Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius was a great spiritual pilgrim, and his path to following Jesus is well documented in his Spiritual Exercises. I am grateful for so many people, men and women, lay and religious, Jesuit and others – who have been a part of my own spiritual pilgrimage – many of whom are connected to the Jesuits or Ignatian Spirituality.
Today also marks the anniversary of my completion of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in the form of a 30-day silent retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House. Last summer, I spent six weeks on the outskirts of Boston, and much of that time was with the Jesuits in Gloucester, MA. The day we “broke silence” for the final time was (aptly enough!) on their founder’s feast day – July 31.
I’ve not written much publicly about the experience, perhaps because it was so personal. A year later, I am still processing it all and still gleaning insights from that extended time in prayer. Furthermore, when the subject of silent retreat comes up in conversation, most people have pretty strong feelings about how they could NEVER do a silent retreat. As an introvert, I cannot think of any better way to experience God’s presence! Although it was a “silent” retreat, it was certainly not a “quiet” retreat. The more time I spend in silence, the more my interior life lights up, my conversations with God become more rich, and the insights more profound.
The introvert in me is also not sure how to put this entire experience into words, especially in one short blog entry (which in hindsight is now a very long entry!) But in honor of the great feast day, I thought I’d share a bit about my experience and give people a glimpse into the inner workings of a silent retreat.
One of my last days in Gloucester, I found a t-shirt at the Life is Good store that summarizes my time there. The slogan on the t-shirt read, “If You Never Get Lost, You Never Get Found”.
I know many people who have taken trips to exotic locations in order to “find themselves” – individuals who decide to cycle across the country, go hiking in the wilderness, or take a pilgrimage along holy routes. I have a friend who volunteered in Thailand for 18 months, and she came to many of the same spiritual insights that I discovered after 30 days at Gloucester. Some people intentionally decide to lose themselves in a great adventure in order to find their true selves. So, why did I sign up to spend a month in complete silence?
Well … I went on retreat, because I was lost. I was already lost. I didn’t fully realize it at the time (and who cares to admit this anyway?), but I had slowly taken a series of turns that were leading me down a path I no longer recognized.
I had been through a long season of growth and transition – a career change, graduate school, unexpected leadership challenges, two book projects, and a move. Although I had “arrived” at the place where my chosen vocation was leading me, it wasn’t what I expected and I no longer recognized the person I had become. On the outside it looked like I had it all together, but on the inside I was becoming jaded and quite unhappy. I began to sense the initial stages of burnout (I’ve been THERE before and didn’t want to go there again), so I knew something needed to change.
I desired to take some time away, hopefully to regain some confidence and clarity, so I decided to do something that was both familiar and comforting – a silent retreat. At the same time, I knew that 30 days would be a stretch and a big risk, which is exactly what I needed to find myself again.
Let me just pause here to say that silent retreats are not for the faint of heart. If you’re not accustomed to long periods of quiet time alone, I would strongly recommend that you begin small. Perhaps an hour of silence at home alone, and then maybe an afternoon of silence at a local church or retreat center. Then progress to a 3-day weekend of silence. The typical Ignatian retreat is an 8-day silent retreat, but even this can be a bit daunting at first. I completed several 8-day retreats before I even considered doing a full 30-days.
People often ask, what do you mean by silent? By silent, I mean you don’t talk! Meals are silent. Prayer time is silent. There are no speeches or witness talks. We don’t say hello when passing each other in the hallway (although, it is nice when people exchange smiles from time to time). We do however have Mass everyday, and Mass is … the Mass. We sing aloud, respond to the prayers, and exchange the sign of peace as one would normally do at the liturgy. The only speaking time is about 45 minutes a day with your designated spiritual director.
In the midst of complete silence, most people report feeling a deep sense of connection with others – a connection that extends beyond words. Being on retreat is holy ground and sacred time. It is palpable and profound when those around you honor the work God is doing by maintaining sacred silence. There is a deep connection that happens when we support one another simply by being in one another’s presence – or allowing another person the space he or she needs to be alone.
The beauty of silence often comes in what we are able to hear – the breaking of waves along the shore, the quiet rustle of a deer walking through the trees, the sound of one’s own breath. It was in the extended silence that I began to recognize the rhythm of my own train of thought. One of the greatest gifts of the 30-day retreat is learning to discern the myriad of voices that run through my mind. I now know the peaceful consolation of God’s voice, when my thoughts are in alignment with God’s will for my life. I also recognize more clearly the runaway train of fear and anxiety, which are often not my own, but the disruptive voice of evil.
Another misperception about silent retreats is that you pray on your hands and knees for 24 hours a day. One of the best pieces of advice, given to me by the spiritual director on my first 8-day retreat, was to create a schedule to give a sense of order to the day. Ignatius recommends 4-5 distinct prayer periods throughout the day each lasting 45 minutes to an hour. I like to get some physical exercise on retreat, too, so I always plan time for a run or long walk. Then once you build in time for meals and Mass (and perhaps a nice long nap), your day is complete.
And by “distinct prayer periods” I don’t mean a running stream of Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s – although that is a wonderful way to pray. Ignatius’ method of prayer is imaginative contemplation. The Spiritual Exercises are designed around a series of scripture reflections which are divided into four weeks. Each “week” of the exercises could last anywhere from 3-10 days. Over the course of 30 days, you pray your way through the entire life of Jesus, with many stops along the way.
WALKING THROUGH THE FOG
There are many stories I could tell about my time with Jesus and the intimate sharing in conversation about his life and mine. (I am quite serious in extending this invitation, if you want to hear more about my time with Jesus, let’s definitely grab coffee sometime!) I will share one profound moment of prayer and the resulting conversation with my spiritual director that happened around Day 10 of the retreat.
Prior to retreat, I felt like the stress of all those life transitions had left me “paralyzed” and disconnected from the real me. I found great comfort in praying with the story of the paralytic and began to feel a deep sense of healing and connection to Jesus. Just as a break through seemed immanent, I had a really difficult night of prayer. Many of the old wounds resurfaced, and I found myself re-living much of the pain and disappointment that accompanied the transition. That night on retreat was not unlike some of the more painful moments during the transition itself – nights when I cried myself to sleep and awoke the next morning still wiping the tears from my eyes.
Ironically, I woke up that morning to find a thick gray cloud of fog had rolled over the retreat house. The fog that enveloped the property was indicative of the heaviness that weighed on my heart. I fumbled my way through my morning routine – praying the liturgy of the hours, eating a bit of breakfast, catching up on some journal writing. The dining room at Eastern Point overlooks the grassy back yard and the adjacent cove which extends into the expansive Atlantic Ocean. I would normally sit there for long stretches enjoying an extra cup of tea. That morning, I could barely see past the windows. But as I sat at the breakfast table with journal in hand, I uncovered a few insights related to the transition that were not obvious in the dark of night. As I walked over to meet with my spiritual director, the fog had lifted enough that I could almost see the water.
Fr. Joe and I met each morning after breakfast, in a little reflection room that overlooked the ocean. We talked through this heavy burden that weighed on my heart. He and I were both confounded by its force. The previous day, I was feeling so comforted by the story of the paralytic. Fr. Joe and I talked at length about what was getting in the way of my truly accepting the gift of God’s healing.
As I talked with Fr. Joe about the conversation I’d had with Jesus in prayer, there was an incredible moment of clarity. As Fr. Joe and I touched on the breakthrough I’d been searching for, the strangest thing happened. I could sense the clouds beginning to part and the sun growing brighter outside. Then, in one of those spectacularly placed moments, a stream of light burst through the window, sunlight filled the room, and illuminated the space on the floor between us. (It all sounds very surreal and made-for-TV-movie special, but it really did happen!)
There were many moments of divine affirmation on retreat, but none quite this visceral.
NAMING THE GRACES
There were many graces (and challenges!) that accompanied my experience of the Spiritual Exercises. Although, one does not return from the 30-day retreat a completely different person. As I learned from another Jesuit friend this past summer, the success of a retreat is measured by the fruits that come to bear after the retreat. My 30-days at Eastern Point did not magically fix everything that was broken; there was still a lot of work to be done. One of my friends said it best though when he said, “Something has changed. You are the same Beth, but your heart is different.”
Jesus had truly softened my heart after being hardened by years of transition and in response to many changes that were beyond my control. I experienced many layers of healing and forgiveness and a genuine desire to extend that forgiveness to others.
I’m more willing to trust the slow work of God. I also know that God will never stop loving us. Even when we do our best to thwart God’s love or reject God’s gifts, God continues to pour out his goodness upon us.
Spending the summer on the East coast also helped me rediscover a love for adventure, an appreciation for lingering in coffee shops and antique stores, and a desire to “put out into deep water” as my vocation continues to unfold.
Surprisingly, I’m still in the same place – geographically and career wise. But I feel like I’m here with greater clarity of purpose. Which reminds me of another moment in prayer, much earlier in the retreat, and long before finding that t-shirt in the Life is Good store.
I had been reading sections of Mark’s gospel, and I recall saying to Jesus in prayer, “You sure spent a lot of time with the sick and crazy ones!”
I don’t exactly like sick people.
And Jesus’ response was clear, “I know, Beth. You do much better with the lost.”