May 18, 2011

My First Retreat


The first retreat I ever made was in a Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, California.  This part of the Central Coast is bathed in a rugged wild beauty.  Though the hermitage is high above the ocean, I remember, if you listened carefully at night, you could hear the surf beating against the rocks far below.  It was like the heartbeat of God.  In fact, the whole experience was very soothing even if as a teenager I found the silence difficult to maintain.

A high school freshman invited to join a group of college students - all of whom were interested in prayer - I had no idea what graces were in store for me.  Having grown up in a household of seven brothers with lots of guests and relatives coming in and out, long hours of silence seemed so exotic I could not imagine what it would be like.  Something was drawing me.  A silent retreat with an invitation to punctuate our solitude by joining the hermits for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the enchanting memories of those couple days all those years ago stirs something deep within me even now.   

I spent most of my time reading and trying to listen to the Lord.  In a blanket of beautiful silence, I discovered that prayer was not easy and that the God to whom I pledged my life was much more mysterious and awesome than I could ever understand.  I wanted a spiritual experience, but the Lord gave me something much more important.

I did not fully realize it at the time, but He gently set before me an invitation to begin to pray.  The pathway of prayer which began to unfold on that retreat is not one trod by following feelings or our own thoughts or what we produce by our imagination - even if along the way we do feel, and think and imagine many beautiful things.  An impression was made in my heart that prayer was not about a state of consciousness or any other psychological achievement - even if along the way all kinds of transforming and purifying moments can overtake our psychological faculties.  

What I began to understand is that the pathway of prayer is followed by cleaving to the Word made flesh in faith.  It is fired, not by experiences that please us, but rather by the holy desire to please the Lord.  Such a desire inevitably ignites in the heart that realizes how much it is loved first by Him.  Pondering the love of God is dangerous - you never know when the truth about this love might pierce into deep places you did not even know were there.  

There are those who spend a lifetime availing themselves to just such moments.  Those souls yearn to do something beautiful for God - and feel the need to make all kinds of heroic resolutions, taking up the most difficult work without ever counting the cost.  Overwhelmed by the unsurpassed love that flows from an ongoing conversation with the Lord, they would not have it any other way.