Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The meaning and importance of retreat

By FATHER JOSEPH LINGAN, SJ | Published July 15, 2020

In recent years, I have been interested in the origin of wordstheir etymology. As a result, I have learned and come to appreciate so much about language and the meaning of words. Consequently, my appreciation for poetry, music (i.e., song lyrics), literature and sacred Scripture has deepened.

Father Joseph E. Lingan, SJ

A further consequence of my interest, and dare I say, study or research, has enabled me to notice how many people are too careless with the use of language and with words in particular. I suspect the great use of social media is a primary cause. Various platforms limit the number of “characters” one may use in a message. Exactness and accuracy of meaning give way to economy and expediency. As a result, our ability to honestly, genuinely and sincerely communicate suffers.

The inspiration and reason for this article is my observation that the term “retreat” has been hijacked, misused and overused to the point that today, many (if not most) sadly no longer understand its importance.

So, what is the true meaning and importance of “retreat,” and what does it especially mean for Catholics?

The word “retreat” has a Latin origin. Specifically, from re “back” and trahere “to draw” comes the Latin word retrahere, meaning to “draw back, withdraw, call back.”  The term “retreat” was first used in the 14th century to describe the military “act of retiring or withdrawing from action or exercise.” It was in the middle portion of the 18th century that the term “retreat” was used to describe a “period of retirement for religious self-examination.” However, religious retreats date back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century (AD 270–271) who had a major influence on the development of Christianity.

Today retreats continue to be popular in numerous Christian churches and were established in current form by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) in his “Spiritual Exercises.” In them, Ignatius urges one to separate from usual surroundingsfriends, family, daily routine and places of home or work. Ignatius counsels that by going away to a separate placefree from distraction and in an atmosphere of silenceone will be better able to concentrate on the presence of God, God’s love and God’s grace. He offers that in such an atmosphere, one is better able to see and focus on knowing, loving and responding to God.

Yet now, in recent times, the term “retreat” has been hijacked, misused and overused by corporations, organizations and personnel departments to describe what are essentially meetings for strategic planning, departmental or team-building purposes. Unfortunately, identifying these kinds of meetings as a “retreat” has misled people away from the original meaning, value and importance of making one.

I believe a genuine retreat in its original, spiritual and Ignatian sense is neededand more important than everfor the development of a healthy, spiritual self. Such retreats provide the opportunity to step away to a quiet place to collect, to consider, to encounter and to engage with the spiritual self and God. Further, such retreats allow one to experience the peace of mind and heart that our current times pressure us to desire.  

To retreat is proposed by the Psalmist, who says: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10). It is encouraged by Jesus when he says to the Apostles, “Come aside and rest awhile.” (Mk 6:30-34).

Thus, history and tradition are clear, God is waiting for us. The question is, what are we waiting for? Now, more than ever, is a good time for a true spiritual retreat.

Father Joseph E. Lingan, SJ, is the associate director of Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta.