It’s retreat season at Boston College! The last few weekends have seen groups headed off to Kairos, 48 hours, 4Boston, ULA and the like. After a mysterious weekend away, the retreaters return to campus on Sundays with that unmistakable reflection glow and tightly sealed lips. I myself am a faithful retreater, attending religious retreats all through high school, 48 hours my freshman year and 4Boston’s fall retreat this past weekend. My name is in the Kairos lottery and I’m going to shed tears if I don’t get called before graduation in May. But in my experience, all retreats aren’t created equal, nor are they well suited for everybody.
The word “retreat” is traditionally used in military combat to signal a withdrawal from enemy forces as a result of actual or anticipated defeat. Apply this definition to the more colloquial version of retreat, and you get an intentional break from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Now apply that definition to the Jesuit retreat, and you get what we experience at BC: personal reflection, group bonding and spiritual renewal.
These are all noble goals, ones that often fall by the wayside during normal college life. We often don’t have time for personal reflection during the hustle and bustle of exams, parties and clubs. We avoid group bonding with people outside of our immediate and ever present group of friends just because it’s less effort. Spirituality doesn’t always seem to have a place on college campuses, even at a Jesuit university.
There is clearly a need for retreats, but not all retreats can achieve these goals equally well. The best retreats in my experience are ones that balance introspection and interaction. Too much time for reflection without guidance or variety can result in boredom and a lack of focus. Too many forced icebreakers can result in annoyance and a lack of engagement. A little bit of both can create an environment where people have the opportunity to grow closer to their group members and also figure themselves out.
However, the big variable in all retreat situations is the people, both the participants and the leaders. Retreats often require some level of vulnerability and openness from their members, which not everyone is willing or ready to give. Especially during retreats like 48 hours that throw arbitrary freshmen together, it can be hard to believe the leaders when they claim, “it’s a safe space.” Obviously there are benefits to this kind of retreat, primarily the opportunity to meet new people, but simple variations in personality can make these benefits difficult to routinely achieve. While some people do have the courage to get up during the final 48 hours exercise and share the difficult experiences they’ve had at BC, many don’t.
Even when retreats are made up of friends or group members who’ve know each other for some time, people may be unwilling to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. There might be more fear of the ramifications that truth telling can bring, since honesty with a friend means facing them in the future, while honesty with a stranger means no preexisting relationship is at risk.
I would argue that while retreat leaders should encourage their group members to share as much as they feel comfortable with, they should also encourage participants to listen, absorb and reflect. Especially for the first-time retreater, the experience is daunting, if not downright terrifying. Retreats work best when most people share, but they can reach that point through a snowball effect. Sometimes all it takes is one brave soul to start the conversation.
I have yet to decide whether I think retreats can truly have long-lasting effects. In my experience, the longer the retreat and the more separated it is from regular life, the longer its benefits can be felt into the future. For example, I went on weeklong summer retreats in high school where our cell phones were confiscated at the start and not returned until after the closing ceremonies. During those retreats, I made some amazing friends, grew closer in my existing relationships and reflected more on my spirituality than I’ve ever done in ordinary life. That being said, the benefits of personal reflection or group bonding don't have to be long-term to still be meaningful.
Ultimately, very few universal conclusions can be drawn about retreats because there are inherently personal experiences. Two people could attend the same retreat and even be in the same small group and still have completely different opinions about its impact on their lives. The only words of wisdom I would unequivocally give would be to try a retreat out sometime, and if you hate it, try again. We do go to BC after all.