It seems that I have been a participant for more retreats in the last few months than all of the last few years. I do not claim they are big parts I have played, but significant none the less. Retreats are a strange animal for some people ... designed to get one away from one's ordinary life to dwell on the spiritual and eternal relationships one might and should have, our modern world makes it harder and harder to accomplish such a goal.
When I was a student (here it comes, folks ..) the retreats i went on varied from all-day events in school to weekend "lock-down" sort of experiences. Almost without fail they would simply be alternate activities within familiar settings. We did not go off and away. The closest we came to "radical" change of environment was the banning of watches, which did have a temporal effect allowing one to lose oneself in the moment. I recall wondering what it would be like to go off on a "real" retreat in a retreat center with a retreat director, for a week or maybe more. By the end of my weekend experiences I was not sure I could handle a whole week, no matter where it was.
In more recent years I have had the privilege of helping on any number of high school and parish retreats, and even a few college retreats. These have always been away from the normal, often at secluded "camps" with rustic facilities, yet beautiful surroundings. Getting away from the normal, especially to such places, certainly does change one's attitude. It also makes it really hard to dwell on all the "things" that normally clutter one's lives. I am pretty sure that I prefer the far-away retreat-center type retreat to the in-house, suspend-your-perceptions type events of my youth. I'm not sure they are good enough for today's participants.
If you haven't noticed yet there are very few places that are away from everything anymore. With wireless devices and cell phones that do almost everything except make breakfast in the morning it is possible to be engaged with ordinary life in some very remote places indeed. And when such devices talk to each other it becomes possible to carry on with some of the same things one does at home. A wise retreat leader will make certain, like we did so long ago with watches, that all electronic devices are either left at home or left in the custody of the leaders until the retreat is over.
That being said, I am constantly awed and impressed in every way by those who have been a part of the retreats on which I have helped. There is something beautiful that happens to people when they allow God to speak to their hearts and dare to share such conversation with others. Expressions of faith and love are not things that easily flow in daily conversation; more's the shame. In retreats permission is given and an environment created that allows for the deeper meanings of one's life to surface and be shared. I look forward to many more opportunities to experience such grace.