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.)

Share this:

Read More →

Barcelona: ending our Camino Ignaciano

It took an hour by bus from Manresa to Barcelona. We stayed in Denit Hotel near the Plaza Catalunya, where protests were taking place. We were there to trace St Ignatius presence there during his grammar studies and labour of love.

We were reviewing and remembering and sharing to conclude the retreat and camino.

Tireless Fr Jose steadfastly diligently conducts his final pilgrimage sharing about St Ignatius

A wefie with St Ignatius

Barcelona has its quirky art in many public places

Graffiti can also be found in side streets and alleys

We had visited various places where Ignatius gave help and received help and hospitality while in Barcelona. Nothing has remained after nearly 500 years.  They could locate the sites, but other buildings have been built over them.

Wefie with the Sagrada Familia in the background

The Passion facade was stark yet striking

The inside of the Sagrada Familia is a fit dwelling place for God and worshippers to meet

We also visited the world famous Catholic minor basilica called Sagrada Familia. It had been under construction since 1882 and is estimated to be completed in 2026- 100 years after Gaudi, the chief architects death. The tour kept me in awe throughout the hour and was worth every cent.

The last supper…this is starters only!

On the final day, we sat outside a cafe in lovely weather, ordered our drinks, and shared where we were and what God has been doing and saying during the retreat before closing in prayer.

Last faith sharing session over coffee (photo by Lance)

After the camino officially ended, we walked around on Sunday afternoon. Over the two days I have witnessed three peaceful demonstrations: one by catalans protesting the jailing of their “independence” leaders; one that supported a unified Spain, and one near the cruise center with Lebanese protesting against mismanagement by their nation’s elected government.

Our hotel was located near Plaza Catalyuna so we had to skirt the protestors on our way home from dinner(photo by Juliana)

Share this:

Read More →

Relishing and being present

Its vineyard country we have entered, following one of the journeys of St Ignatius.

Vineyards all around us

The Jesuit priest leading us eating the fruit of the land

We walked 15km on Saturday and about 14km today. The only difference to me was that the former was quieter and hardly anyone crossed paths with us, while today, many who were walking the Camino Santiago walked past us, including locals exercising on Sunday, a few every seven minutes.

The weather was windy, cool and sunny yesterday, but cloudier and less windy today. In both cases a short sleeve T shirt and long pants sufficed. The jackets we wore earlier in the morning had to be removed by 10am because the day grew warmer.

We walked through the town on Sunday

We got our Camino Passport stamped.

Our hotel was formerly the medieval palace of a duke whom Ignatius visited

I felt that two blessings were being granted as I relished the long walks in cool weather and lovely scenery.  It took my mind and heart off church responsibilities and burdens. This disengagement is such a blessing.  Secondly, I also needed to simply rest, eat, exercise and be fully present with the physical world, its sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. This grounds me in the now, instead of dwelling on the past or the future.

My wife decided to fly off with St Ignatius

Share this:

Read More →

Loyola: contemplating the life and work of St Ignatius

When one of our pilgrims had to rush home because of a sudden loss it touched me with an unusual deep sadness. This is not normal. It has to be a grace and a burden from the Lord to uplift her in prayer in the coming days. This is reality and we were reminded that God can be found in all things, and the group spent time in poignant prayer for her and her family.

The vast ornate dome and wall of the Basilica of Loyola

Gazing intently

Listening contemplatively to Fr Jose

Two books that impacted St Ignatius in his convalescence: the life of Christ by Ludolf of Saxony, and the life of the saints

St Ignatius facing St Ignatius

Yesterday, Fr Jose brought us around several historical sites and expounded on the life and work of St Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Unlike secular tours, it was done from a contemplative stance, from a man steeped with a camino spirit and a life of service as a Jesuit. He also created pockets of silence and prayer at various places and junctures. The two spiritual directors urged us to cultivate a portable inner silence and posture of listening through the day, alert to what awakens and moves us in our affections.

In the night we viewed the second part of a movie on the life of Ignatius.

Today on Friday the 11th of October, we do a full days walk.

I feel blessed and excited.

Share this:

Read More →