Spending a night together helps strengthen the bonds of community. Somehow the psychological impact of knowing that the group will stay the night and not have to "rush back," that you will rise in the morning and take those first drowsy steps together into a new day, that your initial encounters will take place over juice and coffeethese very ordinary details of life go far to build the cohesiveness that is so necessary for community. For that reason above all, successful communities include overnight retreats in their annual plans.
Of course, other considerations go into the need for regular retreats. The community needs, in Jesus words, to "come aside and rest awhile." Getting away as a group is good for the spirit and body of each and all. People on retreat tend to be more their true, good selves, and in that sort of climate the members renew their reasons for having come together in the first place. The common vision is brushed up; shared ideals get focused.
The setting for a retreat generally lends itself to tension-free hours. Our times have been gifted with numerous places for "active relaxation." Its as if the killing pace of late 20th-century life has taught us the need for a refuge, sanctuary, or haven, where we can breathe deeply, sleep soundly, and interact calmly. Such locations exist in virtually every part of our country and must be counted as some of Gods choicest graces.
Retreat-goers have learned the value of free time, or better stated, time for personal solitude and reflection. There was a time when going on a retreat meant an effort to fill up every wakingand some non-wakinghour with activities. Within such a mindset the very word "retreat" becomes a misnomer. Fortunately we have moved away from that counterproductive era of frantic "retreats."
Skillful preparation makes the retreat worthwhile for the group. The planning committee sees to it that a fine balance is kept between laid-back hours and serious reflection. The community goes apart to rest purposefully. There is an agenda. The ongoing internal and external business of the collective comes under review during these very productive retreat hours.
For example, a community we know has plans afoot for its upcoming retreat. Two topics will be given personal and communal prayerful consideration: how the group can better react to challenges, and the response to difficulties surrounding transitions among its members.
As to the response to challenge, one community member put it this way: If we were asked to walk on water, would we find the many reasons not to try it, or would we figure out how best to do it? And with regard to the wrenching experience of transition, the group plans to express its collective and individual reaction to approaching leave-takings and arrivals. These agendas for that communitys next retreat balance the outward and inward journeys of the group in a most careful way and serve as an example of retreat planning.
In the end, though, it strikes us that the aspect of living together for a day or two on retreat provides its chief benefit. Sharing a household for a full 24 or 48 hours gives the group that sense of intimacy so necessary for true community. No doubt Jesus had this in mind when he called his disciples aside after their first mission journeys. Even with the full agenda he had for the Twelve and the short time given him to complete it, he could go with them to an out-of-the-way place and "rest awhile."
Joe Nangle, O.F.M., former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.