Or is it? Was I in reality before and now I’m in the midst of all of the facades and niceties that societal norms have created for us to hide from what is real?
For those of you that don’t know, I just returned from a silent retreat up in Dallas this weekend (The Adventure at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House), and it was intense to say the least.
First off, to explain the actual concept of a silent retreat itself, or at least as it is done in the program that I have taken part in, as the name implies, it is in a large part based on maintaining silence for about 3 days, give or take a few hours. However, it is not straight physical silence. At Mass times, singing and saying the Mass parts is encouraged, as well as during morning prayer. I took part in the choir, which required communication outside of the Mass time. During prayer conferences in level two, questions were welcomed. And the time spent with a spiritual director, naturally required a dialogue so that they could accurately assess where you are in your spiritual life, and what guidance they can provide you. And of course, there is limited interaction outside of all of these contexts because letting a door slam in someone’s face for the sake of being “silent” defeats the purpose of the retreat; hold the door open, it’s not going to negate the entire retreat to have that interaction.
However, it is about maintaining that inner silence and reserving yourself, your thoughts for God and God alone. As the spiritual directors said in their opening conference, “it is a privileged time;” a time for you and God to grow closer. And, especially with the large community-based emphasis on faith, especially in the Catholic bubble I’ve been immersed in, my personal prayer life and relationship with God has been seriously lacking.
But after this weekend, that isn’t quite so. This long of not interacting with people, of operating in solitude, it gave me time to bring God back to the forefront…put him at the top of my minifeed to put it in Facebook terms. The closest I can think of to an accurate description of the renewal of my prayer life is that it is like having lunch with a dear friend you haven’t seen in quite some time. You at some point were close enough, that you know each other well enough so that when you do get reunited, you pick up as though you never were apart. There’s the awkward period at the beginning when you’re making small talk to catch up with each other, but once you’ve gotten back into the swing of things, it’s like you never left. And it was one of the strangest, yet most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
One of the things that three days of silence gets you is time to work out your own issues. Yes, the retreat, which is a four-year cycle of four-day retreats based on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (if you don’t know much about St. Ignatius of Loyola, look him up. He was awesome, and I’m proud to call him my patron saint), has structured meditations in which you ideally take an hour to meditate, pray with a passage, colloquy with the Lord, and journal. However, what I liked about this retreat is that it takes into account what you bring to the table. Naturally, everyone has their own struggles, their own troubles that they will have been dealing with. As I read in an awesome book I’m in the middle of*, for each retreat, there should be one confront. In battle, there must be some enemy that you must plan how to attack, how to confront, if you’re going to retreat. Otherwise, what’s the point of retreating? In any case, I definitely had my fair share of struggles. None of which I will post here because it is a public forum, but if anyone is so curious, feel free and ask, and I’ll be more than willing to share.
In any case, my meditations for the part of the retreat I was taking part in largely focused on the ministry of Jesus Christ as a man and the interconnection between furthering your relationship with God and discernment, no matter how big or small the choice. And while I seem to have pretty clearly found my vocation, there have definitely been other areas of my life that require work. At the root of it all: fear.
So I have been a relatively timid individual thus far. While chronology and definitions of society would label me as a man, I hesitate to label myself as a boy or a man as I still feel as though I am in the transition state between the two, so individual it is. In any case, I have phobias, which by definition are relatively crippling. The first that I knew of but just recognized the extent of earlier this summer was a fear of heights, but more specifically, a fear of falling. This time it was a fear of the dark.
On Sunday, one of the spiritual directors for level two mentioned that a midnight meditation, while it had the possibility of leaving you dry, it had the potential to be a powerful experience. So I was like, I may as well give it a shot. But I was tired, so I decided to head to bed a little earlier and wake up well before daybreak. Which I did. But for some reason, I was drawn to return to my usual tree under which I did the majority of my meditations. Unfortunately for me, the tree was about 1/8 of a mile away from the main quadrangle along the 1/2 mile stretch of driveway leading back to the road. Normally, not so bad. BUT, this was 4am. It was dark. And the only lights were a few posts for the stations of the cross and the lights illuminating the statue of St. Francis Xavier, both of which were well before the actual tree itself. And the next source of light was another 1/8 of a mile or so up.
Once again, I HATE the dark. So having to walk into the darkness to get to my destination; quite the daunting task ahead of me. But for some reason, I kept having this itch to get out there, to do it. But instead I stood conflicted in my room for about an hour, and at 5am I finally decided that it was now or never and that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it. So I set out with my Bible and binder in one hand, and my flashlight in the other.
I took the paved driveway instead of my usual route along the treeline because it was all I could do to even get myself outside. I needed to take baby steps. I walked past the light provided by the stations of the cross. And I neared the statue of St. Francis Xavier, and I couldn’t even see into the darkness 50 yards in front of me into the familiar place where I spent a majority of this weekend. Then I remembered my penance from my reconciliation two nights prior: “Repeat ‘Jesus, I trust in you.'” So I took a deep breath, and started saying that mantra, hoping to God that I would say it enough times to believe it. I started quickly, but the more I repeated it, the more I slowed, and this sense of peace came over me. And then I started walking.
I made it to the tree, and absolutely nothing happened to me, save for the few mosquitoes trying to make breakfast out of me. And that was it. I sat for a few minutes chiding myself for being so scared of what turned out to be nothing. And then I started my meditation. Then day broke, and everything was lit up and brought back to life again.
Now, I tell this story, and (if anybody is actually reading this anyway) you are probably thinking, “You walked outside in the dark. You’re scared of the dark? Wow, you’re a wuss.” But once again, I have phobias stemming from a fear of the unknown and a fear of lack of control. Not being able to see what’s ahead of me because it’s dark fits the criteria for unknown.
In any case, the next two meditations I had hit me hard after that. The first being meditations on attachment, what holds you back from getting closer to God? What is it that given the choice between that or God would you have a hard time giving up? Then the next meditation assigned for later that morning was that of Jesus walking on the water. “‘You have so little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?'” When I read that passage, I was just like “Well. Crap. I don’t know why I doubted.” Coupled with the meditation I had earlier in the weekend that led me to the colloquy where when I asked “Why did you make me like this? Why am I in this situation?” I received an answer of “Because I thought you could handle it,” I was just like okay. I finally get it. I need to trust you to get me to where I’m going. And I received the most amazing grace I have ever felt in my entire life: freedom.
Now, all this being said, the “retreat high” needs to wear off a bit so I can accurately see where I stand in everything now. But as of now, I feel a strange sense of resolve and courage, and the odd desire for adventure. And now I truly feel as though “it’s time to draw [my] shield; it’s time to hold [my] sword”** and that I am now able to help lead some sort of resistance against the evil spirit.
As this post is already well over 1500 words, I will save detailing the rest of my experiences for another post later on this week, if not later on today.
* From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality by Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos
**The Time is Now by Phil Wickham