Return from Great Silence
Brothers and sisters, the peace of Christ be with you! It’s good to be back in the States after my retreat in Jerusalem. It’s taken me longer than I thought to get back on top of everything I had to put on hold, which includes this blog post, but I’m back in my regular routine now which will mean (hopefully) more regular updates in general!
Thank you to everyone who offered prayers for me during the month of July. I knew I was going to need a lot of help to get through a 30 day silent retreat and I cannot tell you how much it meant to have your spiritual assistance during those days. Thanks in large part to your prayers, the month was a time of great peace and communion with the Lord. God gave me more than I could have asked for or imagined. I still find myself marveling that the retreat happened at all! Just two weeks later the whole month of July feels like an entire lifetime ago. But in the last two weeks I’ve been going back to the graces of the retreat in my prayer and they remain just as profound and vibrant as they were on retreat. Someone asked me, “How long will it take you to process everything that happened?” My answer was immediate: “It’s going to take me the rest of my life.” So much happened, in fact, that I don’t know if I could ever exhaust all that the Lord gave me. Primarily that’s because when God gives you more freedom than you’ve ever had before, you have to figure out a whole new way to live in order to know what to do with it! I wrote in my last post that you can’t spend a whole month alone with God and not come back changed. I had no idea how right I was.
Of course, I wasn’t totally alone while on the retreat. I was blessed to part of a great group of faithful Catholics while on the retreat. We were 12 altogether (a very auspicious number): six young men studying for the priesthood, three lay women, and three priests. Two retreat directors divided us up between themselves and had individual sessions with us every day. That along with Mass were the only times we spoke while on retreat! My vocal chords got some exercise but I was still a little hoarse by the time we were able to talk again. I didn’t mind the silence, though. Another priest on the retreat said it well: “When you’re praying all day, you don’t mind the silence because you’re always talking to God. If I had to pray that much and make pleasantries with everyone else, then I’d go crazy!”
On a typical day, I’d get up for an hour of prayer around 6 AM. Then after breakfast, I would walk into the Old City of Jerusalem. The retreat house in which we were staying was only a twenty-minute walk from the Old City, and in thirty minutes I could be in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In forty minutes, I could be at the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed for the courage to face his suffering and death. The Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples was even closer than both of these holy sites. Every day was like a mini-pilgrimage. Praying in those places was like being steeped in the mystery of the Incarnation, entering more deeply into contemplation of all the Lord Jesus did and said, which in turn led to a greater awareness of all Jesus does and is for me here and now.
Then after my daily pilgrimage I would go back to the retreat house for Mass. After lunch and an early afternoon siesta (all this praying was hard work!), I would make another hour of prayer in one of the chapels in the retreat house. Right before dinner I would meet with my retreat director to talk about what had come up in my prayer, where the Lord might be inviting me to go deeper, and what I should pray around the next day. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, colloquially known as “the 30 day,” leads a retreatant through a meditation on the life of Christ with the goal of deepening the retreatant’s love of God and willingness to do the will of God no matter what the cost. My retreat director helped me sort out my thoughts, feelings, and desires as they came up in prayer so that I could more easily recognize the love of God for me. And that “for me” is important. St. Ignatius designed the Spiritual Exercises to help people embrace the particularity of God’s love. God loves each one of us, not as the abstract idea of “humanity” but as unique individuals. A lot of people can struggle accepting the infinite love of an infinite God, and I was no exception. I’m grateful my retreat director was there every step of the way to help me along. He celebrated the good things God was doing for me on the retreat, helped me endure periods of dryness when nothing seemed to be happening in prayer (“Tell me more about the nothing”), and helped me make the best confession of my entire life.
Dinner would follow my meeting with my retreat director, and I would make one more hour of prayer before going to bed. Those of you playing along at home will have counted only four hours of prayer and will remember I talked about some days having five hours. When did the fifth hour happen?
No, I’m not joking. Part of the Spiritual Exercises means getting up for an hour of prayer in the middle of the night. The idea of being at prayer during the night is a constant part of the Scriptures, especially the Psalms: “I think of you upon my bed, I remember you through the watches of the night” (Ps 63:6); “On the day of my distress I seek the Lord; by night my hands are stretched out unceasingly” (Ps 77:3); “Lord, the God of my salvation, I call out by day; at night I cry aloud in your presence” (Ps 88:2). Truth be told, I did more dozing than crying aloud during those midnight hours of prayer. I did find them helpful though, as it was also a good exercise of self-discipline, growing in a sense of healthy detachment from bodily pleasure, even sleep, and so be more attached to the love of God. Of course, the retreat directors were careful to check in with everyone to make sure this wasn’t an undue burden and to make it clear that if it was totally unfeasible there was nothing wrong with skipping it. Fortunately for me, we only observed those midnight hours of prayer for the middle two weeks of the retreat. Also, naps during the day became another way of experiencing the goodness of God.
Now I’m back in the regular swing of things, getting ready for the fall semester to start with all the activity that entails, and I’m glad for it. As much as I enjoyed thirty days of prayer and silence, I’m not called by God to live that way for my entire life. In fact, that silence allowed me to hear God confirm my vocation to the priesthood and my vocation within my vocation as a seminary professor. I’m approaching my coursework with more enthusiasm than before, and I’m more aware of my role as pastor for the seminarians. It may not be like the parish but my experience on retreat helped me to see how I can still be a spiritual father to the seminarians. There’s a newness and freshness to things that I haven’t felt since my first months of priesthood.
Again, I’m so grateful for all those who prayed for me during my 30 day retreat. Your charity and love got me through those midnight hours! Please know that I’ll be praying for you throughout the rest of August.