As a high school retreat junkie and a child of former youth ministers, I have grown to have a love-hate relationship with retreats and conferences.
I attended the SEEK conference this year, hosted by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). Because of the on-going pandemic the conference was conducted via a hybrid model of live and virtual activities. Our local hub was made up of over a dozen schools from Texas and Louisiana who watched the live stream from the main conference in Denver, Colorado.
I came into the conference carrying feelings of bitterness from past experiences where people expressed how they felt manipulated by a certain retreat culture or even disappointed by the lack of a continued effort to transform one’s life beyond the weekend retreat, but I left with key reflections on the importance of retreats.
My personal high school retreat experience conditioned me to focus on my personal relationship with Jesus, rather than the lights, music and heightened emotional reactions. While these aspects can add a certain depth to individual experience, it’s crucial to remember that there is a person behind the experience, calling one deeper and deeper still.
SEEK was quite different from retreats that I’ve been on before, given that the conference style is very different from smaller, more intimate retreats.
Furthermore, our specific mini-conference in Texas boasted powerful energy from the many state schools that ooze team spirit.
Moments were tense at times as schools, especially between A&M and UT, took turns chanting and getting their group riled for the speakers and sessions. Suddenly, UD felt like the odd one out with no official chant or giant flag to wave. Luckily, we were still able to have a sense of belonging in such a big crowd.
While I still had a beautiful experience of encountering the sacraments and getting to know more people, it made me miss the retreat culture I come from and am more familiar with.
But the reality is that every retreat or conference that brings even one person closer to Jesus is worth having.
The climax of most retreats and/or Catholic conferences is Saturday night adoration, which tends to be more charismatic than one would find in a small, quiet chapel.
At this point, everyone is reeling about the weekend’s events, and the specific songs that are played can be so moving that the Spirit prompts strong emotional reactions.
For years, I thought that this is what made a retreat experience good – crying or having some kind of strong reaction to what God was doing in my life.
This time at SEEK, I didn’t even get to experience most of that adoration time because I went to confession across the street, where the line extended towards the escalators. Instead, I found myself in the makeshift chapel room at the convention center and sat still in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
It was a gift in and of itself to be a part of the confession line where we all humble ourselves and repent for our mistakes and shortcomings, and it showed me that a meaningful experience can be found anywhere – whether it’s before the Blessed Sacrament, in line for confession, in the middle of a crowded room or alone in a dark chapel – God is always moving.
Retreats were never supposed to be a one-and-done prescription for our troubles, but rather an opportunity to step away from one’s normal day-to-day life and answer the invitation to rest and reflect.
As St. Augustine tells us, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”
The past couple of years has shown the world how restless we can be and how often the Lord calls us back to rest in Him, the only One who can satisfy the deepest longings in our hearts.
Therefore, attending different kinds of retreats can be extremely beneficial to one’s spiritual life by planting seeds of truth that grow into grander things with time.
While we give thanks for the people who may experience some type of conversion through a retreat, we should also acknowledge those who embrace the time to reconnect with their surroundings and walk away as a greater lover of truth, beauty and goodness.