An invitation from a local retreat center beckons to the worn and weary. Who among us does not need renewal these days? The demands of daily life challenge even the most disciplined spiritual seekers.
It helps every now and then to press pause and get away on retreat—for a week, a day, or even an hour. Spiritual retreats can happen anywhere from a retreat center to a parish hall to the kitchen table. What matters most is the time set apart. Retreats gift people precious space to encounter God and to take stock of their lives. They offer the chance to step outside of a normal routine and into intentional spiritual practices such as prayer, reflection, and rest.
Even Jesus took time to retreat. The Son of God made a habit of withdrawing to deserted places: at the start of his public ministry, in times of grief, as big decisions loomed. He carved out space to renew his spirit. We would do well to follow his lead.
Christian communities offer a wide range of retreat options with various themes and formats. Following are profiles of 10 types of retreats to get your discernment started.
If you want to dive into scripture . . .
You settle into an easy chair and flip open the Bible. The stories of Jesus flash before your eyes—familiar parables and prophecies that now have the space to speak. As you pray, you pause over a line from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). Cocooned in the stillness of a retreat, you hear the Son of God pose the same question to you.
People who are intrigued by the Bible or want to establish a prayer routine may especially value a retreat focused on scripture.
“Scripture is an account of the past, but the same dynamic of creation is at work in our lives today,” says Kathleen Cahalan, who facilitates a six-day School of Lectio Divina retreat at St. Paul’s Monastery in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “Spending time with biblical texts can help us see what God is doing right now.”
Retreatants do not need any special knowledge of scripture to have a meaningful experience. They only need a heart ready to listen.
“Don’t be intimidated by scripture,” Cahalan says. “Let God reveal what God is going to reveal in and through the text for you.”
A practice like lectio divina—which calls for repeated meditation on a single word or phrase—draws the person praying into dialogue with God. A retreat focused on scripture offers intentional time for such conversation.
“The God who reveals Godself to Moses at the burning bush is the same God who reveals Godself to you when you engage with scripture,” says Cahalan.
School of Lectio Divina
Location: St. Paul’s Monastery in Saint Paul, Minnesota
Length: Six days
The School of Lectio Divina immerses participants into an intense time of meditative prayer. Expert teachings on the ancient monastic prayer practice of lectio divina lead into ample times for personal, silent reflection.
If you want to connect with the liturgical year . . .
“O come, O come, Emmanuel . . .”
The ancient chant fills the sanctuary on a frigid December afternoon. While others are busy decking the halls, you gather with fellow parishioners for the annual parish Advent retreat to ready your heart for the birth of Christ. Perhaps you felt pulled to come on retreat after your pastor posed a powerful question in a recent homily: How will you prepare for Christ’s coming?
“By slowing down,” you thought. “I need to slow down.”
People who feel like life is moving too fast can use the liturgical year as an excuse to hit the brakes.
“The liturgical year gives us deadlines,” says Laura Kelly Fanucci, who developed virtual retreats for the Epiphany and Lent earlier this year from her home in Minnesota. “Life is always going to feel too full—but if you want to make a retreat in Advent, you only have so many weekends.”
Seasons and feasts fill the church calendar. Each offers meaningful prayers, hymns, and rituals ripe for reflection. For instance, a retreat around the Solemnity of All Saints may invite retreatants to create their own litany of holy people. An Easter retreat may invite retreatants to take stock of mini-resurrections happening in their lives.
These times set apart can serve as touchpoints.
“A liturgical year retreat can be a chance for us to consider: Who am I at this time? How can I engage God anew this season?” says Fanucci.
Myrrhbearers: A Lenten Retreat
Length: Four days
Cost: $100 (scholarships available)
Award-winning author Laura Kelly Fanucci shares her research and wisdom on some often overlooked biblical characters: the Myrrhbearers who cared for Jesus at the time of his death. Retreat participants receive an e-book written by Fanucci to pray with throughout Lent. The retreat sessions include a talk from Fanucci and optional small-group discussion time.
If you’re looking for spiritual guidance . . .
Sighing, you sink into the sofa. Work, classes, family, and friend commitments pack your days—but for the next hour you are on the aptly named “busy person’s retreat.” Across the room sits your spiritual director, ready to listen.
“Tell me what’s on your heart today,” the older woman says gently.
A common element of many retreats is one-on-one meetings with a spiritual director. Sessions focus on the spiritual life of the retreatant, including their relationship with God and points of discernment.
“Retreatants tell us that reflecting with a spiritual director makes them more attentive to God’s beauty and presence in their lives,” says Liz Palmer, a campus minister who coordinates a busy person’s retreat for Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
The idea of talking with someone else about spiritual issues intimidates many people at first. Directors are trained to create safe space and help guide the conversation as needed. Sessions tend to fly once the retreatant starts talking.
“I encourage retreatants to check in with any questions resonating in their hearts and then to bring those questions to the discussion,” Palmer says.
Many people view a retreat experience as set apart from normal life. But a busy person’s retreat—designed to be done at home in short spurts of time each day—encourages participants to make elements of retreats such as prayer, silence, and spiritual conversations part of their regular routine.
“This type of retreat invites people to integrate the retreat mindset into everyday life,” says Palmer.
Online Busy Person’s Retreat
Length: Four days
Ignatian-trained spiritual director and retreat facilitator Becky Eldredge offers a retreat from the comforts of home to help participants reflect on God’s presence in the midst of daily life. Participants are asked to commit 30 minutes each day for prayer with the materials provided and 45 to 60 minutes for daily individual meetings with a spiritual director.
If you’re discerning how to be anti-racist . . .
With what race and ethnicity do I identify? Is it the lowest or highest caste in the United States? What messages have I internalized about my group and others?
You ponder these heavy questions on your evening walk. To confront racism is to confront a long litany of sins: violence, oppression, privilege, power. Where will you begin?
Retreats can help people discern their callings to work for racial justice through educational and reflective experiences. Teresa Marie Cariño, director of faith formation at St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco, created a virtual racial justice retreat framed around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. She notes two types of people who could especially benefit from a racial justice retreat.
“I notice people coming to Black Lives Matter protests who have an emotional reaction and want to get involved in racial justice but don’t know their next step,” says Cariño. “On the other hand, I see people who have been in this work for a while and are spiritually drained. Both could use a retreat.”
Cariño says being rooted in spiritual practices is essential for withstanding the challenges of racial justice work.
“There is an underlying moral teaching in many religions and spiritualities about the inherent goodness of all people that is not recognized in much of our broken world,” she says. “Retreats allow people doing the work of racial justice to get in touch with that moral foundation as a centering space.”
St. Ignatius Parish Virtual Racial Justice Retreat
Sign up for a twice-weekly email from St. Ignatius Parish that guides participants through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola with a special focus on racial justice. The “Discernment Series: Racial Justice” newsletter includes reflections on current racial issues and meditations.
If you’re seeking community . . .
You look around and see five sets of eyes gazing back at you with great tenderness. You just unpacked a difficult part of your story to your retreat small group, seated in a circle on a floor covered with pillows. For the first time in a long time, you feel accepted—and grateful that your initial apprehension did not keep you home this weekend.
“On communal retreats, there is often a shared uncertainty and curiosity among participants at first that help build community,” says Nate Friday, director of campus ministry at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. “We let participants know that we’re all in this together to step away from everything and retreat closer to God.”
A highlight of community retreats tends to be small-group sessions, where retreatants wrestle with big questions and share stories in conversation with familiar faces or new friends. Friday admits it can be hard to convince some people to turn off their phones and take time away for a community retreat.
“I tell my students—you think you’re going to miss what’s happening on TikTok or Snapchat, but what socialization will you miss out on if you don’t attend this retreat?” he says.
Friday says that anyone across the spectrum of faith—from the most devout to someone without much faith at all—can find enrichment in a community retreat.
“With God working through them, retreats can nurture us in whatever step of the journey we are on,” says Friday.
Location: Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania
Length: Three to four days
Cost: $200 to $250
Kairos retreats feature witness talks, small-group sharing, and the chance for young people to connect with peers in similar stages of their faith journeys. The Greek word kairos means “God’s time.” Well-formed retreat leaders invite participants to enter God’s time during the days together.
If you’re asking big life questions . . .
What does God have in store for you next? A start-up firm recently approached you about joining its team. The new position would double your salary, but it would also double your workload and commute. You need space to figure out the best move for you and your loved ones—so you sign up for a discernment retreat.
“We make thousands of decisions a day, but it never hurts to set apart time to actually sit with something,” says Lisa Cathelyn, director of campus ministry at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
People deciding on a next step or those wanting space to chew on big life questions may especially benefit from a discernment retreat. Discernment is the spiritual practice of choosing between goods. Many discernment retreats draw on the wisdom of Ignatian spirituality. Retreat activities may include imagining various scenarios surrounding the decision, praying the Daily Examen, and paying attention to feelings of consolation and desolation.
Discernment can be difficult. Saying yes to one option means leaving another behind. Cathelyn says many people pressure themselves to come away from a discernment retreat with clear answers. She encourages them to take a posture of openness instead.
“God is not a slot machine where you put a quarter in and get a response,” Cathelyn says. “God’s ways are not our ways. Trust that when you take time for a discernment retreat, God will show up.”
The “What Should I Do?” Retreat: Making Decisions with the Wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Location: Various U.S. locations
Length: Two days
The “What Should I Do?” retreat for young adults features talks from Jesuits on themes of Ignatian discernment and reflection time to pray about individual decisions. Other elements of the retreat include reconciliation, Mass, and adoration.
If you’re craving silence and solitude . . .
You let out a deep breath from your perch on the hermitage porch. You have not spoken to anyone—other than God—during the three days of retreat. Time alone heightens your awareness of the surrounding world: a robin’s chirp, rustling leaves, steam rising like incense from your cup of coffee. The silence centers you.
“You will never see yourself as clearly as you’ll see yourself during a hermitage retreat,” says Will Hunter, a monastic spirituality expert and retreat leader living in Idaho.
People craving some serious alone time with God may enjoy making a retreat in a hermitage, a cabin-like dwelling with simple furniture and minimal distractions.
“In the hermitage, you have to be willing to put everything else behind and wait for God to show up on God’s own terms,” says Hunter.
A retreat rooted in silence and solitude may sound serene—but it can also be intense. Difficult thoughts and feelings tend to surface in the stillness of the hermitage. Without everyday distractions, retreatants come face to face with their true selves. As such, spiritual direction can be a valuable component of these retreats even though it requires breaking solitude.
Hermitage retreats tend to be self-guided, so Hunter encourages retreatants to develop a simple structure for each day. Activities may include praying the Liturgy of the Hours, taking a few walks, and savoring a simple meal.
Hunter says, “Inhabit the hermitage as a space you are sharing with God even if God has not made Godself known yet.”
Location: New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California
Length: Between 2 and 14 nights
Cost: $135 to $235 per night
Each retreatant stays in a small hermitage or an individual retreat house room in the mountains with views of the Pacific Ocean. The schedule for each day is up to the individual retreatant and will likely include prayer, rest, and time outside. Retreatants are welcome to join the monastic community for the Liturgy of the Hours.
If you could use some time with Mother Nature . . .
You watch the sun peek above the horizon. Deep purple and orange streaks light up the morning sky, filling you and your fellow retreatants with awe. The words of Psalm 113 ring true: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.”
“Outdoors retreats draw people out of their typical comfort zone and put them on an equal level,” says Benedictine Father Lew Grobe, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, who leads canoeing retreats in the summer and skiing retreats in the winter. “You get opened up to vulnerability and listening pretty quickly when you’re trying to figure out how to paddle a canoe.”
People who are new to retreats or eager to connect with God outside of a formal church setting may especially enjoy an outdoors retreat.
“I see the outdoors as an entry point for retreat because many people are familiar with experiencing God in nature,” says Grobe. “Plus, the fresh air is rejuvenating.”
Outdoors retreats include a mix of physical and spiritual activities. Retreatants may hear a talk on the importance of wilderness in the Hebrew scriptures and then head out for a morning hike in the woods.
“There’s a connection between the experiential and theoretical in outdoors retreats,” says Grobe. “When we talk about the baggage we carry in our lives, it makes a lot more sense when you have to lug a backpack around.”
Ski and Spirituality Retreat
Location: Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse in Collegeville, Minnesota
Length: Three days
Participants spend time each day cross-country skiing or hiking in the arboretum. Conferences on various spiritual topics and prayer with the monastic community round out the weekend.
If you want to tap into your creative side . . .
You move your brush freely across the blank canvas. You find inspiration in a cherished verse of scripture or a favorite poem. You get lost in your craft. The goal of an art retreat is not to create a masterpiece but to be in conversation with the Spirit—and yourself.
“Art retreats create a place of settling into yourself,” says Barbara Sutton, a SoulCollage® retreat facilitator from Minnesota. “So many images explode in front of us each day on social media or TV. Art retreats let people sort out beauty.”
People who want to move beyond text-heavy prayer or stretch their creative muscles may appreciate an art retreat. Honed artistic skills are usually not required. Rather, retreatants should come with an open spirit and a willingness to learn.
“These retreats are a chance to ask God: What message do you have for me today?” says Sutton.
An art retreat may engage a particular craft like sewing or calligraphy. It could also focus more on appreciating artwork already created. Visio divina is a common prayer on art retreats. The practice invites retreatants to gaze at a piece of sacred art and grow aware of God’s presence through the beauty.
“Art encourages curiosity to try on different voices or images of God,” says Sutton.
Sunday SoulCollage® Circle
Length: First Sunday of the month
Cost: $220 for the year or $25 per month
The practice of SoulCollage® invites participants to explore their inner spiritual lives with the help of magazines, photographs, and other creative works. A community of seekers gathers each month to play with the artistic process and reflect together.
If you’re looking to strengthen your commitment to justice . . .
The woman standing in front of your retreat group lives out of her car. She shares stories of her struggle to find affordable housing and suggests systemic changes that need to happen to eradicate this injustice. Then the woman poses two essential questions:
How is God calling you to be part of the change? What concrete action steps can you take next?
“Justice-focused retreats invite space to sit in the tension of knowing I can’t fix it all—and I’m not supposed to—but with God’s grace, there are steps I can take to work toward healing,” says Emily Schumacher-Novak, who works in education and outreach for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Advocating for justice is a core tenant of the Christian faith. People discerning how to get involved in a justice issue for the first time or needing space to process their justice work may especially benefit from a justice-focused retreat.
“In Catholic social tradition, we talk about the see-judge-act method,” says Schumacher-Novak. “Justice retreats draw on a constant cycle of action and reflection that recognizes we live in a broken world and calls us to listen to where God is in our world.”
Justice-focused retreats tend to have a strong working component. In a prayerful setting, retreatants discuss a specific justice issue like immigration reform and how they will respond in the days ahead.
Schumacher-Novak invites retreatants to consider: “When we come back to our regular lives, how do we take pieces of that great gift of time on retreat and put them in action?”
Journey to Justice Retreat
Location: Various U.S. locations
Length: One day
Created by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the Journey to Justice Retreat teaches participants about issues of poverty through encounters with people experiencing poverty, immersion experiences, and prayers. Participants will also consider opportunities for action going forward.
For more information and upcoming retreat dates, contact your local CCHD diocesan director or check out the Journey to Justice Day Guidebook.
This article also appears in the July 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 7, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: iStock/Luisia Voloshka