When is the right time to retreat?

Tom Bartolomeo
July 2015
Reproduced with Permission

On reflection (there's that word, again, with the prefix, "re") what does it mean to retreat? Perhaps, I should have delved into the meaning of retreat before I examined the meaning of a "monastic-style" retreat in a recent article I published, "What is a monastic retreat?"

Most people associate retreat with "go back". Some associate retreat with vacation or get-away, a place where one would rather be. In war retreat has a specific meaning usually associated with defeat but not always. George Washington retreated eight times before the American Continental Army defeated the British at Trenton, New Jersey. Retreat, delay and stall -- Washington finally won the American War of Independence at Yorktown, Virginia where England ceded America to the Colonists. In this sense a retreat is not a defeat but an opportunity to regroup which Jesus preached incessantly, "Repent. For the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:10).

Thoughtful and prayerful people retreat frequently. Some great saints spent their entire lives in retreat as the hermit Saint Anthony of Egypt did. His followers, their idea not Anthony's, wanted to be hermits like Anthony, and Anthony built them a monastery with individual cells so they, too, could retreat from the world.

The Father of our country, George Washington, taught his ragged soldiers that they could win their War of Independence by endurance and not bravado. He knew what many people forget that the "the unexamined life is a life not worth living" (Socrates). Brave men are wise, patient and humble. God does not bless proud presumptuous men and women. King David of Israel for all his worldly power was a humble and contrite man for the sins he repented. The Psalms, more than half of them composed by David, exhibit a soul contrite, ever mindful of his failings and always accepting God's chastisements for his sins. He was never presumptuous and prayed for God's forgiveness:

For the leader. A psalm of David. When Nathan
the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment.
Behold, I was born in guilt,
in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, you desire true sincerity;
and secretly you teach me wisdom. (Psalm 51:1-8)

This was the great King David of Israel whose son down through many generations became Jesus, the Son of David.

From another perspective the Psalms elicit soulful conversations with God over a vast array of human experiences as these excerpts from Psalm 42 do:

Like the deer that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning
for you, my God.

Deep is calling on deep,
in the roar of the waters:
your torrents and all your waves
swept over me.

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?

Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.

And Jesus as the son of Man prayed these Psalms. The Psalms and all of Sacred Scripture speaks to us in the depths of our being in our souls.

Many people would assume wrongly that the soul of such a person must be religious in a formal sense, a soulful person and member of a particular religion but that would not account for the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the most published classic of American literature, Walden; Life in the Woods authored by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is remembered for his many truisms such as "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived" and "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Or "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads" and "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Ordinarily, we have two retreat choices, find your own particular Walden Pond, build a cabin and live there for two years, something singularly your own, or make an organized retreat such I am offering, a three day monastic-style Catholic retreat. Our time together will be conspicuously quiet without the usual distractions, cell phones, television and talk. We will have Mass each morning and pray the Office of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church. We will meet as a group for discussions twice a day. The basis of our retreats were formed in me over many years and my personal experience which I explained in my article, "What is a monastic-style retreat?"