Several years ago, I remember walking downstairs during a break at our summer youth camps to find a group of high school students talking about how they were going to make this camp different. They were sharing how they were growing tired of attending retreats or camps only to find themselves feeling very empty a few days later. They loved attending retreats and conferences and would leave very excited to live their faith out in the ordinary life, but they also desired to have a faith life that wasn’t so dependent on these opportunities.
The reality is retreat experiences are extraordinary. Like an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Mass, they may be helpful and it is certainly acceptable to utilize them. However, the preferred minister is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist, the priest or deacon. The life that we are called to live most of the time is the ordinary life. Extraordinary experiences in the faith should deepen our love for and the practice of the ordinary life. The “feeling” of a retreat high is not bad, just like the attraction between a couple on their wedding day and honeymoon is not bad. Yet it is the daily stability, foundation, and practice of love which we are called to live. These young people were hungry to have a faith life that was lived out each day and lived out of the love experienced on these retreats. The reality is that they learned (in fact, one might even say they “mastered” learning) to receive the love of God on these retreats. What they were really asking me was, “How do I receive the love of God outside of retreats and camps like this?”
To help explain to them what they were articulating, I shared a story of how I loved to start clubs when I was kid. My cousin and I would start a club about every time we would get together. Once someone expressed a desire to join that club, we would have a period of initiation where they would have to do certain things in order to become a full member of the club.
The Church articulates a similar process as She describes the process of growing into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. The term used is Initiatory Catechesis. In short, it includes the time in your relationship with Jesus between the moment you’ve expressed a desire to be in a relationship with Him (i.e. one of His disciples) and the time when you have a deep and committed relationship with Him that begins to form every aspect of your life.
The Church says this time of initiation is “essential,” meaning the things you learn and understand about following Jesus in these early days will lay the foundation for your relationship with Him for the rest of your life. The reason it’s difficult to be a disciple and to receive the love of God in the ordinary life is because you do not yet know how! The Church also encourages us to find an “apprentice” in the faith to “show us the way” of becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Finally, the Church emphasizes that this time should focus on “what is common to the Christian.” For many, this involves seeking answers to some of the most fundamental questions that will help them to truly trust and follow Jesus in all things. Why does God allow suffering? Does God listen to me when I pray? Why does the Church teach (fill in the blank)?
The cure for the retreat high is NOT more retreats, but it is the process of discipleship which helps a person give up their life and take up a new one. While retreats are a helpful and important part of growing in our relationship with Christ, they exist to enhance, not replace, the ordinary life of a Christian. If you’re someone who feels stuck in this reality of simply waiting for that next retreat or conference, make the commitment now to taking those steps of initiation. Seek out someone who can “apprentice” you in the faith. Start reading books on topics that interest you and answer the questions you have about the faith. Finally, recognize that this is a relationship and simply put, you are learning to love. Growing in any relationship takes time, commitment, and sacrifice. Wake up each day and commit to making this relationship a priority in your life.