Christian Prayer Retreat: whose great idea?

Today Christian prayer retreats are available in many different forms across many traditions. They can be categorized broadly as personal retreats, group retreats, and daily life retreats. What are these? Who originated the idea in the first place?


Personal retreats are adaptable to many different life situations, personal needs and spiritual growth stage. They can be as short as a few hours which is suited for beginners, to one day retreats and to longer retreats of about a week to thirty days (like the well-known Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius). The longer retreats usually include an individual prayer guide called a spiritual director, with whom the retreatant meets daily to share what he or she had experienced in each day of prayer. These longer retreats are therefore also called “personal guided retreats”.

Group retreats are of various sorts. Preached retreats are what we Protestants are more familiar with. They are like “church camps or conferences” with three to five messages per day, but with more time in between for reflection and prayer. There are those group retreats that involve some dialogue and interaction among retreatants, with more time for reflection and prayer. Finally, there are group retreats that include usually daily spiritual direction for everyone, and very brief presentations by the retreat leader. This usually follow a theme or structure, but at times may be individual-focused and not theme-bound.  

The final type of retreat besides the personal and group retreats, is the daily life retreat. This retreat is designed for people who are unable to withdraw from home or work like in the other retreats. They make a retreat without withdrawing from their usual life, by committing themselves to a daily time of prayer for a specific number of weeks or even months following a program of meditation and prayer, guided by a spiritual director periodically. 


There is variety and rich creativity of themes and forms in Christian prayer retreats, but whose great idea was this? Christian prayer retreats in its fundamental form as we know it today is commonly attributed to Saint Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus. He was a military man of the 16th century, adventurous and reckless with women, games, brawls and armed conflict. He was wounded severely in one leg while defending the territory against France, and during his recovery in Loyola, he was deeply affected by two books, “The Life of Christ” and “Golden Legend” – a book about the exploits of saints. That convalescence was a bed of repentance and transformation which propelled him with great hunger towards God. 

He decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but on the way there, he had encounters with God, particularly in Manresa where with much fasting, asceticism and long hours of prayers every day he sought to know God and his will. It was in Manresa that he began taking notes of his keen observations about his self-awareness and the dynamics of what he was experiencing as he sought God in prayer. These became the embryonic beginnings of his classic contribution to Christian prayer retreats, a manual titled “The Spiritual Exercises”, which contains guidance about how to help people experience God through meditation and prayer of the gospels, and make a commitment to serve God from a place of spiritual freedom. 

He began giving out exercises to his friends and seekers who approached him, preferably with them withdrawing from usual activities to devote themselves to meditation and prayer, but also for those who could not, spiritual exercises on a daily basis. Many who devoted themselves to these “prayer retreats” experienced life-transforming encounters with God, and he trained his followers to give these exercises to other seekers too. Till today, the Spiritual Exercises are still being given by Jesuits and others, and the manual he wrote, used by spiritual directors around the world, as it was in the original format, but mostly with adaptations.

From the early years, the form of the Spiritual Exercises could always be adjusted to the needs. It was never rigid. And the Jesuits used different variations and people of other orders and traditions creatively morphed it too. The fundamentals of the Christian prayer retreat remain the same: withdrawal from usual life for time alone with God to encounter Him in meditation and prayer. The expressions or forms it takes differ in a hundred ways.


During this same period, the Protestants Reformers had nothing similar to it and were actually wary of all things Catholic. The Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and others knew little of prayer retreats. They have thrown away the baby with the bathwater.

Sadly, modern Protestants were quick to adopt and adapt the secular world’s scientific, philosophical, psychological models, and management methods but hesitant and slow to learn from the other streams of Christian tradition, for example, the value of prayer retreats.. This lack of humble and wise learning is clearly evidenced by the scarcity of Protestant facilities dedicated for Christian prayer retreat, and of trained spiritual directors to guide God-chasers, compared to what is available among the Catholics. It was only in the 1950s that significant interest began to grow about the need, value and importance of Christian prayer retreats to the health and discipleship of the Church. Evangelicals began slow but steady steps to learn these ancient pathways, while keeping faithful to the basis of all spirituality: the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I for one, am upbeat about the interest in Christian prayer retreat among evangelicals today. I have received much from personal guided prayer retreats and believe it is an invaluable treasure that the Church must acknowledge and tap into if it wants to be a servant church. “Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught, The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.  (Isaiah 50: 4-6 ESV)

(The term “Christian” prayer retreat includes Catholics and is used to distinguish it from secular, New Age, and other religion’s retreats.)

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The Examen in original words of St Ignatius

The examen is one of the prayer methods used by retreatants to help them be aware of sins in their daily life. It was one of the prayer methods mentioned in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a manual for spiritual directors guiding people through about 30 days of solitude and prayer and meditations on the life of Christ. The original method has since been modified for contemporary use in many creative ways. The contemporary ones have a greater “God consciousness” in the reflection without the heavier emphasis on “sin consciousness” of the original method.

Here is the English translation (Puhl) of note number 43 of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius (original in Spanish):

Method of Making the General Examination of Conscience notation 43 (SE)

There are five points in this method

  1. The first point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the favors received.
  2. The second point is to ask for grace to know my sins and to rid myself of them.
  3. The third point is to demand an account of my soul from the time of rising up to the present examination. I should go over one hour after another, one period after another. The thoughts should be examined first, then the words, and finally, the deeds in the same order as was explained under the Particular Examination of Conscience.
  4. The fourth point will be to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults.
  5. The fifth point will be to resolve to amend with the grace of God. Close with an Our Father.
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Spiritual exercises: retreat, restore, re-configure

Room 212 balcony view

Nature’s  welcome

Despite divine assurances that this lengthy retreat would do me good, it was with some apprehension that I settled into the room 212 that would be my home for thirty five days. Air Asia had flown me into Chiang Mai, Thailand, at about eleven plus, and I was glad to be at the Seven Fountains retreat centre before midnight. All the rooms in the block had been renovated with attached bathrooms and I was the first guest to enjoy it. When I awoke the next day, a beautiful balcony view welcomed me. A huge raintree and a flame of the forest spread their gracious branches to hug me. Energetic squirrels, mynahs and butterflies looked for breakfast. This is the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Gregory, Kenny, David Townsend, Peter

Together with others on a journey

The last meeting I had with David Townsend was in November 2010. He was directing my ten day retreat. My apprehension still lingered as we caught up with developments in the centre and what’s been happening with me. He gave me a well known passage to meditate on. It’s about God’s care for us and our value in his eyes being much more than birds and lilies. Another passage from Psalms said, My meditation of Him shall be sweet, and that was the word that dissolved my apprehension.

Later in the day, I bumped into the other two retreatants, Gregory Chan and Peter Anthoney, both Malaysians and final year seminarians. Over time a bond would develop amongst us, despite the solitude and silence, for we were going through a similar retreat program.

Many wonder how people can be in prayer, solitude and silence for many weeks. Most cannot keep silent for even a day.  I too wondered. Thus my early twofold anxiety: Will I be able to bear the lengthy solitude? Will it bring about the rejuvenation of a burnout pastor? Will the Lord accomplish his gracious restoration work?

Momentum of prayer

room with a viewThe schedule of each day was rhythmic. Three to five periods of an hour or more each were set apart for meditation, prayer and journaling. Meditation was mainly on Gospel passages and a few other contemplative exercises. The daily 40 minute morning meeting with David, my spiritual director, would be followed by one period; after lunch there would be two periods; and after dinner, one period. Meals were at 7am, 12 noon, and 6.30pm. Filling in were the naps, the jogs and walks, reading Men in White, a book about Singapore’s ruling party, enjoying nature at the grounds and at the Huay Khaew reservoir. The mind and heart were gently and imperceptibly led into a momentum of prayer that gave me a sense of progress, and gave me a booster when I hit the wall.

Weekends were welcome as they seem to give a feeling of lightness and change. There were the Sunday services in Thai and English in the chapel of the retreat center. It was different from the weekdays: more people both expatriate and Thai could be seen on the grounds. The food was sometimes very special or way below par.  The streets and Chiang Mai university seemed empty and sluggish. It felt less intense during the weekends.

School of discipleship, prayer and discernment

How would I personally describe the retreat program? It was a school of discipleship, prayer and discernment. God’s love was revealed through creation and redemption. This love was magnified as it was contrasted with human sins and weaknesses disfiguring all of creation. The meditations and prayer covered creation and fall, incarnation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the passion week, the resurrection appearances, the ascension, the coming again and Pentecost. A persistent focus was on seeing Jesus more clearly, labyrinthloving Him more dearly, and following Him more nearly. At several points in the retreat the challenge of discipleship came to the foreground: as you have viewed and experienced God’s vast love in meditation and prayer, what is your response? Romans 12: 1 was in operation: in view of God’s mercy, I offered myself as a living sacrifice. Consecration of all that I am and have naturally followed when I experience the grace of God afresh. It was both struggle and grace as I came to finally pray, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, Father, not my will, but Yours be done.  To be willing to do whatever He wills, at whatever the cost, for the greater glory of God was the end point intended.

It was also a school of prayer as I would learn to pray with the imagination, with honest feelings, with reverence and depth. There were no “How to’s” or techniques taught.  Prayed as you can, not as you should or must, is one of the memorable gems that the My cup overflowsdirector underlined in one of the sessions. So with whatever knowledge or experience I had thus far, I went on my knees or sat and prayed.  Learning to discern the spiritual movements in my heart and how to make better decisions is another growth area for me. This was relevant and interesting and it helped me see the important role of discerning of spirits in the church, and resulted in a strong personal desire for this grace-gift.

Restoration and re-configuration

The Lord was gracious and faithful and He ministered to me directly in prayer and meditation. Like a shepherd He tended to me. He made me lie down in a restful atmosphere and feed on nutrient rich pastures and still waters. He restored my soul. He showed me the right path to take and promised to be with me through thick and thin. He dealt with the past, filled me with His presence, and gave me hope for the future.

The immediate effects of the prayer retreat is best described metaphorically. It felt like a Celebration at Tsunami - we Finally did it!spiritual re-configuration had taken place. Changed focus, increased knowledge and awareness, spiritual aliveness and alertness, and rejuvenation of my desires to serve God’s people. A better operating system was installed. To change to a geographical metaphor, the tectonic plates of my soul have moved and the fault lines have closed. Revived, re-configured re-commissioned, and ready to go in peace and serve the Lord.

It took thirty five days to complete my retreat program. The first few days was for preparation and the last one or two was for reflection on and thanksgiving for what the Lord has revealed of Himself and had done in me.

Having my wife around and Juniper Tree

a Juniper Tree chaletMy wife joined me for a short prayer retreat and vacation at the tail end. It was wonderful to have her with me as I unwound in the last few days. She enjoyed her three day prayer retreat with another director, Puspo.  At the same time, it was good I could show her around some of the interesting places outside Seven Fountains,  and fete her with Japanese food at the popular Tsunami restaurant nearby. Later we moved to another place in Chiang Mai called the Juniper Tree. From there we idled, and shopped at the large Airport Central Shopping Mall and the night bazaar. The Juniper Tree was a small hotel with a swimming pool bought over by a ministry that sought to provide a place for cross cultural missionaries to rest, recuperate, and be refreshed.enjoying a foot massage after shopping Elijah suffered burnout and sat under a juniper tree and the angel fed him with food and he slept under the tree. Many of the missionaries I saw there were Caucasians serving in various countries in Asia. Many came to rest and be refreshed and unwind from the stresses of their cross cultural work. Some came because of medical needs, and two were about to deliver babies. One or two came to renew their visas.

The path ahead

Back home I continued in my reflections and readings of books on the spiritual dynamics of the retreat program, spiritual direction, and the discerning of spirits. A friend, pastor Seng Chor had given me a book titled, Sacred Listening – James Wakefield, a Protestant  adaptation of the retreat program for lay people who cannot take a full 30 days retreat. The program runs for 6 mothns requiring an hour and a half everyday the path aheadfor the exercises. Adapting what I experienced for church use would be a useful project for me to work on. Furthermore, recently, the recommended book list for my third AGST master’s module (Spirituality and Faith Development) arrived and I am now beginning to read and enjoy the stuff:

To Know As We Are Known – Palmer

Streams of Living Water – Foster

Exploring Christian Spirituality – Collins

………..and many other readings. Looks like another enjoyable and enlightening module awaits me in the middle of September. That would be the last month of my sabbatical. October first, by the grace of God, I will be back shepherding the flock with renewed heart and mind and body.

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