As the question denotes, a monastic retreat is associated with a monastery and for our purposes a retreat from the world and a time away for the sake of one’s spiritual life. There are many monastic orders in the Church that follow their own specific charisma, ordinarily established by the founder of the order or monastery.
Mine began as a teenager in the first seminary I attended back in 1952. I left the seminary in 1963. But thirty-nine years later I entered another seminary and was ordained a Catholic priest in 2006. The first seminary of the order I joined, the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, on many levels incorporated into its life a monastic style but was not a monastery. It many ways, my life as seminarian at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Russell County, Alabama, was actively involved the work of missionaries. Its monastic practices were for me a place of rest and quiet insight. For many people this “rest” is widely misunderstood as a kind of dream state.
After completing four years of high school and two years of college in the seminary, I entered its novitiate. For all intents and purposes for an entire year I lived like a classic medieval monk, in my case quietly working on a dairy farm. That all began earlier when I was fourteen in my first year at the seminary. I would sit in the chapel before morning prayer and Mass and meditate for fifteen minutes everyday. I had learned then how to move easily from quiet contemplation to purposeful activity. The dairy farm in Pennsylvania, converted into a novitiate, was a world away from the nearest city of Binghamton, New York, and where quiet contemplation was the mainstay of religious novices. The novitiate could just as well have been New York, London or Calcutta.
We have all heard as Catholics that we are made of bodies and souls, but unless we expend some significant effort and time in caring for our souls then our souls become orphans. Between the two, body and soul, without some concerted effort the body will always have its way. It will always respond more quickly to any human stimuli before the soul can even begin to engage itself in logic and grace. We may theoretically associate our lives with our souls but carry on our lives oblivious to the prompting of our souls.
As a freshman sitting in the chapel of Saint Joseph’s seminary at 5:15 in the morning I was told, be quiet and meditate. Think of what I thought? In time I learned to listen at first to the silence. As the exercise continued morning after morning I began to hear things ( I was not delusional ). My soul was speaking. Before long it became a habit, a continuing conversation and a place to return to after the activity of the day before. I was meditating.
None of my conversations had to do with my activities the day before, the week or the years ahead. Much of this I can not put into words. Sometimes these experiences defy human language. Saint Paul once described them as “groans.” (Roman 8:23 ). The Prophet Elijah’s conversation with God also comes to mind when he was told to find a place to hide from his enemies and God would then give him some new instructions:
“Go out,” he responded, “and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord.” And there was the Lord, passing by! A tremendous, mighty windstorm was tearing at the mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces in the presence of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the windstorm. After the wind there came an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there came fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of a gentle whisper. As soon as Elijah heard it, he covered his face in his mantle, went outside, and stood at the entrance to the cave. And there a voice spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Every time I read this passage I smile and nearly laugh. Elijah follows God’s instructions, hides in a cave on a mountain and God later asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (?)
Elijah was waiting for some dramatic response from God in a windstorm, an earthquake or a fire. In his confusion Elijah then detects someone whispering, covers his face and sticks his head outside the cave where God speaks to him.
We know, too, that the chosen people whom Moses was leading out of Egypt were “hard hearted” had assumed the worldly habits of their Egyptian masters and when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments for the people to obey – God knew he could only impress upon the people the seriousness of his commandments by frightening them with a windstorm, earthquake, and fiery rings round Mount Sinai before they would accept his commandments. (Exodus 19:16–20:19). And it worked for a while.
Forty days alone by themselves, however, they reverted back to their Egyptian pagan ways making and worshiping a golden calf. God nearly killed them except for Moses’ intervention. (Exodus 32:1-14).
The three day spiritual retreat I will be giving for those who are serious about their souls’ welfare will be conducted in silence except when we meet for instructions and discussions. No cell phones, television or other worldly distractions. Time to engage our souls when God whispers.
Of all the prayers in the Bible half of the 150 Psalms explicitly record the conversations of a soul with the Lord (God) which are half, again, of all the references of the soul’s conversations with God in all of Sacred Scripture. The Psalms are the heart of the Office of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church which every priest and consecrated religious are obliged to pray daily. Those who come to our retreat will be asked to pray and study daily the Psalms in the content of the Divine Office, an integral part of the retreat.