Fr. Monty Williams, a Jesuit retreat master and spiritual director, says what makes a good retreat is being able to discern your vulnerability. Photo by Evan Boudreau

The right retreat is simply a state of mind, says Jesuit retreat master

  • May 7, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, going on retreat does not require a change of scenery, but rather a change in thinking.

“It is done through recognition,” said Fr. Monty Williams, a Jesuit retreat master and spiritual director. “One of the most important things is how people think about themselves.

“What makes a good retreat actually is being able to live with your vulnerability and being able to discern the vulnerability; what comes from God and what doesn’t come from God.”

Williams, who recently penned The Way of the Faithful which guides readers through St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, said the opportunities to retreat in this way exist in our daily lives.

“People do lots of retreats without it actually being called retreats,” he said. “It’s happening all over the place. They’re just not aware that they are doing retreats … (when) they’ve gone into a private world where they are doing whatever sort of interior work.”

The woman walking her dog in the early morning, the man praying in an empty church during his lunch break and the teenager with music pouring out of their headphones on the subway ride home are all potentially on retreat, according to Williams. All they need to do is simply look at things a little differently.

“We aren’t human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having human experiences,” he said. “(So) if people started realizing that they are spiritual people then that is a good way to begin. When you think of yourself as spiritual then you start trying to find ways which that spirit can be fed.”

But too often people neglect to sufficiently feed themselves spiritually during their daily routines because of a rigid, and popular, concept of a retreats.

“People these days, and this is a long tradition, think of retreats in terms of a monastic withdrawal from the world,” he said. “So you have people who want to go on retreat and they want to withdraw from the world. That is one particular way of doing a retreat, but it is not the only way.”

right retreat webProvidence Spirituality Centre sits on 13.5 hectares of land in Kingston, Ont. (Photo courtesy of Providence Spirituality Centre)

Williams understands not only where this concept of retreats comes from — “the desert fathers who found the world of early Christianity very complicated and so they withdrew into the desert” — but also why it is so attractive to people.

“One of the difficulties with today is that one is so bombarded with a world of fact or world of data that you don’t have a chance to appropriate the data,” said Williams. “(So some) people go on retreats because they need to get away from their normal routines.”

Sr. Lucy Bethel, the director of Providence Spirituality Centre in Kingston, Ont., said for some people the daily noise is so loud that the only way to escape it is to physically relocate to a retreat centre.

“One of the reasons for retreat centres in general is that it invites people to step away from the business of their lives,” said the Sister of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. “We all need some form of quiet and tranquility to allow us to get in touch with the Divine. The silence brings me into a deeper connection with my God, my source or whatever people choose to call the Divine; it just moves away all the obstacles.”

All the retreats offered at Providence — a 35-bed retreat centre operated year-round by the sisters — are held in silence. And that silence, complemented by the 13.5 hectares (33 acres) of nature on which the centre sits, is often the primary reason people visit.

“They come because they are looking for solitude and tranquility,” she said. “Our world is anything but peaceful and quiet right now and retreat centres try to provide space and places where people can step into the silence and peace.

“It isn’t that people aren’t praying people and that they don’t pray wherever they are and however they are, it is just that the business of our world just keeps us busy.”

While the need for retreats is clear, Williams said cost is a factor.

“People don’t have money for retreats,” Williams said. “Quite often the only people who can go on retreats are the middle class, those who have a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time. Retreat houses aren’t cheap.”

At Providence the weekend guided retreat held May 5-7 cost $165 per person and the week-long directed retreat in June is $495 per person. Both retreats include room, board and spiritual guidance.

Fortunately for those who are less than financially flush yet still spiritually hungry, the act of going on a retreat doesn’t actually require you to go anywhere.

“When you go on retreat you put yourself in a different context,” Williams said. “(It’s when) we see out lives against the template of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. (Then) we recognize ourselves as being called to enter into the dark places of creation and to allow the compassionate mercy of the Father to pass through us, to touch and transform what has been damaged in creation.”

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