How to Plan a Personal Spiritual Retreat

The church at Mount Angel Abbey. Since 1882, the abbey has been situated on a hilltop above the small town of Mt. Angel in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Photo Credit: Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey
The church at Mount Angel Abbey. Since 1882, the abbey has been situated on a hilltop above the small town of Mt. Angel in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Photo Credit: Mount Angel Abbey

I started taking personal retreats at Benedictine monasteries when I was a student at a Protestant seminary in Portland, Oregon. I was curious about Catholicism, toying with the thought of converting, and thought going to a monastery might give me a better idea of what it was all about. So I found a Benedictine monastery, Mount Angel Abbey, an hour away. Fifteen years later, I am now a Catholic convert and continue to plan these weekend trips of prayer and renewal at Benedictine monasteries wherever I live. Interested in planning your own personal spiritual retreat? Here’s how you can get started:

Making a reservation

One of the principles of the Benedictine order is hospitality. Most monasteries and convents of that order will have a few rooms set aside for guests seeking a place of prayer and peace. I’ll usually Google “Benedictine Retreat” near the city where I live or check the online directory. While Benedictine monasteries have been my personal preference, there are an abundance of other retreat centers that welcome individuals as well. A quick online search will reveal what’s closest to you.

I send an email asking if they have an opening the nights available in my schedule. Then I’ll receive an email from the monk who will be my host that includes all the logistical information, such as where to park, how to find my room. Each time I have visited, directions have been very clear and a host monk has met up with me in the first hour of my arrival.

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Picking a theme

I usually have something in mind when I schedule these retreats. Either something I want to learn more about, like The Sermon on the Mount, or guidance for a life decision. Occasionally, I bring a book I’ve wanted to read, like Fr James Martin’s “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” or Kathleen Norris’ “The Cloister Walk.”  Sometimes, I go with no agenda in mind but to enjoy the quiet and God’s presence. The quiet is always a startling experience when you arrive at the monastery. It is a bit uncomfortable at first. You realize how loud the world has become, how loud your own life has become. The silence has a humbling effect on me as I become more self-aware than I’ve been in a while. Yet, over time, when you embrace the quiet, you’ll feel God’s loving presence. Shape the retreat to meet your own spiritual needs.

Making time for prayer and community

At monasteries, you may join the monks for daily Mass and liturgy of the hours, prayers chanted out of the Psalms. The times for these have always been clearly posted in my room. There is a power in hearing these psalms prayed aloud. They become so very relevant to the struggles of today.

Mealtime is another opportunity for building community. My favorite moments on retreat have been sharing meals with the monks. Some of these are silent, but your host monk will let you know. It’s in having deeper conversations over meatloaf or pasta with these men of God that I find new ways of looking at the world. It is a pleasure to experience the different personalities of the monks, finding they are more like me than I imagined. This is the delight — discovering the depth of their gift of hospitality and that God is available to us all, not just the super spiritual.

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Finding direction

Spiritual direction is often offered at monasteries or convents, for a nominal charge. A spiritual director has special training to help you listen and hear the special way God communicates with you. The spiritual director will ask questions about your relationship with God, your desires, and then will often give you an assignment of something to pray or meditate upon before your next session. The goal is to help you foster a deeper relationship with Christ.

Once, I embarrassingly admitted to a spiritual director that I had been spending much of the weekend sleeping. He reminded me of the prophet Elijah, who when fleeing those who wanted to kill him, finally arrived at a safe place and slept. Sometimes it is rest in a safe place that we need most. I invite you to plan your own spiritual retreat to allow God to strengthen you, encourage you, or simply to rest in His safe embrace.

Previously published November 9, 2016.