Lent is the annual retreat of the Church. For 40 days, the People of God go into the wilderness. They follow in the steps of their Lord and Saviour, Jesus. If we believe Saint Mark, he had no choice: the Spirit “pushed” him into the wilderness. Thirty years of hidden life and the mystical illumination of his baptism in the Jordan were apparently not enough to prepare him for his public ministry. A season in the desert was needed with its ingredients – those of any retreat: sobriety, solitude and silence; battle with the Enemy; guidance of the Spirit.
In my room
Because you have an important decision to make, or you feel called to reconsider the orientation of your life; because something in you needs to breathe a deeper breath, or you are in search of inner peace, light and guidance; or simply because you saw an advert, or someone one day invited you and you thought, “Why not?”, here you are, somewhere in some sort of countryside. You are given a room, a timetable, a book or two. Your host has just shut the door. You are left with yourself and, in an act of admirable courage, you have even managed to switch off your phone.
How strange to be alone. How frightening, maybe, to be cut off from the noises of city, family and media. How unfamiliar to stay for a few nights in a simple bedroom with a desk and nothing really yours around. For a few days, this will be your wilderness. Don’t be afraid. Embrace it, rather. Let yourself be drawn into it and led further on, beyond any well-known ground. A promise of encounter lies at the heart of this sober and silent solitude.
Encounter with yourself, first. Do not be surprised if all sorts of desires, frustrations and worries, a thirst for truth, peace and beauty, the need to love and to be loved, come up in your now inescapable inner world.
All these impressions and feelings happen in you. They are telling you something about yourself, but they are not you. Pass them through the sieve of your discernment. And then, let yourself be led further on your interior journey, to a truer self, probably a simpler and better one than you expected. You might come out of these few days better friends with yourself.
What about the encounter with God? You noticed the Bible put on your desk and you finally decided to open it. Well done! Here is a book that speaks to the heart – I mean: to your true self. These stories of creation and salvation, these judgments and these promises, are all for you. Someone is speaking to you. You realise you have been brought here to live from what comes from His mouth. You are addressed by God: “My daughter. My son.” He was the one who invited you, even if you thought the idea came from you.
Word and silence; room and chapel: you quickly learn to move peacefully between these poles of your new space. For the retreat is a space and a time in which God is newly given to you, and you to Him. Love itself has given you rendez-vous.
On the battlefield
Now, it is not all easy and smooth. You may feel drawn in all sorts of directions, not all of them pious and holy. It may be your sinful self with all its disorders, stubbornness and resistance, or the image of the holy man or woman the tempter is offering to your secret pride. Silence, Word and prayer will become your best allies. Of course, there is also the offer to “speak with someone” – a priest, the retreat giver, someone with a formation in accompaniment. On the battlefield, the soul finds healing by opening itself, by exposing one’s struggles to a fraternal soul – sometimes to a fatherly and sacramental presence in the sacrament of reconciliation. You may expect this person, whoever he or she is, to be a good listener, able to be a witness of what is happening in you, to show you a direction when you feel a bit lost, and to challenge you fraternally: “Have you thought of this passage in the Gospel? Why not spend a longer time adoring Jesus in the tabernacle? What conversion are you called to? Trust the presence of the Spirit in your heart. Discover Mary and the Church all around you.”
The most personal retreat should draw us into the heart of the Church: the community of the believers and the Saints. This wilderness has to become a haven of communion, otherwise it will end being the empty cave of a sterile self-contemplation. It should help you connect anew with the one life of Jesus in his mystical body. Your personal drama will thus be put into its greater context: the fight between darkness and light, won for ever by Jesus on the Cross, and shared with you by an army of brothers and sisters.
Styles and substance
There are many retreats on offer in many different styles. Spending a few days in the guest house of a monastery will give you the opportunity to share in the liturgical life of a community of women or men whose silent presence is a powerful witness of Christian life. In a retreat centre, you will benefit from talks and instructions providing you with truths to meditate on and an itinerary for your spiritual journey. In a personally accompanied retreat, especially in the Ignatian tradition, you will find a proper method of spiritual discernment, often tailored to your own needs, path and rhythm.
Forms vary a lot. The substance, though, remains the same: each retreat is an encounter with Christ and, more especially, an experience of the way He leads each of us, and His Church, through His Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus is always the main retreat giver, the inner preacher without whom the outer ones would be of no avail. The Comforter illumines and shows the ways to mercy. The Counsellor often inspires a conversion, suggests a direction, or supports a decision. Always, His work is recognised by an increase of peace in our heart. Impossible situations may remain impossible, my old weaknesses seem desperately incorrigible, but I have received a new light and a new strength. God has become a little more my God. I feel ready to walk a new stretch of my journey to Him. It does not really matter if others do not necessarily notice a big change.
Dom Xavier Perrin OSB is the Abbot of Quarr Abbey, Ryde
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