In the weeks before the semi-annual weekend vocation retreat we hold for law students, we ask the students to give us the name of several friends or family members, without telling them why. We ask those whose names we receive to write notes to the retreatants encouraging them and assuring them of their prayers, and saying something about what makes them special to the person writing and send them to us. While the retreatants are eating lunch on Saturday, one of us slides the letters under their bedroom doors, where they find them in the free period that follows lunch. Even for those “repeaters,” who don’t get the wonderful surprise first-timers get when they find the unexpected letters, it is a very special part of the experience.

Despite my years of giving retreats and being on them, I had never known there was a name for this. But yesterday, there was a Facebook wall post from one of my friends requesting “palanca” for a group of people on a retreat he is involved in. I did what you might imagine – popped the word into Google – and learned that “palanca” is a Spanish word that means “to give lift” or “to rise.” In this context, a palanca is a letter of encouragement to a retreatant.

Often, palancas are written by friends or family members of the person on retreat. But sometimes they are written by complete strangers to the one on reatreat, as the one I wrote in response to my FB friend’s request.

One of the first sites that came up when I googled the term palanca was from a group that does prison ministry in New York. I’m guessing there are prisoners who participate in such retreats that do not have anyone to send them a palanca. Perhaps you might consider writing a short note to someone who has made a decision in prison to try to deepen (or establish) a relationship with God. The website is here, and it explains how to send the letters.

The palanca idea seems to me a wonderful one even outside of a retreat context. If there is someone you know going through a difficult time or who just seems to need a “lift,” think about dropping them a short note of encouragement today.