Retreat: Sound spiritual warfare strategy

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Jenny Snarski and her husband, Denny, sit on the steps inside the Abbey of Montecassino. On either side of them are the statues of sibling saints Benedict and Scholastica. The peaceful and secluded monastery sits high on the mountain above the central Italian town of Cassino and was the site of vicious battles during World War II from January to May of 1944. (Submitted photo)

“Retreat” is one of those words in the English language that has a number of meanings – defined by words associated with war, retirement, seclusion and insanity.

In a secular sense, “retreat” can seem synonymous with failure or giving up. In the spiritual, retreat definitely points to renewal and re-centering.

Originally, the word was primarily used as a war term: the forced or strategic withdrawal of an armed force before an enemy.

“Strategic” caught my attention. Retreat gives a notion of failure or defeat. I was surprised to read just how tactical military retreat can be. It’s often a deliberate attempt to gain more defensible ground, consolidate forces and force the enemy into a more vulnerable position. Even with risks, when carried out with good leadership and cohesion, it can serve a more effective victory in the face of a potentially disastrous fight.

I have been on a lot of retreats. From fun and formative weekend retreats as a teen, to eight days of Ignatian-style spiritual exercises in silence, to a monthly morning or evening of guided meditation and reflection.

Each experience was tactical and strategic. Even though I’ve known retreats aren’t just about getting away or taking a break, I haven’t realized just how essential they are.

My Dad and I were texting the other morning about some struggles I have been facing this summer – some everyday stuff and some more daunting loomers. He said: We all lose some battles, but the goal is to win the war.

And whether we realize it or not, we’re all in a war. Our souls have a vicious enemy, cunning and sly. His most effective tactic is to keep us distracted, discouraged, distrusting and totally disengaged from spiritual warfare.

I sent my Dad snapshots of a few pages from a book I’ve been reading called Progress in Divine Union by Fr. Raul Plus, SJ.

There are a couple pages I have gone back to over and over and over. The French Jesuit who lived into the 20th century says, “There have been many brave beginnings … but sooner or later … difficulties arise, and the individual comes to a standstill or completely renounces the most beautiful part of his program for life … How frequent our desertion of good resolutions!”

We all lose battles, but the goal is to win the war.

First off, do we even know what we’re fighting for? Not sure anyone would deny struggling, feeling defeated, needing to regroup resources and renew our will to fight. But, fight for what, for whom and under whose command?

Maybe that’s the starting point for many. For myself, I want to fight for wholeness, holiness and a life of heroic virtue. I know that God is with me, but I want to seek His guidance more diligently and trust His providence more fully.

Jesus told us the gates of hell will not prevail. The enemy knows he loses the war in the end, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting tooth and nail, or claw and trident, to win battles and to leave the greatest possible destruction in his wake.

A retreat is a time apart for the purpose of re-engaging with God and a re-setting of priorities and practical means of maintaining them. And just as in military operations, to be successful we need to know our enemy and their tactics, study the surrounding landscape and strategize.

A good retreat gives time, space and a setting of peace and at least some solitude or silence to regain perspective, plan our offensive and defensive strategies. Retreats usually offer opportunities for the sacraments and spiritual guidance, preaching or resources for meditation and reflection.
For those who can, for your own sakes, take advantage of opportunities to withdraw physically from your everyday battles to retreat and regroup.

And for the most of us who realistically can’t get away, although it might take greater resolve, none of those characteristics are impossible to recreate. At least not with the right desire, resources and support. (More on that to come.)

Just a few lines after the earlier quote, Fr. Plus says, “We may never forget that holiness consists in repeatedly beginning over;” and, “Many holy and heroic lives can be described as an entanglement of generous beginnings.”

May we keep our eyes focused on the victory Christ has already won for us. Not the enemy, not the battles and not our own strength or abilities because He does not ask us to journey alone. He gives us his word, his body and blood, his sacramental grace, his church – all to be refuge, shelter and sustenance, one day, one generous beginning at a time.

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