The last day of every retreat is the same. I wake up, usually after not sleeping well, feeling a bit sad and annoyed. I am sad because however long the retreat lasted it had been a time of quiet joy with God and the few people I was called to lead on this retreat. The retreat center, even if located in the middle of the city, became an oasis against the noise and busyness of modern living, allowing each person the space to decompress, unwind and perhaps for the first time in a while, be alone with God.
I am annoyed, of course, because the retreat is over. This idyllic situation, unlike any other in this world, is disappearing before my eyes and there is nothing I can do about it. I hear retreatants packing their bags, making travel plans, and beginning to say goodbye to each other. Trying to appear stoic, I simply smile, thank everyone for coming, and say goodbye to each person, while interiorly my heart feels barren and alone. I have what I like to call, PRD, Post-Retreat Depression.
During each retreat, I tell everyone that this is a special time of grace. God often “lifts the veil” and allows us to encounter him in a way that is different from our ordinary daily life experience. No matter how blessed a time the retreat was, most of us are not called to live on the mountain alone with God. We have families, jobs, and communities that, whether we like it or not, are waiting for us. The key, I emphasize, is to integrate our experience on retreat into our daily lives.
One area of difficulty for people who had a profound experience of God on retreat is the almost complete identification of an experience of God with God himself. As a retreat director, I have witnessed countless people have life-changing experiences in the course of a retreat, especially retreats that include a heavy dosage of silence and solitude. After these experiences, the typical response is, “I don’t want to leave here.” This is, perhaps to our surprise, a natural human response. Anytime we experience anything that brings joy, comfort, or pleasure, we don’t want to let go of it. In fact, we often grasp at it and try desperately to force it to stay.
This is demonstrated almost verbatim in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up a mountain, a symbol of going on retreat and preparing the way for a deeper encounter with God. There, in silence and solitude, Jesus is transfigured before them: “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Mt 17:2). In the midst of this profound encounter with the Lord, Peter proclaims, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mt 17:4).
Peter, in his all-too-human attempt to hold on to this precious moment, is basically asking Jesus, “Do we really have to leave?” The experience of the transfigured Lord, like our own deeper experiences of the Lord on retreat, is one he is not ready yet to let go of. A few verses later, however, Jesus and the three chosen disciples are already coming down the mountain. Their retreat has abruptly finished and now they are returning back to daily life.
What is the point of the Transfiguration for the three disciples who witnessed this event? Shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus’ Passion begins. In a matter of moments, Jesus will move from being the transfigured Lord to the Lord who is betrayed, beaten, and crucified. The Passion, at least exteriorly, will appear as a contradiction of Jesus’ own words that he is “the light of the world and he who follows me will not walk in darkness” (Jn 8:12). Ultimately, the Transfiguration is meant to strengthen the faith of the disciples so that in the midst of the confusion and darkness of the Passion, their faith remains steadfast.
A similar reasoning, I believe, can be used to understand why God gives us consoling and beautiful experiences of him, whether it is on retreat, during prayer, or just simply in the middle of our daily lives. They are meant to strengthen us. In many ways, they are a quiet reminder from God that our lives, despite what we may feel and experience, are governed by God’s fatherly care. What is perhaps most frustrating about these experiences is that we cannot, despite our best efforts, control or create them. There is no method of prayer, retreat director, or special place that can cause them to occur more frequently or in the manner we desire. They are completely God’s gift to us, given when and how he sees fit. Hence, they are meant to be received with joy and gratitude.
Even though I remind retreatants of this at the end of every retreat, I still find myself slipping into what I have diagnosed as Post-Retreat Depression. Despite the duration of the retreat, I witnessed firsthand God’s love breaking more deeply into a person’s life. That person, despite his own fears and struggles and sometimes even because of them, becomes an icon of God’s relentless pursuit, not only of his soul but mine as well. Like Peter, I have often asked God in the silence of my own heart, “Do we really have to leave?”
Shortly after each retreat ends, I am separated from those with whom I spent a few days alone on the mountain with Jesus. The intimacy, silence and peace that we shared together are now behind us. Now, against my own will, I wait at an airport filled with strangers, noise, and activity. Occasionally, on the flight home the person I am seated next to will initiate some kind of spiritual conversation, but generally the flight is a quiet one. I spend the majority of the time reflecting on the past few days and praying for those with whom I shared this journey.
There is a temptation to believe that after every retreat I am now plunged back down to the base of the mountain and must wait again for the next retreat to begin my ascent. With this mindset, life appears as an obstacle to our continuing growth in holiness. The reality is, because of this retreat, or a deeper experience of God in general, I am not plunged back down at the bottom once it is over, but I am actually at a higher elevation because of my experience.