The Rhythms of Retreat

For the past two months, my colleagues and I have been exploring the question, What is a retreat? We have answered both negatively—a retreat is neither a vacation nor an escape—and positively—a retreat is a spiritual practice, an invitation to rest, and a return to our truest selves. We have suggested that it’s easy to confuse a retreat center with a resort and retreats with other kinds of getaways. In the past, I served as a faculty member at three different graduate schools (seminaries, to be precise). Each school held a “faculty retreat” off-site prior to the start of each academic year. Most of the time, these retreats functioned like extended business meetings. They occurred in beautiful settings and included more time for informal conversation than usual, but overall, they lacked the restorative rhythms of retreats. Showing up at a retreat center doesn’t mean that you are retreating. For this reason, this next set of blogs aims to help you plan your retreats, wherever you are, so that you can receive the many life-sustaining gifts of this spiritual practice.

While we will reflect on some of the “nuts and bolts” of retreats, it’s important to note that there is no single prescribed structure or group of activities for all retreats. In fact, retreats can vary greatly depending on all these (and more) factors: 

  • Who is going on the retreat? Is it a personal retreat, family retreat, organizational retreat, or something else? Are other groups or individuals retreating in the same space at the same time? 
  • Where is the retreat being held? At a camp, retreat center, event venue, church campus, your own home?  
  • What is the role of food and eating on a retreat? Are retreatants making their own meals or is this service as part of the hospitality of the retreat center or other venue? 
  • What are the particular purposes of a given retreat along with the hopes and needs of individual retreatants? 
  • What is the spiritual framework of the facilitators and participants? Is this related to a particular history of retreats?

Regarding this last point, as an example, Buddhist retreats emphasize silence, meditation, and mindfulness. Buddhist retreat centers frequently are called “meditation centers” and some directly aim to cultivate the values of compassion and wisdom. They may teach a particular tradition of Buddhist meditation or certain meditation techniques within that tradition. Or consider Roman Catholic retreats, which often incorporate spiritual direction, walking the labyrinth, morning and evening prayer, or even hourly prayer. Some Roman Catholic retreat centers are connected to a monastery and invite guests to join monks for daily prayer and other activities. Others provide hermitages for individual retreatants. All this demonstrates that diversity exists within uniformity when it comes to the spiritual practice of retreat.

At the same time, we can discern common values and rhythms across a diverse array of retreats. Most retreats emerge from deep commitments to hospitality, peace, rest, compassion, and community. Retreats renew our connections to God, others, nature, and ourselves, and they ground us in peace and wellbeing. On retreat, we rest and receive compassion for ourselves and others as we enter into lifegiving rhythms. Generally, retreats order our time and activities around rhythms of togetherness and separateness (fellowship and solitude); communal discernment and self-reflection; corporate prayer and personal contemplation; exercise/movement and stillness/napping; wakefulness and sleeping. This is why an extended business meeting in a beautiful setting is not necessarily a retreat.

In her book, An Invitation to Retreat, author and retreat facilitator Ruth Haley Barton writes, “Retreat is an amazing opportunity to return to our natural rhythms and discover (or rediscover) what is good and necessary and true at the core of our lives. It will be important for you to find your own rhythm on retreat as you discover (or rediscover) that which is good and necessary and true for you. To go to bed when you are tired—even if it’s eight in the evening. To sleep until you’re not tired anymore, and to have some sense of how much sleep you need. To pay attention while you eat, to take pleasure in it, and to discover what is truly needed. To sit in silence for as long as you want so the sediment in your soul starts to settle.” 

Perhaps this notion of returning to natural rhythms on retreat sounds a bit like the wisdom literature of the Bible (or a 1960s song by The Byrds). Reflecting on the seasons of the life, the author of Ecclesiastes waxed poetic:  

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. 

Retreats also invite us to reflect on these larger rhythms (or, seasons) of life in a global society with curiosity and wonder, longing and lament, hope and acceptance. Whether you retreat at home for a brief period of time or find yourself at a retreat center for days on end, we hope you will consider and follow the rhythms of life that restore you in body, heart, and mind.


Reverend Theresa F. Latini is executive director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).



  1. Cis Sherwood says:

    Terrific piece

  2. John Smith says:

    Thank you!

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