Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Retreats in the Seventeenth Century: 1. Religious reform in France in the seventeenth century; 2. Retreats as an element of reform; 3. The end of the age of Louis XIV and the beginning of the eighteenth century. II. The Retreats Instituted by Montfort: 1. Autobiographical evidence: a. Letters, b. Rules, c. Hymns, d. True Devotion; 2. Biographical testimonies: a. The decisive and painful events of his life, b. Places of retreat; 3. The apostolic life and retreats: a. Mission-retreats, b. Retreats for nuns. III. The Spiritual Retreat Today: 1. What is understood by the spiritual retreat today?; 2. The content of the spiritual retreat; 3. Several forms of the spiritual retreat.


1. Religious reform in France in the seventeenth century

The seventeenth century in France saw a spiritual upsurge that marked the life of the Church for a long time; it has been named the "golden age of spirituality." It was a time of reform, for the Church bore the heavy weight of an ignorant, lazy, and sometimes even corrupt clergy: there were too many of them in the towns, they had received little training, they were motivated often by financial gain, and they had a status that dispensed them from pastoral work but ensured a good income. As for the people, they were marked by ignorance and superstition of all kinds. This is the context in which a whole reform movement developed and widened in the course of the first part of the seventeenth century. This movement was both pastoral and deeply spiritual.1

2. Retreats as an element of reform

The parish mission movement developed as a result of this reform. In the first decades the missions of the likes of Michel Le Nobletz or of Vincent de Paul had a double aim: to catechize the people in the rudiments of the faith and to have the people begin a new life in Christ by means of a general confession. The organization of the missions thus brought them closer in nature to what today would be termed retreats. Among a whole range of methods employed in order to develop the spiritual life, the retreat was clearly impressive. It was introduced both by the Jesuits and by the Franciscan Recollects of the Strict Observance and became so widespread that new houses for the "recollections" needed to be built. All the large towns and many country regions soon had such houses. In Paris the Saint-Lazare house of retreat was very well attended. For eight or ten days, people kept silence, were recollected, meditated, prayed, and listened to a director speaking on religious matters; then general confession was made and Communion received; the good Catholic left the house in excellent spirits.

Other methods were added to this movement directed towards the people. There were the growing influence of the colleges of the Jesuits, the Oratorians, and others, and the creation of the "exercises for ordinands," which contributed to the training of the clergy. In the fall of 1628, Vincent de Paul, in response to a request from his bishop, preached the first retreat of those to be ordained. This met with considerable success. The archbishop of Paris wanted to have the exercises in his own diocese; once he had seen how they went, he required that these exercises take place there in the future. Gradually this movement spread to several other dioceses of France.

3. The end of the age of Louis XIV and the beginning of the eighteenth century

In 1660 the extraordinary era of the "great century of souls"2 was already waning, and a new chapter of the Church in France was soon to begin. In fact, in 1660 Vincent de Paul died, preceded by eminent reformers such as Jean-Jacques Olier, Le Nobletz, and others. These deaths were omens, although, of those great figures who led the Church in its admirable effort of renewal; there were a few who, like John Eudes, survived and tried to continue the effort. Three tendencies developed out of this situation: the decline of the dynamism of the seventeenth century, the appearance of the new spirit of the eighteenth, and the opposition of various pastoral currents. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the missions were therefore a means of doctrinal education for the people, leading to individual conversions. For the clergy, the "exercises" were a means to ensure their own theological training. Through these efforts many advances were made: the retreat movements, practice of the renewal of the baptismal vows and the propagation of prayer. In approximately the 1690s, at the latest in 1700, the major preoccupation was to continue being the faithful heir to the past, improving on it only in a small number of ways.


1. Autobiographical evidence

Montfort lived through the turn of the century (1673-1716), a time when the weakening of efforts for renewal in the Church was becoming more pronounced. His personal reaction to the "retreat movement"—one of the great means of reform for the clergy as well as the Christian people—is important to discover.

a. Letters.

In order to understand his attitude to this situation, we must consider that although Montfort harbored a secret love of the secluded life, he also felt a great desire to attract people to a greater love of Our Lord and his Blessed Mother.

In the letter of December 6, 1700, to his director, Father Leschassier, Montfort expressed his spiritual state in the following terms: "On the one hand, I feel a secret attraction for a hidden life in which I can efface myself and combat my natural tendency to show off. On the other hand, I feel a tremendous urge to make our Lord and his holy Mother loved, to go in a humble and simple way to teach catechism to the poor in country places and to arouse in sinners a devotion to our Blessed Lady" (L 5).

Montfort certainly drew on energies from the great spiritual reforms of the past, which included retreats. As we learn from the letter written to his uncle Alain Robert on September 20, 1694, he participated in organized retreats: "I was not able to reply to your letter as soon as I wished because I was making a retreat at St. Sulpice in preparation for the reception of minor orders which, thanks be to God, I have now received" (L 2).

Retreat into solitude also had a quite special attraction for Montfort, having a central place in his personal life at those decisive moments and times of testing that marked his missionary life.

Montfort spoke of his habit of making retreats in letters to his director Leschassier. After he was obliged to wait for the bishop of Poitiers for four days, he wrote: "During this time I made a short retreat in a little room where I enclosed myself, in the middle of a large town where I knew nobody" (L 6).

Again, on July 4, 1702, when his ministry at the Hospital was threatened, he wrote: "During this painful period, I kept silent and lived in retreat putting my cause into the hands of God and relying on his help, in spite of opposite advice given to me. To this end I went for a week’s retreat to the Jesuits" (L 11).

b. Rules.

The program of the missions preached by Montfort was similar to that of the retreats: a time of preaching and prayer that led to a total conversion to Christ. In 1713, with his future congregation in mind, Montfort wrote: "The purpose of these missions is to renew the spirit of Christianity among the faithful," In the chapter of RM entitled "Prayers and Spiritual Exercises," he recommends that they make "at least one day of recollection every month" after they have returned from their missions, and that "outside the times when they are giving missions . . . the time allotted during the mission for preaching and hearing confessions is devoted to study, prayer and retreat" (RM 78).

In RW, he wrote: "Each month they make a retreat of one day; and every year a retreat of ten days" (RW 134). Montfort entrusts the work of retreats to the Daughters of Wisdom as part of the "exterior aim" (RW 1).

It is clear that in his life, Montfort favored retreats as a means of sanctifying himself and wished to pass it on to those men and women who would follow him.

c. Hymns.

Montfort also spoke of retreat in another sense, a mystical sense, to signify the soul’s encounter with God, in a strengthening and reassuring exchange.

Thus, in his canticles to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he sings: "This is the holiest retreat / Where all sin is avoided, / Where the most imperfect soul / Becomes most holy with little effort" (H 40:18). "Let us all make our retreat / In his sacred side" (H 72:19). "Dear lamb, keep your retreat / To avoid the wolves / To listen to me and to speak in secret" (H 106:37).

d. True Devotion.

In a comparable sense, he took up the term "retreat" in TD, where he uses an allegory that might appear simplistic to modern interpreters: the biblical figures of Esau and Jacob as symbols of the punished reprobate and the chosen. The love for solitude appears to mark the chosen: "They stay at home . . . , they . . . love the interior life . . . in the company of the Blessed Virgin . . . whose glory is wholly interior" (TD 196).

2. Biographical testimonies

a. The decisive and painful events of his life.

Montfort told his director that he was both a man drawn to solitude and a missionary to the people. The biographers point out that it was quite "costly" for him to acquire biblical radicalism. But a retreat was always the new starting point that helped him to see more clearly the loving hand of God.

Biographers point out several retreats that he made in the course of his active missionary apostolate.

On his return from Rome in 1706, strengthened in his vocation of Apostolic Missionary, he decided to pause at the famous abbey of Saint- Martin of Ligugé, which belonged to the Jesuits at the time. Obliged by Monsignor de la Poype to leave the diocese of Poitiers, he withdrew to the home of a priest who was a friend of his for a retreat of eight days in order to ask the Holy Spirit to direct his steps at this decisive moment of his life.

In September 1710, the failure of the Calvary of Pontchâteau brought him back to his usual method of spiritual renewal. He went on a week’s retreat at the house of the Jesuits in Nantes. "This is the calming remedy to which he turns when his heart is heavy."3 This was a painful but decisive moment in his life; he emerged from this retreat like a new man who had come to a deeper understanding of the fact that God’s ways include the Cross.

In 1714, once the bishop of Rennes had refused to accord him faculties in his diocese, he went on a retreat "with the Jesuits" near the College of Saint Thomas. For a week he lived in contemplation of Jesus Christ; and it is in the fervor of this retreat that he composed the circular letter to the Friends of the Cross, deeply engrossed in the mystery of God Incarnate crucified.4

In 1714, before leaving for Normandy and while reflecting on the importance of this journey, he withdrew from company in order to prepare himself by means of a fervent retreat.

b. Places of retreat.

Not only did Montfort frequent houses of retreat, as, for example, those of the Jesuits, but he chose isolated places in order to immerse himself deeply into retreat.

His stay beneath the staircase of a wretched hovel on rue Pot-de-Fer in Paris was one of his prolonged retreats, where, filled with contemplative prayer, it appears that he wrote LEW (1703-1704), or at least a part of it.

The hermitage of Saint-Eloi at La Rochelle was also one of the places where he loved to withdraw between apostolic works. It is most probably there that he wrote TD in the fall of 1712. As well as Saint-Eloi, he chose other isolated areas, such as the grotto of Mervent and the hermitage of Saint-Lazare.

In these places far removed from the world, he sought tranquillity, peace, and contact with God in an atmosphere his ardent and mystic soul required.

3. The apostolic life and retreats

a. Mission-retreats.

Whoever surveys Montfort’s life can see that his love for a secluded, contemplative life was present even during his active parish missions. Clement XI named him an Apostolic Missionary, and Montfort gave meaning to this title through his activity both in popular missions and in retreats organized for different groups of people.

Grandet relates that he was preaching a retreat in 1706 to more than two hundred persons of the Third Orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. "There he was," remarked Le Crom, "at last a recognized missionary and, we might add, an up-to-date one. First the popular soup kitchens, then the closed retreats: the holy Breton priest, with his air of sanctity, was a man of progress."5

From 1707 to 1708, he joined Leuduger for the preaching of parish missions that could just as well have been called closed retreats. For "during the holy exercises, the church was really the center of existence for the people of the parish: catechism lessons, songs, prayers, examinations of conscience, and sermons followed each other all day long. At such times, the public squares of our towns resembled monastic cloisters."6 This type of mission utilized as far as possible the excellent method of closed retreats.

But either on account of his collaborators’ jealousy or Montfort’s eccentricity, the Father from Montfort was rejected by Leuduger, the director of the mission band. According to Vincent F. Desmaretz, bishop of Saint-Malo, it was because Montfort ceaselessly preached God’s mercy and the tenderness of the Blessed Virgin and because beggars and vagrants followed him everywhere.

L. Perouas tells us that in 1706 Montfort spoke of "mission" in reference to his recently completed preaching in the poor areas of Poitiers. Everything seems to indicate that it was a kind of retreat. It took people out of their regular parish routine. Montfort increasingly adopted the term "mission" to describe this time of prayer and reflection which was common at the time. In 1711 and 1715, he termed what his colleagues merely called "retreats" by the names: "women’s mission" and "soldiers’ mission."

b. Retreats for nuns.

While Montfort preached retreats to penitents, he also gave several retreats to nuns. In 1712, at La Rochelle, he agreed to provide a retreat for the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. On various occasions, he preached retreats to the nuns of the Order of Visitation of La Rochelle. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Providence, the Poor Clare nuns of the convent of Ave Maria, the nuns of the Sacred Heart of Ernemont, and countless others benefited from his preached retreats.

As for the themes that Montfort dealt with during retreats, there only remains an outline in LS 769-770 and an "Order of retreat" for four weeks in LS 771. From the mission to La Garnache in 1712, Montfort returned in "follow-up missions" to the parishes he had evangelized. He emphasized "dying happily" and handed out the short work HD.7


1. What is understood by the spiritual retreat today?

In the seventeenth century, the retreat centered on conversion and individual salvation. At the outset, its function was the reform of the clergy and the instruction of the Christian people. Gradually it shed a certain doctrinal rigor, moved on to Christian morality, and rose to a spiritual, even mystical, level under the influence of the great saints who marked this period.

The idea of organized spiritual retreats preached in a retreat house for a week or a month has been passed down to us through the religious families that have preserved and lived this tradition.

The retreat, however, has evolved enormously both in form and content and has spread from religious houses to take its place in the midst of God’s people for persons of all ages and situations in life.

2. The content of the spiritual retreat

The spiritual retreat today is centered on the Word of God. Increasingly it begins with people’s experience in order to lead them to read their spiritual story in the light of the ever-living Word. It also tries by its content to lead Christians to a life lived in relation to God, a relation initiated by God (1 Jn 4:19).

The modern Christian who has progressed from an intellectual faith to a faith that is a vital response to God increasingly desires to have a personal experience of the Gospel and divine life. The retreat, in various forms, permits him or her to attain this encounter, this experience.

The retreat is a milieu where, far from feverish and noisy activity or only in privileged moments, the Christian can enter into a dialogue with God and with himself. Modern culture has changed the content of the dialogue radically, but the aim remains the same: the Christian must consciously place Christ at the center of his or her life, for "in reality the mystery of man can only be explained by the mystery of the Word incarnate . . . and reveals to him the sublimity of his vocation" (GS 22).

3. Several forms of the spiritual retreat

The phenomenon of our having passed from awareness of individual salvation to the recognition of a collective and even cosmic salvation gives rise to a profound change in our encounter with God and the way we express it.

The traditional closed retreat, of variable length and spent in total or partial silence under the direction of a guide, still has a place today, especially among religious.

There is also an accompanied or organized retreat of six to eight days, centered on personal prayer rather than on content presented by a speaker. It is an encounter with God in solitude, an internalization of the texts of the Holy Spirit. This process aims to make individuals open to the working of God and to accustom them to discern His call so that they can respond with ever increasing faithfulness.

There are likewise the "thirty-day retreats" integrated into the normal routine of life. Without abandoning daily occupations, the individual sets special time aside to be in silence and meditate on the Word of God. This form of retreat is carried out under the direction of a competent director.

The young of today need special forms of the retreat, like simple days of recollection and weekends dedicated to conversation and to prayer in which people search together for answers to life’s problems. Taizé has proven to be admirably successful in drawing today’s youth into days of retreat and reflection.

Montfort spirituality not only draws its followers into times of solitude but also calls on them to provide times and places of retreat to others, especially to the poor. Saint Louis de Montfort’s life and writings, combined with a contemporary imitation of his creativity, are the important ingredients for Spirit-filled contemporary retreats.

H. Robitaille

Notes: (1) R. Deville, L’Ecole française de spiritualité (The French School of Spirituality), Desclée, Paris 1980, 17ff. (2) H. Daniel-Rops, Histoire de l’Église du Christ (The History of the Christian Church), Grasset, Paris 1962-65, 7:31-32, 243ff. (3) B. Papàsogli, Montfort, A Prophet for Our Times, Edizioni Monfortane, Rome 1991, 37-38. (4) Besnard I, 154. (5) L. Le Crom, Un Apôtre marial, St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), Librairie Mariale, Pontchateau 1942, 182. (6) Ibid., 183 (7) L. Perouas, Grignion de Montfort, les pauvres et les missions (Montfort, the Poor, and Missions), Cerf, Paris 1966, 84.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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