CHAPTER FOUR: Spiritual Retreats
SECTION ONE: The Utility of Spiritual Retreats
The perfection of clergy in their state of life is an undertaking which requires much help, both interior and exterior, because of the obstacles found in the world in which they have to live. Not only conversations and business affairs, but other dangerous occasions and frequent temptations to which they are exposed, threaten too often and sometimes overcome the best resolves they have taken, if priests are not sustained and affirmed by powerful reinforcements. Indeed, the ordination retreats help greatly in establishing them in the true spirit of their vocation, and spiritual conferences contribute much to their sustenance. Yet through his long experience, Monsieur Vincent knew only too well the feebleness and inconstancy of the human will. He felt that still another means was required to strengthen priests in their practice of the virtues. He thought of nothing so effective as spiritual retreats. They dispose the soul to receive a new increase of grace, and prepare it to be clothed by power from on high, as our Lord said to his apostles when he directed them to await the coming of the Holy Spirit after his ascension into heaven.
What inclined Monsieur Vincent to do all he possibly could to help spiritual retreats even more, was that he realized that their benefits could be extended even beyond the clergy to laity of all classes as well, as a help to them in leading a life in keeping with their obligations as Christians. Because so few give enough consideration to these obligations, or are guided by the truths and maxims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, largely because of insufficient reflection, he believed he would perform a service agreeable to God, advantageous to the Church, and helpful to souls if he were to encourage the practice of spiritual retreats. His efforts were directed towards reestablishing a true spirit of Christianity among the faithful, as we read in a note he left, written in his own hand:
By the expression spiritual retreat or spiritual exercise, we understand a separation from all temporal cares and occupations, to consider seriously one’s interior state, to examine one’s conscience, to meditate, contemplate, and pray. In this way, we prepare the soul by purification from all sin and from evil attractions and habits, to be filled with the love of virtue, and ready to seek out the will of God, and once having discovered it, to submit to it, to embrace it, and by union with the plan of God move toward and finally attain one’s own proper perfection.1
By these few words we understand the mind of this great servant of God, that these spiritual retreats had no other end than the complete renovation of the interior self. One was to be purified from sins, from all evil habits, unlawful attractions, uncontrolled passions, and all other faults and imperfections, so that with the eyes of the soul being opened, the particular obligations of one’s state in life might be more clearly seen, and the virtues needed would be appreciated and practiced. One could be grounded in true charity, which unites the heart and all the powers of the soul to God, that we might be ready to say with the holy apostle, “Now, it is no longer I who live, but Jesus Christ who lives in me.”2
Because of this the times and exercises of these spiritual retreats were established: the various meditations and spiritual readings, the examinations of conscience, and the making of a good general confession, if not of one’s whole past life, at least one going back to the last general confession. Resolutions were taken, not only to avoid sin and the occasion which might lead to it, but more especially to put into practice the virtues and activities proper to one’s particular calling. A plan of life was set out for the future, and if a person had not yet decided upon a state in life, God was consulted in fervent prayer to know his will. In a word, the retreatant strove to acquire the dispositions necessary to lead a truly Christian life, and to acquire the perfection of one’s state.
Monsieur Vincent particularly advised his confreres that they have their retreatants well understand that the aim of the exercises they followed was to help each one become a perfect Christian, whatever his particular calling. One would be a perfect scholar if he were a student, a perfect soldier if his profession was a man of arms, a perfect member of the judiciary if his vocation was to serve in the courts of law. If the person was in holy orders, he was to strive to become a model ecclesiastic. Should he happen to be a member of the hierarchy, he was to become another Saint Charles Borromeo. If those coming to the retreat came to discern their calling, or to root out a vice, or acquire a certain virtue, or for any other purpose, they must, he used to say, direct all the exercises of the retreat to this end. Those thinking of leaving the world must be helped, but only through the advice given, and the maxims of the Gospel but not the views of human prudence governing their recommendations. When a question would arise of choosing a particular religious community, this should be done between the person and God alone, although it would be proper to give general advice as to the choice to be made.
It is commonly understood that most of those who are lost lack the consideration and attention to those things concerning their salvation. The main reason for sin and disorders in which so many pass nearly their entire lives is that they seldom if ever consider the end for which God gave them being and life. These people do not reflect on his goodness, nor on the teachings and example given us by Jesus Christ, nor the graces of the sacraments he instituted. The pernicious effects of sin are not considered, nor the vanity of the world, the deceptions of the flesh, the malice and deceits of the devil, the incertitude of the moment of death, the fearsome judgments of God, eternal happiness or unhappiness, and other truths so fundamental to our salvation.
Monsieur Vincent felt that spiritual retreats supplied all these lacks by the serious reflection made on all these truths, considered and weighed in the light of the sanctuary. He rightly considered that of all the means put at the disposal of people to remedy the disorders of their lives, and aid them in their progress in virtue, nothing is more efficacious or more likely to produce as noticeable, as frequent, and as marvelous results than these spiritual retreats. Sinners who are not converted by them or who do not amend their ways, stand in need of true miracles for their conversion if these spiritual retreats do not bring it about.