Article: A Foyer of Charity Retreat

A Foyer of Charity Retreat article by Donal Anthony Foley

Spending some time at a house in the country, with excellent accommodation, superb home-cooked food, beautiful grounds, and plenty to time to relax, conjures up a vision of a luxury spa break. Most such breaks are decidedly secular, but if you want to combine the above with a profoundly spiritual, yet affordable, experience, this is possible on a retreat at a Foyer of Charity.

The Foyers are French lay communities led by a priest, who is the Father of the Foyer, and the good news is that with inexpensive flights it is relatively easy to attend a Foyer retreat nowadays, and in fact such a retreat, in English, is taking place at the Foyer at Tressaint, in Brittany, from 20–26 September.

Indeed, a successful Foyer retreat led by Mgr Keith Barltrop, with the help of Fr. David Hartley, and some members of the Foyer at Tressaint, recently took place at the Sion Community, Brentwood. And it is hoped that several will take place next year at venues around England.

These retreats last five days and take place in silence, which might itself seem something of a barrier, but this is the only “penance” asked for while on a Foyer retreat – all the needs of retreatants are taken care of by community members – and actually silence is good once you get used to it!

A typical day on a Foyer Retreat begins with morning prayer with the community, followed by a characteristic French breakfast of strong coffee (or tea) and rolls, before the first conference or talk commences. Depending on the theme of the retreat, the conferences could be on a variety of topics, but most focus on basic Gospel themes.

Following this, there is free time when one can walk in the attractive grounds, or pray, or read, or just relax, before Mass is celebrated in one of the Community chapels. At Tressaint, the main chapel is dedicated to St Maximilian Kolbe. Lunch in silence follows, and classical music is played in the background at all meals. Then, in the afternoon, there is another conference, plus more free time, as well as the opportunity for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Rosary.

Some people may have the idea that retreats are times of gloomy introspection, but this is certainly not the case with a Foyer retreat. Rather it is like being among the people listening to Christ as he preached during his ministry – that it is an encounter with the living Christ. And the silence and the beautiful surroundings of the Foyer give the message a chance to sink in.

These retreats are what is so special about the Foyers, and they are a particularly good way of helping people to absorb or re-absorb the most important aspects of Christianity, in a world that is ever more noisy, and where so many Catholics struggle to find a proper means of formation in the Faith.

The Foyers of Charity draw their inspiration from the collaboration between Marthe Robin and Fr Georges Finet, who met at in 1936. Born in 1902, the youngest of five children, Marthe lived with her parents in a small farmhouse near Châteauneuf-de-Galaure, in southeastern France. She became bedridden from 1928, and from 1929 was more or less paralyzed. Marthe began to live a life of mystic union with Christ and the Blessed Virgin, and in October 1930 was marked with the stigmata; every Friday for the rest of her life she experienced the Passion.

Soon after this meeting, arrangements for the first Foyer retreat, to be preached by Fr Finet, were made, and this led to the founding of the first community at Châteauneuf. By the time of Marthe’s death, in 1981, there were some sixty Foyers of Charity on five continents, and since then, even more communities have been founded.

The Foyers are very much part of the New Evangelisation which John Paul II laid so much emphasis on during his pontificate, and which Pope Benedict XVI has likewise supported.

It is quite remarkable that Marthe looked forward to a “New Pentecost” of love as early as 1936, over twenty years before Vatican II. And she specifically said that the Blessed Virgin had asked for silence on the retreats, and also that they should last five days, because it takes that amount of time to change a soul.

There was a link between Marthe and St Thérèse of Lisieux in that Thérèse appeared to Marthe three times in 1926 and entrusted to her a continuation of her mission to the world. But whereas Thérèse became very well-known through her autobiography, and thus famous throughout the Catholic world, even though she died when she was only twenty-four, Marthe lived to be seventy-nine, and the greater part of her life was spent in seclusion.

It is known that she met more that a hundred thousand visitors over fifty years; each one, while on retreat, waited in the little kitchen and was allowed ten minutes with Marthe in her darkened room. She showed a keen interest in the affairs of each visitor, gave sound advice, and always finished by praying with them. Marthe’s fervent prayer was that they should fix their minds and hearts on God, and that they should lovingly correspond with His grace. Her Cause for Beatification is well advanced.

It is relatively easy to get to Tressaint either by air or sea, and the Foyer is located in attractive French countryside near the ancient walled town of Dinan, which is inland from Dinard and St Malo. The main community building is an old Manor house, but as the community has grown, new accommodation to house retreatants has been built. The grounds are beautifully kept and a wonderful sense of peace pervades the atmosphere at the Foyer, which also grows its own vegetables (and flowers).

As far as the English-speaking world is concerned, the Foyers and Marthe Robin are one of France’s best kept secrets, and both deserve to be much better known this side of the Channel.

This article was published originally in the Catholic Herald.