Flavigny retreat at Pantasaph
By Donal Anthony Foley

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Flavigny retreat at Pantasaph by Donal Anthony Foley

Last August I made my way to Pantasaph Franciscan Friary in North Wales for a 5 day silent retreat. This retreat was to be given by two monks from the Benedictine Monastery at Flavigny in France, one of whom is American, and in addition, the retreat was to be a condensed form of the 30 day exercises of St Ignatius! It sounds complicated, but in fact it was a beautiful experience.

I had previously been on a one of these retreats, in 2007, at Flavigny itself, which is located in beautiful countryside in Burgundy, in an area redolent of history; to the west is Vezelay, where St Bernard preached the Second Crusade. The Benedictine Abbey of St Joseph is located in the medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, and was founded in Switzerland in 1972, before re-locating to Flavigny in 1976.

The monastic experience, as lived at Flavigny, is wonderful and I had very happy memories of my retreat there three years previously.

Pantasaph Friary, (http://www.pantasaph.org.uk/), is the location of the national shrine to Padre Pio, but they also host retreats and conferences, and so our group of about 20 men from various parts of the county arrived late on a Tuesday afternoon for the beginning of our retreat. Pantasaph is located only a few miles away from St Winefride's Well, in Holywell.

After supper, we had our first conference at 7:00 pm, and one of the characteristics of the Flavigny retreats is their intensity. You are in an atmosphere of silence for 5 days, and they are very full days. But this was necessary if we were to get through all the stages of the retreat.

In fact, the Flavigny retreats are based on the 30 day exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, which were of such importance in the counter-Reformation period; they were responsible for the conversion of many notable people, including canonised saints, who attempted to re-build the Church in the aftermath of the Reformation.

Many Popes have recommended the Exercises, including Pope Pius XII, who said: “The Ignatian Exercises will always be one of the most efficacious means for the spiritual regeneration of the world, and for its proper ordering, but on condition that they remain authentically Ignatian,”

And the Flavigny Fathers do very definitely give the Exercises in an authentically Ignatian way, despite being constrained for time. Indeed, nowadays, few people have the time to take part in a 30 day retreat, and so the Flavigny Benedictines have produced a 5 day condensed form of the Exercises, which focuses on the essentials of St Ignatius’s system.

But squeezing 30 days worth of teaching into 5 days means an early start, and in fact we were having our first conference around 7am each day, with another 3 or 4 during the day. Generally, one of the Benedictine Fathers would speak to us on some aspect of the Exercises, with practical examples drawn from real life, but also with a focus on scriptural passages as interpreted by St Ignatius.

The 30 day retreat of St Ignatius is actually divided into 4 “weeks,” with the intention, as the “First Principle and Foundation” states, of enabling the retreatant to understand that: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” This is to be done by a restrained use of the goods of the earth, and by adopting an attitude of indifference to all created things.

During the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, there is a focus on examining one’s conscience, and then on sin in general and our own sins in particular. This all might seem quite negative, but it is actually a necessary stage if the retreatant is to gain from the succeeding “weeks” of the retreat. It is a sort of purgation, which brings us to face to face with our real selves, and not the false self we can quite easily project on the world.

What makes the Flavigny retreats so powerful, is the way that after each conference or talk, the retreatants are then asked to go back to their rooms, or to the chapel, and meditate for twenty minutes on what they have just heard. This allows the teaching to really penetrate, and in addition, the fact that everything is done in silence further emphasizes this penetration, so that the overall effect is very powerful.

This first “week” of the 5 day retreat, actually lasts two days, and finishes with confession. One can arrange to see one of the priests during the week, and in fact you are encouraged to speak to one of them daily, if necessary, in order to make sure that everything is going well and to discuss any points which may have arisen in prayer.

Mass every day was celebrated in the Extraordinary form, which for me, as I’m not used to it, I found a little bit strange at first. But after a few days, one gets more used to it, and I can see the benefit of its silences and prayerful nature.

The second “week” then focuses on the person of Christ, the mystery of his life on earth, and includes meditations on aspects of the Nativity and Christ’s life up until the Passion.

It also has a consideration of the states of life, the three kinds of humility, as well as a meditation on the two Standards, those of Christ and the devil. Advice was given as to the different ways they attract their followers—Christ by means of inculcating humility and meekness, the devil by means of fostering pride, a love of riches and so on.

During this period we were advised that it is a good idea to have a monthly day of recollection, and if possible, an annual retreat. These are all the more necessary since the modern world has become so busy and distracting, and we can easily lose touch with God.

While all this was going on, we were keeping our discipline of silence, (for the most part!), and enjoying our meals in the beautifully decorated refectory at Pantasaph.

The second “week” lasted about a day, and then we moved on to the third week, a consideration of Christ’s passion, and the events leading up to that. This too, is a very powerful part of the retreat, and prepared us for the fourth week, with its focus on the resurrection, and various contemplations on aspects of the spiritual life.

At the end of our 5 days there was a chance for the retreatants to briefly talk together and the feedback I heard was very positive, with a number of people clearly wanting to come back again. I personally found it a very positive and enlightening experience.

In fact, there is another retreat at Pantasaph this summer from 18th – 23rd August 2011. For details of this please visit:


Flavigny hosts many retreats in French throughout the year, but also arranges retreats in English, not only at Pantasaph, but also in Ireland and Australia. At the moment, though, there is only provision for all-male retreats.

If you are looking for a “different” but prayerful break this summer, I can highly recommend these retreats.

This article appeared initially in the Catholic Herald

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