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The last quarter of the year is usually the period during which many top executives of organizations—large or small, private or public---take time out to drop their day-to-day operations and spend a few days, usually in an out-of-town venue—to do what is called a strategic planning exercise. They review the mission and vision of their organization (or formulate them if they still do not have them), look at the results of their recent performances, analyze their strengths and weaknesses as well as the opportunities and threats ( SWOT) they will face in the immediate future, and arrive at certain strategic directions that will help them achieve the goals demanded by their mission and vision. I have often been involved in many of these sessions (which many refer to as corporate “retreats”) as a resource person to help in the “environmental scanning” needed for the SWOT analysis.
In this column, I would like to remind people in general (not just heads of organizations) of the need we all have to make a spiritual retreat, a few days dedicated to examining where our lives are heading and to make sure that we are moving directly towards the ultimate mission of every human being, which is to know, love, and serve God in this world so that we can attain the beatific vision, to be happy forever with our Creator in Heaven. This simple statement we learned most probably when we were children either from our parents or from our first Catechism teachers in grade school is the simplest “Mission-Vision” statement of every human being. Like every organization that spends time in strategic planning, each of us has to check regularly the state of our spiritual health (as in a regular medical check up or an annual car inspection) and correct any deviation resulting from our personal weaknesses and learn how to build on our strengths, both human and supernatural (such as the Sacraments, prayer, penance, and spiritual direction). If we are serious about attaining our eternal salvation, we cannot neglect this very important activity of setting things right in our relationship with God and more importantly strengthening our resolve to love God with all of our mind, heart, and soul as He Himself has commanded us.
St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, inspired numerous souls to make an annual spiritual retreat both through his oral preachings when he was alive and through his many books to adopt this practice of making an annual spiritual retreat. In some Notes from a meditation he preached on February 25, 1963, he said: “What are you and I going to do during these days of retreat? We are going to be with Our Lord a lot, to look for Him, like Peter, in order to have an intimate conversation with Him. Notice that I say ‘conversation’: a dialogue between two people, face to face, without hiding behind anonymity. We need that personal prayer, that intimacy, that direct contact with God our Lord.” These words of St. Josemaria should take on special meaning during these times when face to face encounters with most people, except our immediate family, had been very limited and we have gotten used to online meetings. In a spiritual retreat, the Christians among us exert every effort to have a personal encounter especially with Jesus Christ, who should be the Center of our spiritual life. As the present Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Fernando Ocariz wrote in his book “In the Light of the Gospel,” “Cristian life does not lead us to identify ourselves with an idea, but with a Person: with Jesus Christ For faith to shed light on our steps, besides asking ourselves, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for me?’ let us think Who am I for Jesus Christ?”
Traditional retreats (not like those in which people talk to one another instead of talking to God) normally take place over a long weekend, in a conference center specifically designed for spiritual retreats (i.e. with a chapel or oratory with the possibility of keeping the Blessed Sacrament in a Tabernacle). In the absence of a conference center, some small hotels can be used exclusively for this activity, especially in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. During these days of the so-called Industrial Revolution 4.0, it is advisable to fast from internet, social media and instant messaging so as to attain the calm and serenity necessary for an intimate dialogue with God. During the activities of the retreat such as Holy Mass, preached Meditations, the Way of the Cross, praying of the Holy Rosary together, guided examinations of conscience, and other spiritual exercises in common, smart phones should be left in the bedrooms and used only for real emergency communications. Surely, out of 365 days in a year, our Creator deserves at least two to three days that we exclusively devote to communing with Him.
In an article entitled “Taking Time Out from the Rat Race,” Irish columnist Maria Byrne writes about her experience attending a retreat in a conference center in Country Meath, Ireland. In her words, “While half of my intention in going on retreat was to escape from the sometimes monotonous sameness that everyday life involves, another part of me was eager to deepen my friendship with God and to grow in the spiritual strength needed to deal with the challenges of being a wife, a mother of six children. In his booklet ‘To Make a Good Retreat,’ David Chandler observes that whatever the reasons a person might think he had for coming on retreat, those reasons might be very different to those of God. God’s reasons are ‘vastly’ and infinitely’ above our own. God can use the unique circumstances of our lives to draw us closer to Him. On retreat, our main aim is to grow in God’s love—to seek a personal relationship with Christ, the one Person who will never let us down or betray our trust.”
Although in general, people who go on retreat should not expect to undergo a highly emotional experience of conversion (as in the “cursillo” movement of the 1960s and 1970s that did a lot of spiritual good to people of my generation), Chandler in his book put a great deal of importance on a well-made retreat as a source of “peace, vitality, and a youthful confidence: a singular regaining of the happiness we knew as children.” In my own personal experience helping to organize retreats for professional men, including CEOs of corporations, I can attest to what Chandler wrote in his book that during the days of silence in a retreat, the participants, as they talk intimately with God about the really important things in their lives, develop a new openness to what God chooses to reveal to them. Through the instrumentality of the priest giving the retreat, or some passage from a book, or while praying on one’s own, some little story or phrase may touch them in a very personal way. Some of them may develop a new clarity or may be struck by particular words that seem directed to them personally. It is clearly during these moments that they can be sure that the grace of God is working to speak to them through the words they have heard. That is why, in a retreat, one should not be involved in a one-way conversation, just constantly talking to God. One must also pause in silence to listen to what God wants to communicate to him. That is what a dialogue is all about.
Obviously, a retreat is only as good as what happens after those two or three days of communing with God. As Maria Byrne wrote in her column, “A retreat is not just a passing high or a transitory emotional experience. The concrete resolutions we make like attending Mass more than once a week, devoting time each day to prayer, frequent recourse to the God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or incorporating devotion to the Blessed Virgin into our lives through the daily Rosary or other Marian prayers. These habits of service to God will give a previously ordinary life an extraordinary spiritual dimension. The resolutions from the retreat should lead to a definite plan of action that has a direct influence on our relationship with God and that demonstrates to us in renewed clarity how God intends our life to be. The retreat may provide a welcome rest, but the real purpose is to transform us into the effective, good and saintly adults that God created us to be.” These concluding observations about the necessary results of a retreat should not surprise the executives or managers who take time out to get involved in a strategic planning exercise whose success can only be measured by the concrete improvements in the organization’s day to day operations after their “corporate retreat.” For comments, my email address is email@example.com.