By a Special Correspondent
A 30-day retreat will begin at Harborne Hall, Birmingham, on July 22. It is one of a world-wide series of events being held by the Sisters of La Retraite to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the opening of the first retreat house for women in Brittany.
Directed by Fr Michael O'Halloran. Si, it will be restricted to a limited number of Religious and laity and will be based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.
This is appropriate for, as Sr Margaret Canta, the secretary,
explained: "The original Sisters chose to help their contemporaries to find the spiritual dimension of their lives through the Spiritual Exercises."
The need today is no less, and the Sisters at Harborne "aim to provide an atmosphere of peace and prayer where retreatants can give their full time to prayer and the search for the will of God, as they have done in our retreat houses over the past 300 years." Harborne Heti is so busy that it is almost impossible to find an empty day between now and the end of December. It is catering for groups as varied as the Carmelite Tertiaries, the Ladies of Charity and the Guild of Catechists. In addition there are ecumenical prayer weekends, retreats for married couples and for private groups.
"We have a wide variety of retreatants, from the silent conservative retreat to the discussion group, prayer type, and we have two eight-day retreats and many single days," said Sr M argaret.
These mounting pressures are not unique to Harborne: they are being experienced by every other retreat house in Britain. Recently new centres have been opened by the Benedictines at Ampleforth; the Vincentian Fathers at Damascus House, Mill Hill; the Passionists at St David's in Wales, and the Augustinian Sisters at Haywards Heath.
Sr Theresa Mary, secretary of the National Retreat Council, told me: "We do not get retreat numbers from all the retreat houses. but from our own observations I would say that numbers are going up after having been rather low for several years.
"There have been a good number of lay people inquiring about retreats. I have had 180 or so letters in the past year asking about retreats and the number of lay people joining the National Retreat Council has increased from just a handful to 53."
Impressions gathered by people engaged in retreat work Suggest that mothers and parish groups prefer days but nearly all would prefer to have a weekend if they could spare the time." More married couples are becoming interested in the Marriage Encounter retreats which are rising in popularity.
The Salesian Fathers are currently carrying out a massive
extension programme at Savio House, Bollington, Cheshire, which, when it is completed at the end of this summer, will enable them to accommodate 60 people in individual rooms instead of the present 25.
Fr J. Cunningham told me: "This house started as a Salesian Retreat Centre about a year ago, obviously in response to what we felt was a need, although we had been operating as a centre for the Better World Movement for several years.
"Even in this first year there has been a considerable amount of work, and there have been several bookings for next year already. It would seem that the prospects for retreat work are good." Savio House specialises in working with groups of young people, drawn from the schools, sixth forms and universities of the North-west and North Midlands.
Fr Cunningham said: "I do not think they are very clear in their own minds what they are looking for when they come, but we usually try to give them something which is not quite the traditional form where they have a few talks with the Mass stuck on at the end.
"We try to create a community experience, and to convey the attitude that the Christian corn
munity is something good and so to give them a good experience of their Faith.
"We discuss their Faith not on an intellectual level but in a way that is meaningful to their lives."
The Salesians also place considerable stress in their retreat work with youngsters on the importance of the liturgy. With one group that was in residence for Holy Week they decided to build everything round the ceremonies, spending Thursday. Friday and Saturday "preparing for the services."
Fr Cunningham continued: "We had them in workshop groups whereby they were all involved in what the service was going to be, and they had a particular aspect to develop with a leader to guide them. They brought all this together for the various services. We had a Paschal Meal on Holy Thursday and they took the Mass out of that.
"They thought that was terrific because many of them came from parishes where there does not seem to he a lot of contact as the church itself is so large. They do not feel involved, even though the Mass is said in English."
This emphasis on the community is also to be found in the programme of the Movement for a Better World, launched by the Italian Jesuit, Fr Lombar dini, after the Second Vatican Council and now becoming more popular in Britain.
. "It is really an adult type of retreat built on the spirituality of the Council which is an attempt to produce to a cornmunitarian spirituality," said Fr Cunningham.
As with the youth retreats given by the Salesians, the Movement for a Better World placed great emphasis on. the Liturgy. The retreats were "very
demanding in terms of time because the actual growth of understanding can only really be effective after a period of considerable time.
The retreats are given by teams of people representing all the vocations in the Church — priests, nuns and lay people. Each talk lasts for about 20 minutes and is followed by a similar period of discussion.
Fr Cunningham continued:
"Fr Lombardini got the idea of representing the call to holiness which is given to the whole
Church. and if the idea of the
Council was a call to unity through creating Christian corn munities built on unity then that is best expressed by various vocations coming together and allowing dialogue and discussion. to take place." Each or these retreats is eon structed on three stages. The first tries to develop an understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the world today. The participants examine the signs of the times and the state of the world.
The second stage moves into what is regarded as the more traditional retreat material, with talks on Christ and prayer, but always in the context of the wider vision of the first stage.
The third and final stage has a more practical aspect as the team leaders fade into the, background while the retreatants plan what they intend to do as a community in the future,
"It is particularly useful for parish groups and religious communities," said Fr Cunningham, who has recently returned from conducting two retreats in parishes at Dalbeat
tie in Kirkcudbrightshire and Langho in Lancashire.
The more traditional private retreat is still in demand, several retreat houses and convents offering facilities for those who are anxious to spend a period in private meditation.
Sr M. Regina, CP, of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Passion at Daventry, said: "On average one or two ladies a month come for a few days or a week. I think their main need is to get away from the noise and bustle of everyday life and have a chance to relax in an atmosphere of peace where they can let their minds free to consider the fundamental realities of life.
"Most of our retreatants already have a faith of some kind and seek only to deepen this. Some need advice in their
problems. Many of them have no one they feel they can trust with their personal problems and in us they find an understanding person in whom they can confide, knowing it will be kept confidential."
These retreatants follow no Set programme. If they wish they can remain completely on their own in the beautiful surroundings of the monastery or they can approach the sisters for a period of discussion.
As Sr Mary Regina put it: "Nothing is demanded of them, nothing expected. They enjoy the refreshing atmosphere of being emancipated from any pressure.'
With the problems of everyday living increasing there is obviously going to be a growing demand for this type of retreat.