Many people consider retreat in battle to be a sign of weakness and even cowardice, a prelude to surrender.
Not every military leader would agree with that assessment. The decision to retreat sometimes is a tactical maneuver in battle. The same is true in some sports, such as boxing. And it’s definitely a key strategy in the spiritual life.
Of course I would see it that way. I’m sort of a “retreat junkie.”
As I write this, I’m less than 60 hours removed from completing my most recent experience. I spent a weekend as a team member on an ACTS retreat with about three dozen other men at the Pallottine Renewal Center. I visited Pallottine the weekend before that as well, when I was able to attend a portion of a retreat hosted by the Secular Carmelites community.
I’ve made dozens of spiritual retreats the last 40 years. Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP). Adoration-Community-Theology-Service (ACTS). Secular Carmelites. Silent retreats at the White House in Oakville, at the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky, at the Assumption Trappist monastery in southwest Missouri, at the St. Meinrad monastery in Indiana …
“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul,” said Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor in the 100s who was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors.”
We spend so much time paying attention to the health of our bodies and minds, we often forget to take the time to focus on our spiritual health.
While not always wholly untroubled, each retreat has been unique. I’ve met Christ during each experience, definitely making retreats a vital part of my spiritual strategy — not unlike that employed by many military field generals.
Throughout history, when a warrior is unable to lead an attack and unable to defend the enemy’s onslaught, a tactical retreat makes perfect sense in the short term and long term. Merely holding position would be futile.
A quick search online provided numerous reasons for it to work in military combat — and they seem sensible when facing spiritual warfare as well:
To make time to observe the enemy. To take time to recover and plan. To lead the enemy to a more favorable landscape and lessen the force of the opponent’s blow. To evade attack in a moment of weakness. To wear out the adversary. To delay the battle until a more advantageous time.
Not all retreats are conducted in silent solitude. There are great benefits from group retreats in which we can share our stories with others, worship together, laugh and cry together. On those gatherings — such as ACTS and CRHP — we can gain strength from each other.
Recall that Jesus said a lamp should be placed on a stand, not under a basket or a bed.
“Light obviously isn’t for itself; rather, we see things by it. It illuminates things upon which it shines,” Bishop Robert Barron wrote recently in a reflection about the Parable of the Lamp. “We are light by which people around us come to see what is worth seeing.”
Consider as well that Jesus and others employed the spiritual retreat maneuver frequently.
Jesus told His disciples to “go to a desolate place and rest a while.” He had done just that for 40 days in the desert before beginning His ministry. He took a few of His apostles onto a mountain “mini-retreat” to witness His Transfiguration. “He makes me lie down in green pastures … leads me beside still waters … restores my soul,” reads one Psalm. “Be still and know that I am God,” reads another.
When it comes to spiritual warfare, “Prayer is the best weapon we have,” St. (Padre) Pio of Pietrelcina said.
The heat of spiritual battle can grow so intense that staying in the thick of things doesn’t seem wise or prudent. Going on retreat — sharing war stories or studying options or simply replenishing the arsenal — can bolster the chances of victory.
And there you will find the Lord.
Eisenbath is a parishioner at St. Cletus in St. Charles.