Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



A retreat is a period of time spent ascetically for a spiritual purpose. Think of Elias (Elijah) and the forty days and nights he spent in the desert, which we read about in III Kings 191. Think of Christ spending the same amount of time also in the desert, where He was tempted by the Evil One (Matthew 4). And think of how Christ Himself invited His apostles to a retreat:

Mark 6:30-32
And the apostles coming together unto Jesus, related to him all things that they had done and taught. And he said to them: Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little. For there were many coming and going: and they had not so much as time to eat. And going up into a ship, they went into a desert place apart.

The desert Fathers spent their entire lives in a sort of retreat, giving rise to the great religious orders of today, and St. Francis received his stigmata while on retreat at Mount Alverno, in the Apennine Mountains that run the length of Italy like a spine.

But it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who formalized and popularized retreats as we know them today. With his "Spiritual Exercises," St. Ignatius began a system of penance and contemplating God's will over the course of thirty days, a system that soon became a part of the rule of his Society, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

St. Charles Boromeo introduced Ignatius's "Spiritual Exercises" as a regular practice among the seminarians and secular clergy, and the laity, too, took up the practice. SS. Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul popularized retreats, with the former writing "Introduction to the Devout Life" which is often used by retreatants today. All over Europe, retreat houses were built just for the purpose of hosting retreats.

Today, retreats are often taken in the way pilgrimages are made: to "shake oneself up" by removing oneself from routine and the endless distractions of modern life -- the phones, email, social media, work, the demands of family -- in order to re-focus on what's most important. Retreats are also made in penance, for the cause of making reparations for sin. They're made in times of crisis or great change, such as before marriage or graduation. They're often made for the cause of vocational discernment, in order to determine God's will for one's life. They can be made to break cycles of addiction. Or they're made simply to rest.

They're made by individuals, a few friends together, engaged couples, or larger groups, such as members of Third Orders, Catholic doctors, Catholic teachers, high school groups, men only, women only, etc. They're made at retreat houses built for the purpose, at monasteries, at parish churches with the necessary facilities, or, less formally, in places of nature with nearby access to a church or chapel. Some may make a retreat by renting a cottage or cabin and bringing along spiritual reading, and some even make retreats in their own homes by setting aside a place and disciplining themselves to make spiritual use of it for a certain period of time.

What Happens on a Retreat

What happens on a retreat can vary wildly given the differences in where retreats are made, and whether they're directed, highly structured, and formal, or private retreats made by individuals. Formal retreats at monasteries can involve rising at an early hour, engaging in formal prayer with the religious, being assigned a spiritual director, attending conferences, daily Mass, confession, etc. Other retreats can be highly individual, with no structure at all, allowing the retreatant to schedule his time in his own way.

Some directed retreats are based on St. Ignatius's "Spiritual Exercises," typically abbreviated from the original thirty days to three days; others may have a specific focus, such as marriage preparation, vocation discernment, or bettering one's marriage.

Some retreats can be silent ones in which talking is forbidden or allowed only during very limited times; others are not.

Some retreats last for a day; others can last for 30 days (the three-day retreat is likely the most common). There are also "retreats in daily life" online programs that one can follow for a small amount of time each day for a period of some months while otherwise still carrying on one's life as usual.

Retreat overnight facilities can range from private rooms in large retreat houses, to shared rooms (usually by no more than two people) in smaller such houses, to individual hermit cabins, and anything in between.

As to board, some retreats will supply all you need with regard to food; with others, you'll be feeding yourself.

Some retreats can be rather expensive; others are free.

Necessary to any good retreat, though, are access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist when needed. It's advised, too, to have a goal in mind: Why do you want to make your retreat? What are you seeking?

How to Make a Retreat

You can make a private retreat any time, of course, and most anywhere, but to use retreat facilities or for formal, directed retreats, you'll have to find a monastery, retreat house, or religious or priestly fraternity to direct you. Your dioceses's website2  will likely have information about retreats in your area, but don't limit yourself to those if you're able to travel; look also into what neighboring dioceses offer.

There's the standard caveat, though, when it comes to what dioceses may offer: since Vatican II, Catholic teaching and practices have been watered down horribly by many hierarchs, and what those in charge of diocesan retreat facilities offer may be weak (or worse). Looking, instead, to retreats offered by traditionalist groups is highly recommended. The Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) both offer Ignatian retreats, and traditional religious orders may as well. Check their websites3 for information.

The Most Important Sort of Retreat: Interior Retreats

The idea of making a sort of "interior retreat" is best explained in Chapter XII. ("On Spiritual Retirement") of St. Francis de Sales's "Introduction to the Devout Life":

Strive as often as possible through the day to place yourself in God’s Presence by some one of the methods already suggested. Consider what God does, and what you are doing;—you will see His Eyes ever fixed upon you in Love incomparable. “O my God,” you will cry out, “why cannot I always be looking upon Thee, even as Thou lookest on me? why do I think so little about Thee? O my soul, thy only resting-place is God, and yet how often dost thou wander?” The birds have nests in lofty trees, and the stag his refuge in the thick coverts, where he can shelter from the sun’s burning heat; and just so, my daughter, our hearts ought daily to choose some resting-place, either Mount Calvary, or the Sacred Wounds, or some other spot close to Christ, where they can retire at will to seek rest and refreshment amid toil, and to be as in a fortress, protected from temptation. Blessed indeed is the soul which can truly say, “Thou, Lord, art my Refuge, my Castle, my Stay, my Shelter in the storm and in the heat of the day.”

Be sure then, my child, that while externally occupied with business and social duties, you frequently retire within the solitude of your own heart. That solitude need not be in any way hindered by the crowds which surround you—they surround your body, not your soul, and your heart remains alone in the Sole Presence of God. This is what David sought after amid his manifold labours;—the Psalms are full of such expressions as “Lord, I am ever with Thee. The Lord is always at my right hand. I lift up mine eyes to Thee, O Thou Who dwellest in the heavens. Mine eyes look unto God.”

There are few social duties of sufficient importance to prevent an occasional retirement of the heart into this sacred solitude. When S. Catherine of Sienna was deprived by her parents of any place or time for prayer and meditation, Our Lord inspired her with the thought of making a little interior oratory in her mind, into which she could retire in heart, and so enjoy a holy solitude amid her outward duties. And henceforward, when the world assaulted her, she was able to be indifferent, because, so she said, she could retire within her secret oratory, and find comfort with her Heavenly Bridegroom. So she counselled her spiritual daughters to make a retirement within their heart, in which to dwell. Do you in like manner let your heart withdraw to such an inward retirement, where, apart from all men, you can lay it bare, and treat face to face with God, even as David says that he watched like a “pelican in the wilderness, or an owl in the desert, or a sparrow sitting alone upon the housetop.” These words have a sense beyond their literal meaning, or King David’s habit of retirement for contemplation;—and we may find in them three excellent kinds of retreats in which to seek solitude after the Saviour’s Example, Who is symbolised as He hung upon Mount Calvary by the pelican of the wilderness, feeding her young ones with her blood.

So again His Nativity in a lonely stable might find a foreshadowing in the owl of the desert, bemoaning and lamenting: and in His Ascension He was like the sparrow rising high above the dwellings of men. Thus in each of these ways we can make a retreat amid the daily cares of life and its business.

Perhaps having a "go-to" image prepared in your mind, an image that helps you feel close to Christ, would be helpful in making an "inner retreat" throughout the day when you need one. Maybe you will imagine sitting next to the Baby Jesus as He lies in the manger, or holding Him in your arms. Maybe picturing yourself at His feet while He preached the Beatitudes, sitting beside Him while He suffered in the Garden of Gethesamani, at the foot of the Cross, or keeping vigil as He lay in His tomb or when He rose again is what would work for you.

Or, if you're not the sort of person to whom visual imagery comes easily, perhaps an imagined sound -- or simply mentally speaking His Holy Name -- would be beneficial. If you're of a tactile nature, perhaps imagining what it would be like to be in His embrace is the thing. If you're of an imaginative type, you may be able to conjure a mental scenario that involves all three of those senses.

The point: have something ready in mind to mentally "retreat to" and which brings you closer to Lord Christ throughout the day, especially in times of stress or sadness.

This site's page on Adverting to God: Making Life a Prayer may also be of help to you.


1 I Kings in Bibles with Masoretic numbering

2 Find your diocese here:

The FSSP website:
   The SSPX website:

Back to Being Catholic