The Practice of the Monthly Retreat Day

We have already seen in our lectio divina that it was Jesus’ practice to go away, frequently, from the crowds and from the disciples to make space and time to pray alone.  Perhaps this is best conveyed to us in Mark’s Gospel (1:35):

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.  

For most monastic houses, and certainly for Cistercian communities, the practice of setting aside one day in the month – a retreat day – when special attention is given to the basics of our life is accepted as part of the monastic schedule. As with all men and women, monastics can become lazy about observance of the fundamentals which form the core practices, and so it’s good to be able to re-organise, even on a very simple level, from time to time.  In a sense, when we keep a retreat day we set ourselves to retrieve and reclaim the tools which may have become a little rusty through misuse or forgetfulness.  Of course, by making space and time we also commit ourselves to close imitation of Christ who made sure that, whatever else he was doing, prayer, silence and solitude always found place in his routine.

For some communities there is room for individual monastics to withdraw from their communities for a day – usually called a ‘desert’ day or ‘hermit’ day.  They use the day in whatever way is profitable to them and their spiritual life – it may be as simple as slowing down and leaving aside routine and the burden of tasks for a day spent in quietness, the monk and God alone.  In one sense, it’s a moment to draw breath because life, for anyone, can become a breathless experience which can leave us behind and trying to catch up.

For our community in Portglenone the retreat day happens on the first Sunday of each month.  It is, as you will know, a day set aside from the usual work, to be observed as a day of rest.  On the retreat day we try to reclaim aspects of our life and centre these in making a greater claim on silence.  For the monk, silence is an ascetical practice – in other words, it is a discipline which teaches us and trains us.  This, essentially, is what ascesis is – the Greek word from which it comes – askesis – means the training which an athlete undertakes to enter as fully as possible into the games.  This is an image which is familiar to us – St Paul often speaks about the games which the Christian must undertake, the race which is being run, the prize which we aim for as a token of our victory, the stadium where the games take place (see, for example, I Thessalonians 2:19; Philippians 2:16-18 and 3:12-14; Galatians 2:2 and 5:7; I Corinthians 9:24-26; 2Timothy 2:5 and 4:7).  He wants us to be ready for the arduous task of what it takes to be a Christian – in his day and in our day – and to do so we must be sure that we are training hard and preparing ourselves, in the entirety of our being.

So, silence becomes a context in which interior work can take place.  For the monastic in the monastery this is easier than if one is living in the world, so to speak.  The atmosphere of a monastery, and the understanding which individual monastics have of their lives, should predispose us to a greater respect for one’s own silence and the silence which is due to another.  This silence is not, of course, merely external.  Probably the greater work has to do with reclaiming interior silence, the quieting of the disruptive voices, emotions and thoughts which clamour for our usual attention, and which cloud our minds and hearts.  To begin to reduce that noise level may be work enough for a retreat day! 

Such reclaiming of silence may take the form of less interaction with mobile devices, laptops, internet, virtual community.  For this to happen we need to decide what will be put in its place – what will help me restore the silence so that God’s silent voice can accompany me?  It might be good to begin this by reading and reflecting upon Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain – I Kings 19:9-14

We would like to suggest that you begin, with us, to make the first Sunday of each month a retreat day.  It doesn’t have to be a dramatic withdrawal from everything that is familiar, but perhaps a very simple change of habits for the day, so that you slow down, become a little more still and silent, and allow God to do a little work within you.

The day can begin as early as you wish.  Perhaps it is good to let those with whom you live that you are going to dedicate the day to this practice – perhaps they might, in their own way, wish to join you.  Set a timetable which allows you to see what is coming next.

Begin the day with prayer after you rise.  It might be the Morning Prayer which is part of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.  Perhaps it is the slow and quiet reading of the readings which are to be used at Mass that day.  If you can, make this a preparation for joining in an online celebration of the Eucharist, probably at some time mid-morning.

Sunday, because it always stands as the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection, is always kept as a feast of sorts.  So, we do not fast ordinarily.  Perhaps this retreat day is a day when you can celebrate a common meal with your family or those others with whom you live.  The shared meal is, after all, a time of special community formation, and we remind ourselves that Christ frequently accepted the invitation to dine with others and transformed the gift of food into the gift of himself.  St Benedict in his Rule sees the ‘liturgy’ of the common table almost as a parallel to the liturgy of prayer in the oratory and places great emphasis on how the community share in it – Christ is present at both, and the community is made more concrete in both. If you live alone, take time to prepare, enjoy, thank God.

Some reading should be undertaken during the course of the day.  This retreat Sunday is special for two reasons – it is, in the first instance, Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocation Sunday, and so is a day when we pray particularly for vocations to the priestly and religious life.  So, we would recommend that you spend time thinking about and praying for these vocations, and, following on our own week of prayer, keep in mind specifically vocations to our community in Portglenone.  Perhaps, in that regard, you could read the articles posted in the vocation section of our blog and use them as a source of personal reflection and prayer for yourself.  They try to lead us into a space where we can reflect on the meaning of vocation in our own lives, how it becomes a path for the discernment of self, and a time to learn from the vocation stories that we find in Sacred Scripture.  Or read Christ’s own great comment in John 10, his own meditation on his being shepherd.  Or perhaps read the passage on the shepherds in the prophet Ezekiel 34:11-16, asking that God send good shepherds to guide his people and support them and nourish them.  In this regard, read again the Risen Christ’s invitation to Peter in John 21:15-19.

In the second instance, this Sunday is also the first Sunday in May, a month which, for Catholics, is one of special devotion to Mary, the Mother of God.  Pope Francis has offered a letter to us for May, including in it two beautiful prayers which you might use to invite Mary to be part of this retreat day.  It can be found here:

In a particular way we ask you to place the Cistercian-Trappist Order, all our monasteries, and Portglenone especially, in our Lady’s care this May.  Cistercians have always held Mary in very high regard, as Mother of God and also as the one who most completely renounces all she is and has to become her Son’s greatest disciple and living out God’s request of her to become Mother of His Son.  All our monasteries are placed beneath her patronage, and the illustration accompanying today’s post shows monks and nuns of our Order beneath the protection of Mary’s mantle. Pope Francis has recommended that we try to reclaim the practice of saying the Rosary this May, so, at some stage during this retreat Sunday you might say the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, calling to mind those events which marked the period following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, in which the Paschal mystery was completed and the Church was born:

  1. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
  2. The Ascension of Jesus to Heaven
  3. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  4. The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
  5. Mary is Crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth

In doing so you also ask Mary to guide you into deeper contemplation of the mysteries of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

If you can, try to begin a journal this retreat Sunday to note down any thoughts or lines or words which come to you or that you wish to note in your reading through the day.  Such note taking, which need not be very detailed, can help to allow a thought or prayer or word from Scripture take root in our memory so that we can recall it again later.

End your retreat Sunday by praying Vespers sometime in the early evening.  Bring to it a spirit of thanksgiving, of petition and of peace, if you can, for the time which you have taken and which God has shared with you today.

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