Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



A retreat is a period of time spent ascetically for a spiritual purpose. Think of Elias (Elijah) and the forty days and nights he spent in the desert, which we read about in III Kings 191. Think of Christ spending the same amount of time also in the desert, where He was tempted by the Evil One (Matthew 4). And think of how Christ Himself invited His apostles to a retreat:

Mark 6:30-32
And the apostles coming together unto Jesus, related to him all things that they had done and taught. And he said to them: Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little. For there were many coming and going: and they had not so much as time to eat. And going up into a ship, they went into a desert place apart.

The desert Fathers spent their entire lives in a sort of retreat, giving rise to the great religious orders of today, and St. Francis received his stigmata while on retreat at Mount Alverno, in the Apennine Mountains that run the length of Italy like a spine.

But it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who formalized and popularized retreats as we know them today. With his "Spiritual Exercises," St. Ignatius began a system of penance and contemplating God's will over the course of thirty days, a system that soon became a part of the rule of his Society, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

St. Charles Boromeo introduced Ignatius's "Spiritual Exercises" as a regular practice among the seminarians and secular clergy, and the laity, too, took up the practice. SS. Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul popularized retreats, with the former writing "Introduction to the Devout Life" which is often used by retreatants today. All over Europe, retreat houses were built just for the purpose of hosting retreats.

Today, retreats are often taken in the way pilgrimages are made: to "shake oneself up" by removing oneself from routine and the endless distractions of modern life -- the phones, email, social media, work, the demands of family -- in order to re-focus on what's most important. Retreats are also made in penance, for the cause of making reparations for sin. They're made in times of crisis or great change, such as before marriage or graduation. They're often made for the cause of vocational discernment, in order to determine God's will for one's life. They can be made to break cycles of addiction. Or they're made simply to rest.

They're made by individuals, a few friends together, engaged couples, or larger groups, such as members of Third Orders, Catholic doctors, Catholic teachers, high school groups, men only, women only, etc. They're made at retreat houses built for the purpose, at monasteries, at parish churches with the necessary facilities, or, less formally, in places of nature with nearby access to a church or chapel. Some may make a retreat by renting a cottage or cabin and bringing along spiritual reading, and some even make retreats in their own homes by setting aside a place and disciplining themselves to make spiritual use of it for a certain period of time.

What Happens on a Retreat

What happens on a retreat can vary wildly given the differences in where retreats are made, and whether they're directed, highly structured, and formal, or private retreats made by individuals. Formal retreats at monasteries can involve rising at an early hour, engaging in formal prayer with the religious, being assigned a spiritual director, attending conferences, daily Mass, confession, etc. Other retreats can be highly individual, with no structure at all, allowing the retreatant to schedule his time in his own way.

Some directed retreats are based on St. Ignatius's "Spiritual Exercises," typically abbreviated from the original thirty days to three days; others may have a specific focus, such as marriage preparation, vocation discernment, or bettering one's marriage.

Some retreats can be silent ones in which talking is forbidden or allowed only during very limited times; others are not.

Some retreats last for a day; others can last for 30 days (the three-day retreat is likely the most common). There are also "retreats in daily life" online programs that one can make for a small amount of time each day for a period of some months while otherwise still carrying on one's life as usual.

Retreat overnight facilities can range from private rooms in large retreat houses, to shared rooms (usually by no more than two people) in smaller such houses, to individual hermit cabins, and anything in between.

As to board, some retreats will supply all you need with regard to food; with others, you'll be feeding yourself.

Some retreats can be rather expensive; others are free.

Necessary to any good retreat, though, are access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist when needed. It's advised, too, to have a goal in mind: Why do you want to make your retreat? What are you seeking?

How to Make a Retreat

You can make a private retreat any time, of course, and most anywhere, but to use retreat facilities or for formal, directed retreats, you'll have to find a monastery, retreat house, or religious or priestly fraternity to direct you. Your dioceses's website2  will likely have information about retreats in your area, but don't limit yourself to those if you're able to travel; look also into what neighboring dioceses offer.

There's the standard caveat, though, when it comes to what dioceses may offer: since Vatican II, Catholic teaching and practices have been watered down horribly by many hierarchs, and what those in charge of diocesan retreat facilities offer may be weak (or worse). Looking, instead, to retreats offered by traditionalist groups is highly recommended. The Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) both offer Ignatian retreats, and traditional religious orders may as well. Check their websites3 for information.

See also:

St. Ignatius of Loyola Spiritual Exercises (pdf)
St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life (pdf)


1 I Kings in Bibles with Masoretic numbering

2 Find your diocese here:

The FSSP website:
   The SSPX website:

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