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. www.zondervan.com 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
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.
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.