by John Carey
This article first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Magis, the newsletter of the Ignatian Spirituality Centre.
Silence. Prayer. Rest. Spiritual guidance. This is the recipe served up by a small group of spiritual directors on six weekends each year for well nigh thirty years under the banner of Montreal Directed Retreats.
Perhaps you have seen brochures, posters or advertisements promoting these weekend retreat experiences. Then again, perhaps they have escaped your notice. This is not surprising, for this ministry has been carried out with a complete lack of fanfare.
My own experience of this movement began shortly after my arrival in Montreal in 1993. I had long felt the call towards retreat ministry and determined to seek out avenues for its realization. Providence led me to encounter the right persons: Fr. John Wickham, s.j., at that time co-director of the Ignatian Centre, and Paul Empsall, coordinator of retreats. In June 1994, I participated in my first meeting of Montreal Directed Retreats (or MDR, as it is commonly called) and discovered a spirit-filled group of people - religious and laity - who, with great simplicity and joy, undertook to provide this much-needed service. I'm still there today.
If you haven't yet experienced retreat, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Simply put, a retreat is a time, taken away from our usual surroundings, during which we engage in a spiritual reflection on our lives and on our relationship with the living God. Retreat consequently takes on a variety of forms: spiritual conferences, prayer experiences and group dynamics, to name but a few. The common thread that runs through all types of retreat is the attempt to re-focus one's life in order to return to one's daily routine with a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
Retreat has marked the human experience at least since biblical times. Moses climbed Mount Sinai to see God and receive the promised covenant (Ex 19). Elijah the prophet walked 40 days to Mount Horeb and there entered into dialogue with the Lord and was given his renewed mission (1 Kg 19, 7-18). St. Paul, after being thrown from his horse, fasted and prayed alone for three days until Ananias was sent to restore his sight and send him to preach the Good News to the nations (Ac 9, 9-19). And of course, Jesus himself often withdrew from human company to spend time alone with his Father, usually before important events and turning points in his earthly career (cf. Mk 1,35; 6,31.46; Lk 4, 1-2. 42; 6,12). Since then, men and women of every generation have found strength and direction through times of retreat.
A great spiritual master who brought new focus to the retreat form was St. Ignatius of Loyola. His Spiritual Exercises have been the source of a tremendous renewal of apostolic life in the Church, and their recent revival ensures their continued impact on today's world. Long the bastion of religious priests, the Spiritual Exercises are more and more being directed by laypersons of all walks of life. The Ignatian Centre offers within its director-training program a two-year formation in giving the Spiritual Exercises in a daily-life setting.
It was out of an experience of the Spiritual Exercises that Montreal Directed Retreats was born. A group of priests and religious returned to Montreal after undergoing the Spiritual Exercises training at Guelph, Ontario, and asked themselves how they could share this experience with others. They soon began regular meetings to encourage each other and to continue to deepen their knowledge of the Exercises. Very quietly they set about offering some weekend retreats in which silence at all times and individual direction were the prime characteristics. By word of mouth the news got around and a growing clientele was found for this type of retreat. Gradually more lay directors joined the group, which today is composed of a majority of laypersons.
MDR has acquired some more structure since these simple beginnings, and we now produce publicity pamphlets and posters, and advertise in the Catholic Times and in parish bulletins. A longstanding grant from the Pillars Trust Fund enables us to continue to offer retreats at a minimal price. The spirit of MDR, however, remains the same: that of providing silent personally directed weekend retreats to all who seek them.
So how does a silent directed retreat operate? Here are the basics. Retreatants arrive at the retreat centre on the Friday evening (currently we offer retreats at two centres: Villa Marguerite in Pierrefonds and the Cistercian Abbey in Rougemont). The retreat begins with a plenary session to explain some of the practical details of the weekend and to spend a moment in prayer to mark the beginning of the silence. From that point on, apart from the daily Eucharist, retreatants will maintain silence at all times except to speak with their assigned director. Usually a director will meet with each retreatant on the Friday evening, once or twice on Saturday and again on Sunday morning. The retreat ends with a plenary session on the Sunday afternoon to end the retreat and to share the graces received. As to the theme and subject matter for the retreat, this is determined individually with each retreatant, depending on that individual's life situation and present needs. The director must tailor the retreat to suit each one. That's the structure. The rest is up to the individual and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
I have been constantly amazed at God's myriad graces present in these retreats. The time is short. Indeed, it seems we have only just unpacked our bags and suddenly we are at the retreat's end! And yet God is able to work transformations and healings in abundance in such a setting. Whenever a person comes to retreat with an attitude of openness and generosity, our God is at the rendezvous with blessings and graces beyond measure. "Taste and see how good the Lord is." Truly this is a blessed ministry!
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