Emily M. DeArdo


Going on Retreat: Vacation With God

essays, CatholicismEmily DeArdoComment

Vacation with God?

Seriously, Emily?

Yes. Because to me, retreat is definitely part-vacation.

Think about it:

You don’t have to do any laundry or cleaning.

The food is provided for you.

There’s constant tea and coffee available, so you don’t even have to make your daily cuppa.

You can sleep whenever you want, in a private room. No one comes in and bothers you!

I mean, this sounds pretty good, right? At the least it’s a vacation from laundry, phone calls, and cooking!

A retreat is really as detached as you want to make it. You can choose to bring your laptop and check the news every hour. You can scroll on your phone. You can call your kids. But really, the best retreats—and by best, I mean most fruitful, in my opinion—are the ones when you are, as the Carthusians say, “alone with the Alone.”


Every retreat I’ve ever been on has been silent. I started going on them when I was in my mid-twenties, and they’ve always been in the same place—St. Therese’s Retreat House, here in town, about ten minutes from where I live. Silence has an appeal to me on a few levels—one, ever since my hearing went south, I like having a few days when I don’t have to listen to people, and try to understand what they’re saying, and two, because I also like to talk, it’s good for me to not talk. It’s good to just be quiet.

I realize that not everyone likes silence as much as I do, but I do think it’s important to shut up and listen to God every once in awhile, and that’s really what retreat is—that time to sit down, shut up, and focus on God for a few days.

Spiritually, we need retreat. We need it the same way we need vacation. (When I don’t take a vacation, I can tell. My body can tell. When I don’t go on retreat, it’s the same deal.)

I highly recommend everyone look into taking one, even if it’s a “quiet day” offered by a local parish, where it’s a few hours of silence, or a day of recollection. They’re important for our spiritual lives.


So I’ve talked a lot about retreat on my blog before, but this time I thought I’d walk you through what happens. This is going to be a multi-parter, so here I’ll take you through Saturday morning.

A look at the “old” residential part of the retreat house.

A look at the “old” residential part of the retreat house.

These retreats run from around 5:00 on Friday to around noon on Sunday. They are usually “preached”, meaning that there’s a priest who will give talks around a certain theme. I’ve heard them preached on the seven deadly sins, Mary, St. Therese, and this one was about the Sacraments of Initiation and their Biblical roots. Every one I’ve gone to has been preached by a priest (which I prefer, because then you have access to the sacraments in an easier way than if, say, a sister/nun or a layperson preaches the retreat, and a priest has to be brought in). I try to go to one a year, but they’re offered twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.

The amount of talks vary—anywhere from three to five—this one had four. There is daily Mass and the opportunity for confession, as well as other devotional practices.

The important thing to remember is that you do not have to do any of these things. I mean, obviously, you went on retreat to pray, and you probably should go to Mass. :) But if you want to sleep in and miss morning prayer, that’s fine. If you don’t want to go to every conference, that’s fine. Etc. No one is taking attendance and no one will make you go or do anything. It’s your retreat.

Some retreat guides tell you not to bring books. I laugh at this. To me, books—spiritual reading only—are fabulous springboards into prayer or examination. I generally bring a few. I don’t read them all, and I’m not speed reading, but I do find them really useful, and I always have. If you don’t, then don’t bring them. Most retreat houses have books/a library/materials around for you to read if you want to, and they always have Bibles. (Bring your Bible, for sure.)

The retreat house/organizers will tell you what you need to bring. Towels, linens for the bed, etc. are provided, but if they don’t tell you, contact them and ask. (My first retreat I didn’t know linens and pillows were provided so I brought them! Ha!) You’ll need comfortable clothes. Generally, in my experience people tend to bring something a little nicer for the Sunday Mass, but it’s not a fashion show. You might want to bring a few snacks of the non-perishable variety. (I always do, because I have to take my evening meds with food. We get good meals at the retreat house, but no snacks.)


The Lourdes Grotto on the property

The Lourdes Grotto on the property

I try to arrive early, as in before five, and check in. Once you check in your get your room assignment, so you can go unpack and settle in before the retreat begins. There are sign-up forms for volunteering to help with devotions and the Masses throughout the retreat—I always sign up to do one of the readings, because I really love being a lector at Mass and I rarely get the chance to do it!

I generally go to my room, unpack, set up my alarm clock (very important, since I won’t hear the bell that the retreat league uses to wake us up!), then go to the grotto (above), to pray a bit, usually a rosary. If the weather’s bad, I go to the chapel. This serves as a way to bring my mind into retreat and to slooooooooow down. It helps me forget about traffic, anything that’s been bugging me, any extraneous things—it’s just me and the prayers.


The retreat starts in the main conference room around 6:00, when one of the women from the retreat league welcomes us, talks us through the layout of the retreat and the house, and gives any housekeeping notices. Dinner is after this in the dining room, and we can talk at dinner. The food is always great.

After dinner, silence begins. This year, we didn’t have a conference on Friday night. We went right from dinner to Mass and vespers. Mass was at 7:45. (Dinner doesn’t take an hour to eat—so we were OK with the fast before Mass!) After Mass there was abbreviated Vespers (I said that plus my own Vespers from the Liturgy of the Hours [LOH]), and then after that, there were confessions with two priests. I went to confession, said my penance, and then went to my room to get ready for bed and go to sleep.

On retreat, confessions can be a little longer—people tend to confess more, in my experience, and priests also tend to offer a bit more counsel. So if you’re in line, be prepared to wait a bit, and remember that if you have questions or want counsel, the priest will give it to you too (usually. Some don’t.).

There is no “lights out”. You can stay in the chapel if you want. You can read in the main lounge. As long as you’re quiet, you can pretty much do whatever you want.

After confession I went back to my room with a cup of hot cocoa, took my meds, read a bit, and then went to bed. My alarm was set for 7, and hopefully it wouldn’t be so loud that it would terrify everyone else into awakeness. :)


Saturday morning

Saturday morning

My alarm did not wake everyone, yay, but it got me up at seven. The bell rang at 7:30 but I like to give myself a little leeway to get ready—I don’t like to be rushed in the morning if at all possible. At 8:15 there was lauds in the chapel, and then we had breakfast. I had gotten to the chapel early so I said the LOH and had some mental prayer before we prayed in common.

Morning prayer

Morning prayer

After breakfast at 8:30, we had the first conference of the retreat, setting out the general overview and talking about the use of light and dark in Scripture, echoes between Genesis and revelation, how water and light are used, and things like that—providing an overview to the Sacraments we were going to study. “Christ provides absolute concrete stability,” Fr. Stephen said. Which is true!

After the conference, we said the rosary in the chapel (joyful mysteries, since it was Saturday—I prayed for all of you!), and then had Mass, followed by lunch.

I was reading The Story of a Soul, which I hadn’t read in a long time, and I was also reading I Believe In Love, which is one of my favorite books ever, and is based on the teachings of St. Therese. So both those books complemented each other and provided a lot of material for prayer and pondering.

Meals in silence aren’t really that hard—you just have to be aware of what people want. Since I use my eyes more than the normal bear anyway (because I can’t hear as well as y’all can, so I have to use my eyes to survey the surroundings and get information), it’s easier for me to see when someone might want the bread basket or the water pitcher. There’s quiet instrumental music playing in the background, so it’s not silent silent.

In the next post I’ll talk about the rest of Saturday!