Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 18

Facilitating a First Spiritual Retreat

An Invitation to Come Home

Cam Yates

01.  Introduction

Leading spiritual retreats is a great joy. Because most of my experience over the years has been with people on a first spiritual retreat, I am often filled with gratitude as I witness men and women discovering newfound freedom, hope, well-being, and intimacy with God. Spiritual retreat is a time for drawing aside from the distractions of daily life in order to become more attentive to the movement of God within and around us. Increasingly, many people seek such places of respite and renewal. But the path to the doorway of retreat is often fraught with obstacles.

Attending a first spiritual life retreat takes intentionality. Perhaps you can identify with Henri Nouwen’s confession,

There was a time when I got so immersed in problems of Church and society that my whole life had become a sort of drawn-out, wearisome discussion. Jesus had been pushed into the background.Henri Nouwen, Jesus: A Gospel, Michael O’Laughlin, ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2001), 3.

Walking into a retreat center for the first time is frequently a physical prayer of longing for rest and recollection. Some also bring with them a quest to calm the whirlwind that has disoriented their lives. Others come because a recent experience of loss or distress has left them listless, wandering, or desperate. Yet others arrive seeking a deeper experience with the One who has given them life. All arrive at the doorway to retreat with a desire for greater intimacy with God.

Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century mystic, spiritual director, and intimate of God, wrote,

Accustomed to a life of distractions, [persons seeking retreat] exhaust themselves trying to recollect their senses. Beginners need to practice withdrawing their attention from what they see and hear.Teresa of Avila, The Book of My Life, Mirabai Starr, trans. (Boston: New Seeds, 2007), 74.

Our exhaustions are the result of a life of distractions emerging out of misplaced needs and desires. Our eyes and ears have become conductors of life’s distractions and confusions. We long for a new vision and new words that promise freedom of spirit and renewed spiritual desire. And so we come to retreat.

02.  Facilitating Retreat

To facilitate a retreat for others, the retreat leader must never forget the retreat is not his or her own. Of this I constantly need reminding. I have led retreats that did not follow the script I prepared, and I wondered what went wrong. Other times people got things from the retreat that I had not planned, and I felt discouraged or puzzled. Over time, however, I’ve learned to hold structures gently, listen intently, and respond sensitively to the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of retreatants.

The primary task of a retreat facilitator is to listen intently for the whispered wisdom of the Spirit. Facilitators are hosts and hostesses invited to welcome participants with gentleness and respect. We are invited to be a welcoming presence in the name of the Lord. At no time is this more important than when persons come to retreat for the first time.

03.  Coming Home in Retreat

Nobody likes to be surprised, particularly when embarking on a new and unfamiliar experience. It is important, therefore, that all retreat participants have an understanding of what the retreat will involve. Facilitators should identify themes, expectations, and process clearly. Participants need time as well to share something of what they are seeking and why they decided to attend. Such sharing often reveals a need to escape the clutter and clamor of lives spinning out of control. Others may express a longing to learn how to live “the ordinary life extraordinarily well.”Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 6.

Spiritual retreat is about coming home. Anthony Bloom writes, “Contrary to what many think or feel a period of spiritual [retreat] . . . is a time of joy because it is a time for coming home, a period when we can come back to life.”Anthony Bloom, Meditations on a Theme (London: Continuum, 2003), 1. My wife and I enjoy traveling, experiencing the sights and sounds, culture and history of faraway places. Yet we love coming home. This is a time to unpack, attend to laundry, and enjoy the familiar warmth of dwelling. Settling into our homecoming, there is always a moment when one of us speaks our shared sentiment: “I love coming home.”

Coming home affords the opportunity to come back to life. For those beginning their first retreat experience, coming home reminds us of the biblical story of a father welcoming his prodigal child home after a period of absence (Luke 15:11–32). The father had waited with faithful patience, always keeping a watchful eye on the horizon in hopes that his child would return. And when it was so, there was great joy.

04.  Welcome Home

Joy in the face of the return of prodigal children is inherent in the love of God. Yet this is not the image of God many bring to retreat. A stern, judgmental, exacting, and detached God is a common image held by many first-time retreatants. Viewing God in such a way leads to an obsession with overcoming personal sinfulness that never seems to be satisfied sufficiently to earn the love of God. Contrary to what we have come to believe, reunion is not primarily about forgiveness from sin. It is about being embraced by Love. In reality, such love is ever present, always available, desiring, and longing.

This is not to suggest that sin does not have a place in human experience. But it is important to be clear about what is of ultimate importance. It is important to begin with a God who creates all life, values all life, and loves all life. Until we truly believe we’ve been loved by One such as this, we cannot walk the way of the spiritual journey with heads up, eyes forward, and hearts beating with the anticipation of reunion. This is often the arena in which persons new to retreat find they struggle most. It is distressingly difficult to imagine being loved “in spite of.”

The Psalmist speaks of the wonder of such love, a love present before our beginning (Psalm 139:13–16). Spiritual retreat is as much about finding ourselves as it is about finding God. It must be so, given that we have been created in and for relationship. Spiritual retreat is about discovering our true sense of being. David G. Benner writes, “[The true self is] who you are and who you are becoming . . . your total self as created by God. . . . We do not find our true self by seeking it. Rather we find it by seeking God.”David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 90.

And so, spiritual retreat is a time to experience the enthusiastic embrace of the One who says, “Welcome home!”

05.  Being Home

In facilitating retreat, I have found it helpful to provide a daily liturgy. Mornings begin with a common Scripture, a reminder of the retreat focus, and an invitation to dwell in silence with readiness and watchfulness. The day should be flexible but provide times for listening, reflecting, resting, interacting, and walking. Journaling and creative expression are tools for enhancing the experience. In approaching the end of a day, we do so with prayerful, listening hearts.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). In facilitating spiritual retreats for persons new to the experience, I focus on three key spiritual practices: silence and solitude, Scripture meditation, and daily reflection. Although there are more formal terms to be used for these practices, e.g., centering prayer, lectio divina, and examen, I generally do not use these terms until later retreats or, if it seems appropriate, toward the end of an initial retreat. It is important to be sensitive to the experience people bring to first retreats because some arrive guarded and cautious in anticipation of the unfamiliar, which may include language and terminology.

I try to identify and use participants’ language and practice as much as possible. For instance, someone may refer to daily devotions. I would then use this terminology and might explore what that practice looks like, what they do, and how they feel about that experience. Someone else may speak of frustrations regarding time, while others muse about the boredom of formulaic structure and repetitive prayers. Such a discussion usually helps participants become more intentional in expressing their own desires and needs during retreat.

Silence and Solitude

Many retreatants will have had only very limited experience with silence and solitude prior to their first retreat. Silence is the breathing place of few words, where activity settles, quiet descends, thoughts lessen, and anxieties move aside for a time. Silence enables the refocusing of our attention in becoming more consciously present to God and our inner being. In solitude, silence directs our awareness toward clarifying feelings and thoughts, urges and desires, distractions and turmoil, longings and joy.

As children, many of us were taught that prayer was a way of talking with God. But as we grow older, we learn the importance of listening for God, not just talking. In other words, monologue gives way to dialogue, and “speaking to” becomes “being with.” Silence and solitude are important as they open the space for noticing, listening, waiting, and watching. Such a space was a constant dwelling place for Jesus—a time of reflection and prayer, a time to recollect the

Scripture Meditation

This is another practice that builds on the familiar. Most participants have read Scripture and reflected on its meaning in relation to their personal lives, the issues and encounters of their days. They are familiar with discovering motivational or encouraging thoughts for the day. By adding the structured elements experienced in the more formal practice of lectio divina to whatever they already practice, participants move into a deeper, more meaningful experience of how Scripture embraces the heart. It provides a greater depth of meaning and intentionality in receiving and breathing the word. Joan Chittister says,

Lectio, or sacred reading, is the . . . practice of keeping our eyes on the transforming moments of life. . . . Lectio is not so much an attempt to know God in history or Jesus in Israel as much as it is an attempt to know God in my life and Jesus in me.”Chittister, 178. 

By introducing this practice, the facilitator enables participants to slow down the all too common tendency to hurry times of daily devotion. For this reason, this practice, along with silence and solitude, is introduced during first retreats. Both are foundational to all subsequent retreats. With these practices, the mind and heart open to a deeper intimacy with God.

Daily Reflection

In this practice one recalls the day just past, reviewing conversations, feelings, confrontations, experiences, thoughts, appreciations, and regrets. Everyone is familiar with such an experience. At the end of our day, we often think back to that which remains with us, an uncomfortable conversation or regret over an action or comment, wondering why a deep weariness has set in. We expand and deepen this practice when we move from a general musing to an intentional reviewing of the day. This review will be recognized by the more experienced retreatant as the practice of the examen in its simplest form.

In initial retreats, this can be introduced simply by having participants share something of their experience during each day of retreat—perhaps at some point near the end of each day. This will also be enhanced through times of journaling the day’s experience. In this way, the practice is introduced gently, and future retreats can provide more formal guidance in the details of the full practice of the prayer of the examen.

06.  In Summary

Together, the spiritual practices of silence and solitude, Scripture meditation, and daily reflection enable one to begin reconnecting with the One who has been waiting and longing for this moment, our coming home. Practices such as these require space for experience and reflection. Times of sharing the experience in conversation with others should be plentiful. The retreat experience should also provide ample opportunity for retreatants to walk in the outdoors and observe the landscape of trees and flowers, birds and animals, alert to the sounds of life that surround our every step. For many people, time to walk slowly and quietly through an inviting landscape is the greatest value of a retreat experience. The body itself begins to welcome such moments.

These times allow retreatants to reflect on all that they are experiencing—noting the questions, discerning responses, and expressing feelings, thoughts, fears, and insights. In silence and solitude, they slowly discover they become open and aware. But awareness does not come easily. For many it seems somewhat strange and unfamiliar. They may feel guilty over what feels like wasting time as they move through the day with inefficiency and slowness. Often, I become aware of such inner dissonance in myself in the quickness of my stride and the concerted effort required for slowing down, stepping lightly. There is discipline to be exercised even here.

Retreats should provide structure, but the essence of all retreat is a Spirit-infused experience of intimacy with God. It is not about striving or earning, demanding or pleading. It is about welcoming and receiving. One simply needs to turn toward home. In the parable of the waiting father, we are reminded that the love that kept his faithful, watchful presence in the doorway is identical to that which the Psalmist acknowledged as our prebirth experience (Psalm 139). From before known time, there was love.

Building on such truths, spiritual retreat invites us to an intimacy that affirms Paul’s statement that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Perhaps this knowledge is what prompted Richard Rohr to suggest, “We cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 27–28. For this truth to take root deep within, the first retreat experience I’ve described in this article is meant to provide small morsels of nourishing spiritual practices that can be given more content in future retreats. In the beginning, it is enough simply to “taste and see.” Perhaps we could say that these are the first fruits of coming home to Love’s dwelling place. Welcome home.


Cam is a former vice-president of Carey Theological College and director of the William Carey Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he currently lectures in spiritual formation. As an ordained minister and spiritual director, he has been leading retreats for the past twenty years. His primary interest is in the initial retreat experiences for men and women who desire to become more intentional in their spiritual journey. Cam can be reached by email at