Strange as it may seem, each year a monastic community must make its own community retreat. The question arises, then – what is the purpose of a retreat when one already lives a life very much cut off from the usual hurly-burly of society?
In fact, the question of the retreat, of at least six days, is made specific in the Cistercian Constitutions as an addition to the norm on Mindfulness of God. Therefore, when we make a retreat we try to reclaim that space and practice which above all places God at the centre of all we do. During a retreat we seek to become present, as fully as we can, to the God who is always fully present to us.
Retreat above all is about awareness of God. The Swedish economist and diplomat, Dag Hammarskjöld, who was to become the second Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote movingly of his experience of awareness of God and his gradual response to this awareness:
I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was out. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
From that moment I have known what it means ‘not to look back’, and ‘to take no thought for the morrow’.
Led by the Aridane’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realised that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and the only elevation possible to man lies in the depth of humiliation. After that, the word ‘courage’ lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken away from me.
As I continued along the Way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels, stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross.Dag Hammarskjöld, Second Secretary General of the United Nations
One could do no better than make this the basis of a retreat! Hammarskjöld points out for us that a retreat is essentially a time of questioning, but not my bombarding God – rather, his gentle questioning about me and my relationship with him. During retreat, we shift gears down so that, with a slowness of spirit and heart we can listen again to Someone who calls us ceaselessly, but whom we have forgotten to answer.
Hammarskjöld can’t even remember answering! Something shifted inside him which didn’t result in the usual articulated response, but rather with a response made with his deep self, one which could not find expression in words, but, going beyond words, allowed himself, his very self, to be the reply. In some sense, a retreat is again about our doing this in God’s presence – my desire is that my whole self can be the only response possible to God. For this to happen, everything else, effectively, must be put on hold.
At some moment, self-gift becomes both an act on my part and a revelation on God’s part – as Hammarskjöld says, his existence becomes meaningful and his life, in this self-surrender, has a goal. For all of us we want this – a goal which sums us up and pulls together all the myriad paths and ways which seem to clutter our lives … Which is the one path which is marked out for me, the only path which I must follow? This opens up the question for us that retreat is often about discernment – the process of looking at the many options which seem to be before me, sorting them out bit by bit, until I come to that one which most perfectly expresses God’s will for me, and which I have no other option but to freely take. And this we should remember – God will not oblige us to act against our will, but his great desire is that I should bring my will into harmony with his. In that will lie my true happiness – or as the Gospels and the Book of Revelation call it, blessedness.
Each retreat invites us to consider that the Yes which we can give to God – and again, Hammarskjöld is perfectly aware of this – can be an eternal Yes. A Yes which not only changes me but, because it is always part of God’s creative Yes, changes history and creation. Each Yes, when it carries with it my whole and undivided self, does just this – it rings true as a melody in God’s never-ending symphony of sound. If we are intent on this, then we never look back – we never regret being part of God’s creative will and work.
The paradox of vocation seen in the course of a retreat is, then, perfectly laid out for us – triumph which is catastrophe, and catastrophe which is triumph. But this is following The Way. Here, Hammarskjöld points us into a very Benedictine path – we consider that our retreat is a re-focusing on the only Way possible, which is to follow Christ Jesus and become icons of him. The Way is probably the earliest expression which we have for the early Church’s experience of living the Gospel – in Acts of the Apostles the early Christians are described as those who follow the Way (Acts 19:23, for example). The Way, of course, is also Person – Christ Jesus himself, who is Way, Truth and Life (John 14:6). So a retreat is nothing if it is not about allowing myself to be accompanied once more by the only person who can show me a way, who can give me truth, and who can assure me of life, now and forever. To do, the retreat allows me opportunities to review how I have been doing this, and what needs to change if I am to reclaim this way of living.
Triumph and catastrophe place at the centre of the retreat my own relationship with that transforming word, the Cross. In a few days time, we will celebrate again the memorial event of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. The word, or vocabulary, of the cross contains the entire vocabulary of the salvific Christ event – it is the only hermeneutic which can give history and creation its perfect interpretation. And if it is so for history and creation, it is so for me also, a part of this history and creation which God holds in a single moment of being. St Paul again and again in his letters comes back to the great paradox of the cross – that the death and futility which we might associate with it are in fact life beyond human comprehension and utterly transformative and recreative. To hold such a thought while on retreat is to recall the greatness of God’s supreme gift to me in his Son, one which never loses its value. My response is to see if I can follow this crucified way by the complete giving of myself.
So, to go on retreat …. Not just for monks and nuns, but a necessary undertaking for all those who take the search for God seriously in their own lives. And in doing so – and these days of isolation and reflection might just be the perfect time for it – you may see and accept the true Way which God opens up for you and find the grace to give what will be an eternal Yes.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-