Before you start reading this column, I’d like to ask you to grab some paper and something to write with. We’re going to do a short exercise.

In fact, exercise is where we’re going to start.

What concepts and feelings does the word “exercise” conjure up? Positive or negative? Something you want more or less of? Pain or possibility?

The word itself has multiple definitions, both as a noun and verb. What strikes me is that in both forms it is directed towards something – realizing an action, carrying something out, movement and development and an element of training.

Now let’s take the word “retreat” and do the same. Note down the images, descriptors, feelings and understanding you have of that concept.

“Retreat” is also both noun and verb, and while the dictionary definitions center on withdrawing and pulling back, in the spiritual sense it is definitely a synonym of exercise.

In its fullest sense – and here its military meaning is particularly apt – retreat is a regrouping, a pulling back in order to push forward more effectively. To retreat is not a sign of defeat, but an acknowledgment that we need to withdraw from one battle with hopes of still winning the war.

And if we do not or cannot recognize that we are in fact engaged in battles – in our spirits, in our minds, in our families, with our morals and against societal ills – then go ahead and put your pen down and walk away from this column.

If you are engaged in this sense of retreat and exercise, congratulations on acknowledging reality and truth and wanting more out of this life and the next.

Now take a deep breath and let’s get planning the next move.

One. If you have never attended or participated in a spiritual retreat of any form, then your first step is just that. Make some sort, any sort, of retreat. Experience taking that step away from daily life for renewal and inspiration and explore just what possibilities might await you.

Most typically a retreat is a gathering of like-minded people receiving presentations and preaching around a certain subject or topic. There are retreats focused more on spirituality and prayer, but others can center on development and growth. They can involve a time commitment of just a few hours up to a weekend in most cases.

Two. If getting away for any length of time from your daily life and responsibilities is really not possible, then please, please reassess what in your life and responsibilities you truly cannot set aside for even a few hours. (Parents – yes, you will need to ask for help… but think about how glad you are at times to be able to help others. Give someone or some few that chance. Be simple and ask for some help with your family duties.)

Three. If no in-person retreats are available in your area, look for a self-directed, book-style retreat or something online. Especially in the last two years, many options have popped up for a long-distance experience. Both offer flexibility amid busy schedules.

From personal experience, nothing can replace the gathering to retreat with others where there is sharing and relationship-building. If a format from home is your only option, invite a friend or a small group to share the experience.

Four. If you have attended a directed retreat, I invite you to seek the opportunity to make a silent retreat. A silent retreat – most traditionally an Ignatian-style spiritual exercises – doesn’t mean absolute silence. It means that among the participants there is less verbal interaction, but the retreat director preaches talks and meditations.

I promise you’ll be surprised at how exterior silence leads to rich interior conversations, with God and ourselves. That promise is made from having had the blessing of multiple weekend spiritual exercises and a handful of eight-day silent retreats.

Five. For those of you who have “trained” at that level, what next? What further development and growth, regrouping and regeneration can be discovered?

What I have explored in recent years are personal retreats in solitude. A getaway alone to a simple cabin with a book or online format as a backdrop. Even without much more than hiking shoes, a Bible and a book, a few days of solitude with God can open up new worlds we never knew existed – inside ourselves and realms of possibility in our relationship with God.

Purposeful solitude provides space for listening, being led, reflecting on God’s action in our life, interior healing, insight into why, where and how we retreat (in the waving-our-white-flag sense) – the same pulling back to retreat in order to re-engage with the graces and growth Providence puts on our path.

We’ll end with one last paper-and-pen exercise. Take the words “grace” and “growth,” repeat the initial steps we made with “exercise” and “retreat.”

Life doesn’t stand still. Every day we face challenges, fall and get up again, cry tears of pain and joy. Grace and growth can be our constant companions. In fact, they are gifts God longs for us to receive.

Retreat exercises are a solid program of strength and conditioning, both for the uninitiated and the seasoned retreatants.

Any good retreat will ensure that participants leave with resolutions for action.

Imagine a belt full of tools or a large receptacle that one fills during a retreat, a quiver full of experience that can be drawn on and used in daily life.

However, tools wear out and sometimes break. Water (or wine) runs out, gets stale … so the last exercise here is to write down a date for (and maybe with) yourself. You likely cannot schedule your next retreat this very moment, but add it to your pending list.

Encountering each of us in a personal way is No. 1 on God’s daily to-dos. If we can make some time and space for him to break through into our routines, there’s no telling what grace and growth await us.