Q: Throughout the year we have opportunities to attend days of prayer. What do extended retreats add to the spiritual journey that reading books, attending Centering Prayer groups and workshops don't? How often do you recommend going on retreat?
A: Picture a piccolo player faithfully practicing his craft each day and then joining the symphony orchestra for its yearly concert. While the time spent practicing alone is an important time of preparation, it is in playing with others that the music is enhanced and that together the musicians celebrate something greater than themselves, each sharing their unique gift with one another. Afterwards, they return to their daily routine and individual practices with a renewed enthusiasm and a deepened understanding for the music.
This is the gift of a Centering Prayer multi-day retreat; when one joins others over an extended period of time after having practiced the prayer on their own, there is something very powerful that takes place when you enter into the embrace of a prayerful community. You get into a rhythm that moves you out of your external distractions into an inner space of awareness. When you do not have to worry about being in charge and all your needs are being taking care of, you find yourself surrendering to an inner grace that makes you aware of the subtle movements of the body and the spirit. It is like a gentle spiritual massage, naturally relaxing into a dance when the music carries you along. This is all supported by the rhythm of the retreat, the Scripture readings, the Centering Prayer sessions, soul friending, and the silent meals. You are ever-so-gently being formed by the silence. You can refer to an article that I wrote in a prior Contemplative Outreach News for more insight.
Making time to go on a retreat can be challenging, but remember how difficult practicing Centering Prayer for 20 minutes twice a day seemed when you first started. Once you made that commitment a miracle happened, and you were able to make that practice your regular spiritual lifeline. Making a commitment to attend an extended retreat follows the same path of trust and hope.
And don’t let the problem of affordability stop you, as partial scholarships may be available through the retreat house and/or in conjunction with local Contemplative Outreach chapters. It's worth asking.
And to answer your question "How often should one attend retreats?" Ideally, as often as you can. Practically, as often as you can.
Jesus suggested to his disciples that they go off on their own and he himself set the example:
Then, because so many people were coming and going
that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them,
'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.
– Mark 6: 31-32
Blessings, Fr Carl