Retreat (spiritual)

Last updated

The WinShape Retreat Center in Rome, Georgia 000000000 WinShape.jpg
The WinShape Retreat Center in Rome, Georgia
An aspiring seminarian prays during a vocational discernment retreat in the chapel of Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts BJ23-chapel.jpg
An aspiring seminarian prays during a vocational discernment retreat in the chapel of Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts

The meaning of a spiritual retreat can be different for different religious communities. Spiritual retreats are an integral part of many Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Sufi communities.


In Hinduism and Buddhism, meditative retreats are seen by some as an intimate way of deepening powers of concentration and insight.

Retreats are also popular in Christian churches, and were established in today's form by St. Ignatius of Loyola (14911556), in his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius was later to be made patron saint of spiritual retreats by Pope Pius XI in 1922. Many Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians partake in and organize spiritual retreats each year.

Meditative retreats are an important practice in Sufism, the mystical path of Islam. The Sufi teacher Ibn Arabi's book Journey to the Lord of Power (Risālat al-Anwār) [1] is a guide to the inner journey that was published over 700 years ago.


Young monk in meditation retreat, Yerpa, Tibet in 1993 Young monk in meditation cell, Yerpa, Tibet. 1993.jpg
Young monk in meditation retreat, Yerpa, Tibet in 1993

A retreat can either be a time of solitude or a community experience. Some retreats are held in silence, and on others there may be a great deal of conversation, depending on the understanding and accepted practices of the host facility and/or the participant(s). Retreats are often conducted at rural or remote locations, either privately, or at a retreat centre such as a monastery. Some retreats for advanced practitioners may be undertaken in darkness, a form of retreat that is common as an advanced Dzogchen practice in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Spiritual retreats allow time for reflection, prayer, or meditation. They are considered essential in Buddhism, [2] having been a common practice since the Vassa, or rainy season retreat, was established by the founder of Buddhism, Gotama Buddha. In Zen Buddhism retreats are known as sesshin.


Wodzislaw Slaski "Retreat House" of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Katowice Palac w Wodzislawiu Slaskim Kokoszycach.jpg
Wodzisław Śląski "Retreat House" of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Katowice
A picture of a Christian cross on a wall at Camp Squanto in Swanzey, New Hampshire during a winter retreat in February 2019 Pilgrim Pines, Camp Squanto, New Hampshire.jpeg
A picture of a Christian cross on a wall at Camp Squanto in Swanzey, New Hampshire during a winter retreat in February 2019

The Christian retreat can be defined most simply as a definite time (from a few hours in length to a month) spent away from one's normal life for the purpose of reconnecting, usually in prayer, with God. Although the practice of leaving one's everyday life to connect on a deeper level with God, be that in the desert (as with the Desert Fathers), or in a monastery, is nearly as old as Christianity itself, the practice of spending a specific time away with God is a more modern phenomenon, dating from the 1520s and St. Ignatius of Loyola's composition of the Spiritual Exercises. [3] The fasting of Jesus in the desert for forty days is used as a biblical justification of retreats. [4]

The retreat was popularised in Roman Catholicism by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), whose founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, as a layman began, in the 1520s, directing others in making (participating in) the exercises. [3] Another form the Exercises came in, which became known as the nineteenth "Observation", 'allowed continuing one's ordinary occupations with the proviso of setting aside a few hours a day for this special purpose.' [5] The spiritual exercises were intended for people wanting to live closer to God's will for their life. In the 17th century, retreats became much more widespread in the Catholic Church. [6]

Retreats were not originally seen as suitable for women, but in 1674 Catherine de Francheville (fr), supported by the Breton Jesuit Vincent Huby (fr), founded a retreat house for women in Vannes. This developed into a community of laywomen, who also founded a daughter house in Quimper, but were dispersed by the French Revolution. Some however came together to found schools, and additional communities were established in England, and later in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. These developed in the course of the 19th century, under the name of La Retraite (fr), into a religious Congregation of nuns. The active involvement of the sisters in retreats was curtailed later in the 19th century, but blossomed again after the Second Vatican Council, involving among other activity an extension of the community into Chile, South Africa, Cameroon and Mali. [7]

Spiritual retreats were introduced to the Church of England by priests of the Anglo-Catholic Society of the Holy Cross in 1856, first for clergy, and then also for laity. [8] [9] [10] These retreats lasted five days. [6] The Society of the Holy Cross's first retreats were held in secrecy. [9] The practice was spread by Anglo-Catholic priests such as Francis Henry Murray, [11] :99 Alexander Forbes, [11] :73,127 and Thomas Thellusson Carter. [11] :186 The Oxford Movement further spread the practice of retreats to many devout men and women, borrowing upon Catholic practices. Their retreats were typically 3–4 days, and featured much silence and prayer. [6]

At the end of the 19th century, and in the first years of the 20th century, retreats began to spread among the working classes and beyond those of notable devotion. These retreats were less ascetic in character, and included more conversation and leisure. They typically lasted 1–3 days. [6]

Spiritual retreats may have various themes that reinforce Christian values, principles, and scriptural understanding. They may be individual or involve a group. Retreats for Christian youth groups are common, as are getaways for Sunday School classes, men's and women's Bible study groups, and Christian school field trips. Common locations for Christian retreats include churches and retreat centers. Retreat centers typically offer overnight accommodations (such as in a cabin or dormitory), meals, activities, meeting rooms, and chapel space.

Manresa Retreat Centre, Pickering, Ontario Chapel of Manresa Jesuit Spirituality Renewal Centre, Pickering.JPG
Manresa Retreat Centre, Pickering, Ontario

Following the growth of the Cursillo movement in Spain in the 20th century, similar retreats have become popular, either using licensed Cursillo material or independent material loosely based on its concepts, leading to the development of the three day movement.

Sufi retreats or spiritual khalwa

The translation of khalwa from Arabic is seclusion or separation, [12] but it has a different connotation in Sufi terminology. In Sufi terminology, khalwa is the act of total self-abandonment in desire for the Divine Presence. In complete seclusion, the Sufi continuously repeats the name of God as a highest form of remembrance of God meditation. In his book, Journey to the Lord of Power, Muhiyid-Did ibn Arabi (1165-1240 A.D.) discussed the stages through which the Sufi passes in his khalwa.

Ibn Arabi suggested: "The Sufi should shut his door against the world for forty days and occupy himself with remembrance of Allah, that is to keep repeating, "Allah, Allah..." Then, "Almighty God will spread before him the degrees of the kingdom as a test. First, He will discover the secrets of the mineral world. If he occupies himself with dthikr, He (God) will unveil to the secrets of the vegetable world, then the secrets of the animal world, then the infusion of the world of life-force into lives, then the "surface sign" (the light of the Divine Names, according to Abdul-Karim al-Jeeli, the book's translator), then the degrees of speculative sciences, then the world of formation and adornment and beauty, then the degrees of the qutb (the soul or pivot of the universe-see #16) Then he will be given the divine wisdom and the power of symbols and authority over the veil and the unveiling. The degree of the Divine Presence is made clear to him, the garden (of Eden) and Hell are revealed to him, then the original forms of the son of Adam, the Throne of Mercy. If it is appropriate, he will know his destination. Then he will reveal to him the Pen, the First Intellect (as it is called by Sufi philosophers), then the Mover of the Pen, the right hand of the Truth. (The "Truth" as defined by al-Jeeli is that by which everything is created, none other than God most High.)[ citation needed ]

The practice of khalwah is regularly followed by the Sufis, with the permission and the supervision of a Sufi authority.

The Sufis base the assigning of forty days of khalwa period on the forty days Allah had appointed for Musa (Moses) as a fasting period before speaking to him, as mentioned in different chapters in the Qur'an. One of them is from surat al-Baqarah.

Khalwa is still practiced today amongst authorized Sheikhs, such as Mawlana Sheikh Nazim Al-Haqqani, Lefka, Cyprus.


Meditation courses or retreats, either in a group or solo, are a common part of many meditation traditions. [13] [14] [15] [16]


Class at a Yoga-retreat in India Chattai yoga asanas goa india.jpg
Class at a Yoga-retreat in India

In modern Yoga a retreat is often a recreational holiday, where everyday business is left for a few days (weekend-retreat) up to weeks. [17] The goal is to let go of daily stress and problems by doing Asanas rather than pure meditation. [18] Sometimes retreats are offered as organised travels abroad. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Meditation Mental practice of focus on a particular object, thought or activity to improve ones mind

Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state. Scholars have found meditation elusive to define, as practices vary both between traditions and within them.

Sufism Islamic mysticism

Sufism, also known as Tasawwuf, is mysticism in Islam, "characterized ... [by particular] values, ritual practices, doctrines and institutions". It is variously defined as "Islamic mysticism", "the inward dimension of Islam" or "the phenomenon of mysticism within Islam". Sufism began very early in Islamic history and represents "the main manifestation and the most important and central crystallization of" mystical practice in Islam. Practitioners of Sufism have been referred to as "Sufis".

Ibn Arabi Arab-Andalusian Sufi and philosopher

Ibn ʿArabi, full name Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad ibn al-ʿArabī al-Ḥātimī al-Ṭāʾī al-Andalusī al-Mursī al-Dimashqī Arabic: أبو عبد الله محـمـد بن علي بن محمـد إبن عربـي الحاتمي الطائي‎), nicknamed al-Qushayri and Sultan al-ʿArifin, was an Andalusian Muslim scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher, extremely influential within Islamic thought. Out of the 850 works attributed to him, some 700 are authentic while over 400 are still extant. His cosmological teachings became the dominant worldview in many parts of the Muslim world.


A fakir, faqeer or faqir, derived from faqr is an Islamic term traditionally used for a Sufi Muslim whose contingency and utter dependence upon God is manifest in everything they do and every breath they take. They do not necessarily renounce all relationships and take a vow of poverty, some may be poor and some may even be wealthy, but the adornments of the temporal worldly life are kept in perspective and do not detract from their constant neediness of God. The connotations of poverty associated with the term relate to their spiritual neediness, not necessarily their physical neediness. The faqir seeks to attain the condition of the perfect slave of Allah, who "delivers his trust (existence) back to its Owner." They are said to be "faqir ila Allah" or impoverished in comparison to Allah, which is the most exalted state to attain.

Peter Faber Jesuit priest and evangelist

Peter Faber was the first Jesuit priest and theologian, who was also a co-founder of the Society of Jesus, along with Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Pope Francis announced his canonization on 17 December 2013.

Devotio Moderna, or Modern Devotion, was a movement for religious reform, calling for apostolic renewal through the rediscovery of genuine pious practices such as humility, obedience, and simplicity of life. It began in the late fourteenth-century, largely through the work of Gerard Groote, and flourished in the Low Countries and Germany in the fifteenth century, but came to an end with the Protestant Reformation. It is most known today through its influence on Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ, a book which has proved highly influential for centuries. The Devotio Moderna wrote in IJssellands, a written language which stood in between Middle Dutch and Middle Low German.

Christian meditation

Christian meditation is a form of prayer in which a structured attempt is made to become aware of and reflect upon the revelations of God. The word meditation comes from the Latin word meditārī, which has a range of meanings including to reflect on, to study, and to practice. Christian meditation is the process of deliberately focusing on specific thoughts and reflecting on their meaning in the context of the love of God.

<i>Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola</i>

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, composed 1522–1524, are a set of Christian meditations, contemplations, and prayers written by Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic "weeks" of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days. They were composed with the intention of helping participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God in their lives, leading to a personal commitment to follow Jesus whatever the cost. Their underlying theology has been found agreeable to other Christian denominations who make use of them and also for addressing problems facing society in the 21st century.

A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. A common metaphor used in the spiritual traditions of the world's great religions is that of walking a path. Therefore, a spiritual practice moves a person along a path towards a goal. The goal is variously referred to as salvation, liberation or union. A person who walks such a path is sometimes referred to as a wayfarer or a pilgrim.

Sufi philosophy

Sufi philosophy includes the schools of thought unique to Sufism, a mystical branch within Islam, also termed as Tasawwuf or Faqr according to its adherents. Sufism and its philosophical traditions may be associated with both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. It has been suggested that Sufi thought emerged from the Middle East in the eighth century, but adherents are now found around the world. According to Sufism, it is a part of the Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of inner self and is the way which removes all the veils between divine and man. It was around 1000 CE that early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses and poetry, became the source of Sufi thinking and meditations. Sufi philosophy, like all other major philosophical traditions, has several sub-branches including metaphysics and cosmology as well as several unique concepts.

Spiritual direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their personal spirituality. The person seeking direction shares stories of their encounters of the divine, or how they are cultivating a life attuned to spiritual things. The director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth. Spiritual direction advocates claim that it develops a deeper awareness with the spiritual aspect of being human, and that it is neither psychotherapy nor counseling nor financial planning.

Khalwa has several meanings in Sufism, Islamic jurisprudence, and the Druze religion, which in some way derive from the concept of being alone or withdrawing from the world.

Catholic spirituality

Catholic spirituality includes the various ways in which Catholics live out their Baptismal promise through prayer and action. The primary prayer of all Catholics is the Eucharistic liturgy in which they celebrate and share their faith together, in accord with Jesus' instruction: "Do this in memory of me." The Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council decreed that "devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them." In accord with this, many additional forms of prayer have developed over the centuries as means of animating one's personal Christian life, at times in gatherings with others. Each of the religious orders and congregations of the Catholic church, as well as lay groupings, has specifics to its own spirituality – its way of approaching God in prayer to foster its way of living out the Gospel.

This is a glossary of spirituality-related terms. Spirituality is closely linked to religion.

<i>Magis</i> Latin word that means "more" or "greater"

Magis is a Latin word that means "more" or "greater". It is related to ad majorem Dei gloriam, a Latin phrase meaning "for the greater glory of God", the motto of the Society of Jesus. Magis refers to the philosophy of doing more for Christ, and therefore doing more for others. It is an expression of an aspiration and inspiration. It relates to forming the ideal society centered on Jesus Christ.

Mental prayer

Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue, meditating on God's words, and contemplation of Christ's face. It is distinguished from vocal prayers which use set prayers, although mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God. And no prayer is purely vocal, as it has traditionally been defined: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God."

Ignatius of Loyola 16th-century Catholic priest, theologian and saint; founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Ignatius of Loyola, venerated as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a Spanish Basque Catholic priest and theologian, who together with Peter Faber and Francis Xavier founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and became its first Superior General at Paris in 1541. The Jesuit order is dedicated to teaching and missionary work. Its members are bound by a special (fourth) vow of obedience to the sovereign pontiff to be ready to fulfill special papal missions. The society played an important role during the Counter-Reformation.

The practice of meditation is of prehistoric origin, and is found throughout history, especially in religious contexts.

Ignatian spirituality, also known as Jesuit spirituality, is a Catholic spirituality founded on the experiences of the sixteenth-century saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. The main idea of this form of spirituality comes from Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, the aim of which is to help one "conquer oneself and to regulate one's life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment." The Exercises are intended to give the person undertaking them a greater degree of freedom from his or her own likes and dislikes, so that their choices are based solely on what they discern God's will is for them. Even in the composition of the exercises by Ignatius early in his career, one might find the apostolic thrust of his spirituality in his contemplation on "The Call of the Earthly King" and in his final contemplation with its focus on finding God in all things.

Osman Fazli

Osman Fazli, was a Jelveti Sufi spiritual guide in 17th-century Ottoman Empire. He spent c.25 years teaching and preaching, and became head Sheikh of the order in Istanbul and led the studies, conversation, meditation, and dhikr. But when he was about 48 it was revealed to him that the Ottoman Empire would fall into ruin, and, although he was of reclusive temperament, felt the only way to care for its population was to be at the Sultan's court. There he was outspoken against many of the Grand Vizier's plans: that they would bring disaster and misfortune, and he was proven right. He spent some years at court but when he declared one Grand Vizier's plan as against the sharia and distorting the Quran, the only way the Vizier could silence him was with exile. Osman Fazli went into retreat but emerged with a different course of action: he was leading a band of Sufis towards the battlefront when he was arrested and exiled for good. Osman Fazli exemplifies the Jelveti way: that following union with Allah he returns and acts in the world. He is hushyar (awake).


  1. Ibn Arabi (1981). Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat. Rabia Terry Harris (trans.). Inner Traditions. ISBN   978-0-89281-018-5.
  2. What is a retreat? at
  3. 1 2 O'Malley, J W 1993, 'The First Jesuits', Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts p. 4
  4. Desert Living 2009, page 52
  5. O'Malley, J W 1993, 'The First Jesuits', Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts p. 129
  6. 1 2 3 4 Stone, Darwell (1919). "Retreats". In Hastings, J.; Selbie, J.A.; Gray, L.H. (eds.). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Scribner. p. 744.
  7. La Retraite – history
  8. McIlhiney, D.B. (1988). A Gentleman in Every Slum: Church of England Missions in East London, 1837-1914. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Pickwick Publications. p. 25. ISBN   978-0-915138-95-1 . Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  9. 1 2 Bodington, C. (1905). Devotional Life in the Nineteenth Century. SPCK. p. 176. Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  10. Walsh, W. (1899). The Secret History of the Oxford Movement. His Synthetic philosophy. C.J. Thynne. p.  57 . Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  11. 1 2 3 Yates, P.E.H.N.; Yates, N. (1999). Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-826989-2.
  12. "Sufi Retreats and Khalwa". The Bright Path. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  13. Dhamma Giri - Vipassana International Academy
  14. "How an intensive ten-day meditation retreat could transform your life". The Independent. 18 August 2015.
  15. Dunford, Jane (13 January 2018). "The best yoga, mindfulness and fitness breaks for 2018". The Guardian.
  16. "10 of the world's best meditation retreats". CNN Travel. 25 June 2013.
  17. "The Aims & Objectives of Yoga Retreats".
  18. Kostiner, Assaf. "What is a Yoga Retreat?". RN. Retrieved 29 December 2014. The main purpose of a yoga retreat is to help one break away from the mechanical life and move into a space that helps to discover and reestablish oneself by growing mentally as well as physically. It releases one’s limitations, fears and takes to a world of new possibilities. The most eye-catching part about yoga retreats is its easy accessibility for all as it doesn’t restrain people on the basis of body type or age. It relieves a person from the stressful life without following any stringent meditation course, but by following a few Yoga Asanas in routine.
  19. Evan, Molly (11 April 2014). Guide to Yoga. Bookpubber.

Further reading