Story by Dr. Carly York | Correspondent
Modern life can be stressful, from the balancing act of juggling work and busy family lives to the unexpected turns of death, divorce or addiction. Add to these issues the local, national and global problems seen in the news, and it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed.
That’s where the benefits of retreat centers can come into play, for as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 states, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.”
“I have heard a variety of reasons [why people come on retreat] that would include dedicating time to their spiritual lives, getting a break from demands of work and home, enjoying retreat time away with other parishioners and/or friends,” said Redemptorist Father Kevin O’Neil, retreat staff member and resident of San Alfonso Retreat House, Long Branch.
San Alfonso is one of many retreat centers in the Diocese of Trenton – Francis House of Prayer, Rancocas; The Upper Room Spiritual Center, Neptune; St. Joseph by the Sea, Mantoloking, and Maris Stella, Harvey Cedars, among them – that can offer solace for the weary soul.
In looking at life stressors and negative events in the news, Father O’Neil said, “As I see it, the central truth of the Resurrection is the surest reason for hope in a broken world. The Good News that the life and love of God are more powerful than any suffering, even death itself, does not take away the harshness and pain of these realities in our lives. But [faith] consoles us that they are not the final word for us because of the life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
San Alfonso, located directly on the beach, offers many types of retreats: prayer-led weekends, silent stays, private retreats, eight-day getaways, those geared for religious sisters or clergy, addiction-specific and days of recollection to parishes that put in a request.
Whatever the reason, Father O’Neil recommends retreatants not to come in the door with a great agenda. “Come with a desire for quiet and rest, and let the Holy Spirit work.”
“Retreats are often referred to as ‘holy ground,’ because they may be a place of a special encounter with God. For that to happen, retreatants must be vulnerable to the working of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Sister of Charity Patricia Dotzauer, assistant administrator/program director for the beachfront Maris Stella Retreat & Conference Center, agreed that retreats offer people the opportunity to seek God in a place of beauty and quiet.
“All have responsibilities to family and work that are overwhelming at times,” she said. “The general noise of everyday life from television, news, radio and people can distract and prevent people from being able to let it all go and be with God. Getting away from all the stress, anxiety and weariness gives people the time needed to be alone with God, to rest and to listen. They have no responsibilities here – just be and let God take care of them.”
Maris Stella offers weeklong summer retreats – preached, guided, directed and private – as well as “A Day of My Own,” a personal, daylong retreat in which a retreatant is given a house or apartment to use, access to the chapel and close proximity to the bay and ocean. With no schedule, it’s just time to be in peace and beauty with God, Sister Patricia said.
“We do believe the events in the world and in our country have brought people to seek God more and thus to seek a place and time apart,” she said, adding that time at a retreat house gives faithful time to “experience their oneness with God, with others who are here and all of God’s creation.
“They experience a palpable sense of peace here. This peace brings healing to their spirits, hearts, minds and bodies,” she said.
Mercy Sister Maureen Conroy, co-director of The Upper Room a spirituality center serving the Trenton Diocese for more than 40 years – said the center offers a variety of retreats and spiritual enrichment programs, as well as individual spiritual direction “to support individuals spiritually, emotionally and mentally by being in God’s loving and compassionate presence.”
“Spiritual centers and retreat houses offer a haven of comfort and hope when people become overwhelmed with societal problems and are struggling with their own personal challenges,” Sister Maureen said. “They come to these ‘spiritual homes’ to find God and to experience the support of other God-centered people.”
Upcoming topics for retreats and spirituality sessions include “Knitting and Prayer,” “Seated in Christ: Gentle Chair Yoga” and the annual Summer Series featuring Tuesday evening talks on mindfulness, centering prayer, praying with music and Ignatian contemplation. The Upper Room’s annual Spirituality Conference is planned for November at St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
“We are helping people to develop a personal relationship with God,” Sister Maureen explained, “to share with God their distress, to be attentive to his presence, and to know Jesus as healer and comforter – what we call relational prayer.”
To combat the onslaught of negative media, she suggested limiting the amount of time spent with its distressing aspects, replacing it with “taking some time to go for a walk with God, be out in beauty… breathe out ‘free me,’ breathe in the words ‘fill me’ – God knows what to fill us with.”