What is a “Directed” Retreat?

February 19, 2018

This is a guest post by Brent Howitt Otto SJ:

I had been on retreats before in high school and college, even silent ones. All of these, however, had a single director who led the whole group by way of inspirational talks and suggestions for how and what to pray about during our private prayer time. A “directed” retreat is something different, which I first experienced at 22 years old.

I was working as a teacher, and was several years into discerning a vocation to be a Jesuit. My spiritual director thought I was ready for a new kind of retreat experience, to help deepen my discernment. He set me up with an experienced retreat director at a Jesuit retreat house close to where I lived in Massachusetts, who would individually direct me over the course of five days. That was the beginning for me of a cherished habit in my life, of spending one week every year making an individually “directed” silent retreat.

I was greeted by my director on the evening I arrived, and along with other people making retreats, was given a bit of an orientation. We were told the meals and Mass times, about the beautiful trails and woods and a lake we could enjoy, and other places we might like to pray both outdoors and indoors on the very large property.


Beauty is an important part of making a retreat. God can speak to us through nature and beauty. We might think prayer is introspective, but it’s distinct because in prayer you want to look at your life with God. It is not ‘navel-gazing!’ Contact with the grandeur and wonder of nature tends to life our gaze outward, to see the big picture of God’s creation and our part in it. We open up a space for God to get closer.

Your Director & Your Prayer

On that first directed retreat my director met individually with me every day for somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour. He took some care on the first day to let me tell him who I was, why I had come on the retreat, what my relationship with God was like and what graces I hoped for. On that retreat I really desired that God give me more clarity as to whether my vocation was to be a Jesuit, and if so, when was the right time to act? Based on my sharing about where I was in my life and where I was with God, my director suggested scripture passages to pray with. He gave me three or four passages, and I was to pray with each one for about an hour.

Sometimes I prayed in a chapel with eyes closed, letting my imagination place me in the scene; sometimes in my room; sometimes by the lake or walking and ‘chewing’ on a verse like a mantra until it settled in my heart. It was not ‘homework’ to get through, but rather occasions to hang out with God, to speak, to listen, to just be together – a vacation with God, a time of rest, renewal, love.

The next day when I met my director, I would tell him about what happened in my prayer – what I felt, thought, experienced, how it seemed that God was or was not present to me then. He mostly listened, sometimes asked a question that provoked me to see things from another angle or reflect more deeply. He was not the interpreter of my prayer, but more like a reflector to help me see more clearly what I already was seeing. The conversation was always God-centered. It was not about him dispensing wisdom or advice, not about his own experiences or stories. In fact, he began every daily conversation with, “So how are you and God today?” This was sacred time I was taking to be with God, and he was honoring and nurturing that sacredness in me. At the end, he would suggest three or four more scripture passages to pray with that day.

Some people might be reluctant to share openly with their director about their life and even about their prayer experience. Sometimes we are not quick to trust, or value our privacy. But you need not fear. A director’s role is to listen compassionately, to be impartial, and treat what you share as confidential, much as you would expect from a doctor or therapist. They are spiritual companions for that time of retreat.

Should you make a directed retreat?

Even for those of us who have a regular prayer life and see a spiritual director regularly, sometimes we need to go for a longer walk with God! We get busy and worn out. As Jesus said to his disciples: “‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31) Sound familiar? A directed retreat is also a very good way to make progress in discerning a major decision or change, to seek God’s help with a particular problem, or to open yourself up to God’s healing of a wound you’re carrying. Still, we must be inwardly free enough to realize that our agenda may be different from God’s, and when we make a retreat God often surprises us. We come for this grace and God gives us that one! We ask this question, and God shows us that another one was more important!

Since my first retreat, I have made a directed retreat every year. I eagerly await my ‘vacation with God’ and look forward to the gentle insight and attentive companionship I’ve come to experience in my retreat directors. I found directed retreats to be such a light and gift in my life that I pursued training in retreat direction so I could help others find their nearer walk with God—which I do at every opportunity.

If you have any hesitation, ask someone who knows you and knows about directed retreats. If you have a spiritual director, ask them what they think. Browse online the many retreat centers which offer individually directed retreats.

Go Deeper?

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