in silence, incomprehensible lectures by aging priests and strict instructions to be up at dawn for morning prayer.
In other words a tough assault course for the spiritual athlete! If that were so, then the purpose of the Christian retreat would be defeated.
There is no one who can say that they never desire to "get away from it all". Retreats are an opportunity to retire from the rush of everyday life, a time to learn to be still, and to open the mind and heart to God.
The ways of achieving this are many and it is the vocation of the retreat houses to respond to the needs of both clergy and laity.
There may still be doubt in your mind, or a slight reticence that you would suit such an environment, but do not let that common fear of trying something different provide excuses to stop you going.
There can be nothing more interesting, or surprising than your initial meeting with all the participants. The atmosphere will undoubtedly be relaxed and homely because retreat houses are other people's homes.
Having decided to take the plunge, what next? The choice can be overwhelming; a short time of quiet to a weekend studying Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, or from Lenten reflections to Julian of Norwich. Retreat houses however, whether run by a religious order or not, offering private or organised retreats, have a background of prayer and community in common.
Don't worry though, no one is expected to spend all day on their knees in the chapel, nor is your absence, or attendence noted!
The discipline of the Daily Office, so hard to keep up in our normal day, becomes a source of energy and inspiration.
Sharing in the psalms and readings with your fellow retreatants is a reminder of the world outside and gives a sense of belonging to something larger than your own parish.
Organised retreats offer the opportunity to apply oneself to and further knowledge of a particular theme. All retreats allow time for personal quiet and relaxation and there are some houses such as Minister Abbey and the Quarry, which can offer only limited accommodation and retreats are run on a "do it yourself" basis.
It is now quite common for a centre to provide a Poustinia, in which you can spend time completely alone, the Grail Centre and the Carmelite Priory at Oxford both have facilities for Poustinia retreats.
For all practical details about retreats contact the retreat secretary at the centre you are interested in.
However, there are a few general guidelines that can be suggested here. Retreat houses do not make a profit, the prices they charge cover running costs but are unsually suggested, so that no one will be barred from making a retreat due to lack of funds.
Normally, all that you require is provided. You need have no fear as to the standard of food or accommodation, you will leave your place of retreat with both body and soul well fed!
Many centres are in beautiful and historic settings but if you have to rely on public transport
make sure that a six mile walk does not await you at the other end.
Not all retreat houses are specifically Catholic. In the last century the Oxford Movement rediscovered the value of the retreat and its place in the tradition of Christian spirituality.
Ecumenical houses such as Lee Abbey welcome Christians of all denominations. Iona Abbey practises an Ecumenical liturgy, an uplifting experience, combining diverse ways of prayer into a rich whole.
What is important about going on retreat is that you feel you need it. There is no one there to record your spiritual growth at the end of the few days or to judge whether or not you are now a holy person.
It is an opportunity for a time of peace, a step out of the world where achievement and gain have value.
The great message of the retreat experience must be, in those words of Christ so appropriate for our world today: "come to me all of you who are overburdened and I will give you rest."