What’s the difference between a retreat and a vacation?

By Father G. Robert Gross
Special to The Witness

We live in a world where we exalt work. Work and working hard is a value that is deeply rooted in our nation and especially in our area. It is one of the marks of credibility in our leaders, whether government leaders, spiritual leaders or leaders in our community. We respect our leaders when they work hard and put themselves second. That is a value that we should instill in our children. But there is a limit.

We see that in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. God created the world in six days. But on the seventh day he rested. Just think about that for a moment. Why did God have to rest if he is all powerful? Why did God rest when he is infinite? An infinite being does not have to rest. But he did to show us that we do not live to work. We live to be in relationship. Our work is to serve the relationships that make us human. Our relationship with God, our family, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s why we have the Sabbath. The Sabbath of worship at Mass and rest from our labors is to remind us that we are not robots who work, work, work. We are human beings who imitate the one whose image and likeness we bear, the blessed Trinity. He rested, which means our humanity needs sabbath.

There are two ways to rest. There is vacation. We go away from our normal duties and spend time with family. We make a trip; we have meals; we spend money on things and activities that have no purpose other than bringing us together with the ones we love for a period of time. In other words, we have fun.

For Christians, there is another way of rest, retreat. When we make a retreat, we literally retreat from normal life. We find a place that is silent, beautiful, and we cut ourselves off from the world of work, technology, concerns and spend time exclusively with God. It is a vacation with God. The more our culture has drunk the kool-aid of insane work, the more people have abandoned retreat. But it is so needed for growth in the spiritual life.

That’s why every year in the fall, I will be away for eight days of silence. I will spend eight days in four hours of formal prayer, rest, reflection, all spent with God. No television, no iPhone, no computer, no electronics of any kind. I will also be fasting. Walking away from normal comforts so that my heart is vulnerable for God to speak.

Priests need retreat with God to be faithful servants of their people. The people of God deserve holy priests now more than ever. This is one way that priests grow in holiness. Priests also take retreat to be an example for other Christians to give themselves permission to take a break from life and to retreat with God.

Each vocation dictates what is possible for retreat. For priests, there is a need for extended time. For married folks, there are different possibilities. Have you ever gone on a retreat? Do you need that time with God?

Here are some ideas for retreats according to your vocation and availability of time:

Suggestion 1:

A day of prayer and recollection. Drive to Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse and spend the day in prayer there. Go to confession, attend Mass, pray in the shrine church, light a vigil candle, have a nice meal at their restaurant. Bring a ­Bible or a spiritual book to read, spend a day away from concerns; spend that day with God.

Suggestion 2:

A private weekend retreat. Drive to New Melleray Abbey just outside of Dubuque and stay at their guesthouse. You would have a room like the monks do and the chance to participate in the daily prayers of the monks, the Liturgy of the Hours. Bring a ­Bible, a spiritual book and a journal. Go to confession, attend Mass and possibly talk with a monk in the monastery. Anybody can do this. Any Catholic. You don’t have to be a priest to do this.

Suggestion 3:

A preached retreat. A preached retreat is when a priest, brother, sister or lay person leads a group of retreatants centered on a spiritual topic. The place could be a monastery or shrine or parish. The group gathers together and listens to the spiritual conferences of the retreat, which leads the participants. You can pray, attend the conferences, eat meals with fellow retreatants, go to confession, and attend holy Mass. Locations for these types of retreat range from the shrine in La Crosse to the American Martyrs Retreat Center, to New Melleray Abbey, and to many in the country. These retreats usually last a weekend. Another version of these retreats would be a CEW (Christian Experience Weekend).

Suggestion 4:

A directed retreat. A directed retreat is going to a location for retreat like the ones listed above, but instead of a preached retreat master, you have one spiritual director who personally guides you in the retreat. Usually those can run from a weekend to 30 days. The retreatant usually spends three to four hours in prayer each day with Scripture passages provided by the spiritual director. Then each day the retreatant and the spiritual director discuss what God is doing in the retreatant’s prayer. This is the most intense type of retreat because it directly prompts the retreatant to encounter the Lord personally speaking to them in prayer.

These are four ideas for retreat. When did you make your last retreat? Is it time to recharge with God? I think the answer will always be yes.

Father Gross is pastor of St. Aloysius, Calmar; Our Lady of Seven Dolors, Festina; St. Francis de Sales, Ossian; St. Wenceslaus, Spillville.


Seminarians attend Mass in 2017 in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, near Chicago. More than 200 seminarians from 34 dioceses study at the seminary on their path to the priesthood. The U.S. bishops will start 2019 with a spiritual retreat Jan. 2-8 at Mundelein to pray and reflect on the important matters facing the Catholic Church such as the abuse crisis. (CNS photo/courtesy Mundelein)