What is a Retreat?

A retreat is a time and place through which a person can withdraw from ordinary activities — in prayer and reflection. A model for this is Jesus’ forty days in the desert in prayer and fasting In the early Christian era, the desert, mountains and other remote areas provided places for prayer. In more modern times, retreat houses were established and continue to operate today.

Visit: The Jesuit Retreat House in Milford, OH


There are three general formats for retreats: preached, directed, and private. In a preached retreat, there is a leader who offers conferences each day, leads prayer and is available for private counseling. In directed retreats, each person individually meets with a spiritual director who may suggest scripture passages for prayer and reflection. Private retreats are made without a leader or director.

A preached retreat would generally be thematized to scripture or some spiritual writing such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which guide retreatants to consider creation, repentance for sin and redemption.

There is normally some degree of silence and there is an emphasis on the practice of a simple and gentle lifestyle in regard to food, relaxation, and exercise. People come to retreats sometimes to make a decision or commitment; sometimes to examine the quality of their spiritual lives; sometimes just to re-energize spiritually and emotionally. All retreatants look to renew and strengthen their relationship with God — to grow in faith, hope and love.


Common question is about silence. In general, retreatants will be instructed to respect the quiet silence within the retreat buildings and whenever around other retreatants, including within your own room. In no way should this be handled in a punitive or forced way, but always respectful of the needs of community of retreatants. This calming and quieting exteriorly will help to calm and quiet the person interiorly as well. It is within this quiet/calm space and time that your attentiveness and openness to God can be nurtured and explored.


This is an excerpt from Rev. Winfrid Herbst, S.D.S. 1947 book, “The Way To God”

WHAT IS A RETREAT? It is a time when I look my soul over to see whether everything is in order; and if I notice all is not as it should be I give it a good overhauling. If I owned a car I would do the same thing as regards my car…So it is our should be with my soul. I give it daily care in the examination of conscience, frequent care in a devout confession, and annual care in a retreat. I might call a retreat a vacation. Just as the body runs down and needs a vacation, so with the soul. A retreat is just common sense. It is a time when I simply get away from everything else and strive to be alone with God. God and I – that’s a retreat. It is the soul alone with God. And in this aloneness I look back into the past and forward into the future and draw up my plan of campaign for the winning of this war for the salvation of my soul against the world and the flesh and the devil in the present. Yes; I have… the past to put in order, the present to deal with, and the future to take into account… I am going to make a retreat; I am going to do my best for my own sake and for the sake of those others whom I must show the way to heaven by my good example. If I try to get more in tune with God I shall be very glad when I have finished. I’ll be singing a song in my heart to God.

So when I set about this business of making a retreat I must as far as possible withdraw from the world of my everyday life and be alone with God and listen attentively to His voice. I must listen or read carefully and think over what I hear or read. I must let it soak in. Reflection is what counts. If I am told that death is certain I must express that thought to myself in a dozen different ways. I am going to die. Sooner or later, and sooner perhaps, death will overtake me. In so and so many years I will be dead and my body will see corruption. As no one ever escaped death, so neither will I. I am destined to die and enter into eternity. The day is coming when I shall have to leave this world. An hour is coming which will be my last hour on earth, the hour of my death. My soul must leave my body below and meet its Maker. Remember that you are dust and into dust you will return. [Gen. 3:19] I must die. Death is certain for me. All around me I see men fall before the sickle of the grim reaper, death, and one day I shall fall with the others. In some such way I am going to face the truth bravely. Then I shall realize it; it will come home to me with striking force.

What is a retreat? It might also be defined as a brief journey through the land of the spiritual life, through the states known as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. Thus, to give a brief outline of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I get ready everything necessary for the trip: the fundamental meditation – from God, for God, to God. Then by various meditations and by confession I reform the deformed, oust sin from the soul: the purgative way. Thereupon I conform the reformed, model the purified soul after Christ the Lord: the illuminative way. Upon this I confirm the conformed, strengthen the modeled soul in its resolutions to follow the Divine Leader: again the illuminative way. Having done this through meditations on the life and passion of Christ, I strive to transform the confirmed, to give the strengthened soul more abundant supernatural life through faith and love. Whereupon I make a concluding meditation on the infinite love of God as manifested in Himself and in His works. -Yes; I know this is all ideal and can best be done in a retreat of thirty days. But it can be well done in nine, or six, or even three. And in every retreat, no matter how brief, one can arrive at some semblance of the logical sequence suggested by my outline.


[Editor's note: Try not to be intimidated by the older terminology. The author is saying we must at times look at ourselves to honestly admit our failures, our attachment to worldly concerns and satisfying our appetites. Then learn again from the Lord what we should value and do, and finally resolve again to do better.]

But I spoke of St. Ignatius, heavenly patron of all retreats. I will now pray: “Rouse up, O Lord, and foster the spirit of the Exercises which St. Ignatius labored to spread abroad, that we, being possessed by the same spirit, may be zealous to love what he loved and to do what he taught. Through Christ our Lord.”

What is a retreat? I might also say that it is a time when I get many salutary instructions on the spiritual life; a time when I prepare for and make an unusually sincere and contrite confession; a time when I prepare for death. Or a time to begin doing better in life. It is all such a perfect preparation. I really think that one who makes a good retreat and dies within the year is surely going to heaven; for such a one will either persevere in the grace of God or will recover it if lost…

A retreat consists of a chain of religious exercises, closely connected: of prayer, of silence, of reflection, of meditation, of spiritual reading, of confession, of Communion. It is a great grace, with which I should cooperate by following a certain order of the day with a fixed time for everything, by keeping myself recollected, by willingly and attentively reading or listening to the considerations given and pondering on the same, having a care not to be disheartened if I do not find in myself the generous dispositions I really ought to have. It may well be that what I read or hear will humiliate me by showing me what manner of [person] I am, if I am hard on myself and apply to myself what is to be applied. But just because of my humiliation God will pour over me the fullness of His graces. Holy Writ says: “The Lord withstands the proud, but His grace He gives to the humble.” (James 4:6)

What I have been thinking of can be summed up in the concise retreat advice: “Intrate toti, manete soli, exite alii,” which some retreat masters give to their retreatants. “Enter (the retreat) wholeheartedly, remain alone and in solitude, come forth different from what you were when you entered upon it.”

Before each spiritual-reading meditation or consideration I am going to say a prayer into which I am going to put my whole heart:

My God, I firmly believe that you are here present, and I humbly adore you in union with the angels and saints. I am sorry for having sinned, because you are infinitely good and sin displeases you.

I love you above all things and with my whole heart. I offer you all that I am and all that I have, my soul with all its faculties, my body with all its senses.

Enlighten my understanding and inflame my will, that I may know and do what is pleasing to you. I beg you to direct all the powers of my soul, all my thoughts and affections to your service and your glory as well as to my own sanctification and salvation. Amen.

And after my meditation or consideration I am going to say this prayer in a spirit of humility and gratitude:

O my God, I give you heartfelt thanks for all the graces you have conferred on me during this meditation. Pardon me, I beg you, all the negligence and all the distractions of which I have been guilty. Give me strength to carry out my good resolutions. Help me to practice virtue, to avoid sin, to do good – for your honor. Sweet Virgin Mary, help me. Dear St. Joseph, help me. My good Guardian Angel, help me. Amen.


Rev. Winfrid Herbst, S.D.S. The Way to God, Society of the Divine Savior, Publ.Dept. (1947) pp. 1-8. This text is provided for religious and educational purposes. No other use is intended or permitted. The material in brackets is added by the editor and is not covered by the imprimatur. Some archaic words have been replaced with synonyms. Imprimatur +Stanislaus V. Bona, Bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2/23/1946.

Biography of Fr. Winfrid Herbst SDS
From: “On Whose Shoulders We Stand – the Necrology of the USA Province”
? 2008 – Society of the Divine Savior – USA Province – Salvatorian Archives