My first retreat as a seminarian

Well, I went on a retreat last week. It was a different retreat than I’ve ever been on before. This was a preached retreat, but, other than the preaching itself (and Mass, Office, etc), the retreat was in silence. So I was basically in silence from Tuesday evening until Saturday night. That was a challenge at many points, but it was also illuminating. It proved a wonderful transition into the deeper spiritual life of the seminary. In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts and a few excerpts from my journal on the retreat. It may be a bit disjointed. I’m not sure there’s an elegant way to weave all of them together without wasting piles of space trying to artificially link things together.

As a little groundwork, the retreat was preached by the retired archbishop of the Diocese of New Orleans, Archbishop Alfred Hughes. Incidentally, I was excited that he was willing to take me on for spiritual direction for my time in formation, so that will be both a gift and, I’m sure, a challenge. You have heard me talk of him before; he is the archbishop who I met in the kitchen getting coffee. His theme or outline for the sessions and flow of the retreat was an assertion from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux that the Christian journey is the search for a triple truth: that of God, self, and others. In this triple truth, we are led to different things. As we learn the truth of (notice, not about) God, we are led to contemplation. As we learn the truth of ourselves, we are led to humility. As we learn the truth of others, we are lead to agape, or a true Christian love.

I am going to break up my journal excerpts based on the “truth” from which they sprung. Before I start, though, there was one quote that the archbishop shared in the opening session that I would like to share:

“The virtue of a person is made manifest by temptation.” I must admit that I did not catch the name of the Abbot who was the source of this quote. However, it is a truth that we must always keep in mind. A person cannot truly be virtuous until they are tempted to break that virtue that they wish to claim.

The Truth of God

“Prayer is primarily an act of love.” – Abp. Hughes

“Prayer has much more to do with communion than communication.” -Abp. Hughes
This particular quote struck me quite hard because it is such a departure from what I have taught in ministry for so long. I have told my kids for years that prayer is about them talking to God. It’s about them communicating. It’s important for us to remember that that is only one level of spiritual growth. That communication is the first step, but the real goal is communion – a meeting and knowing of God. The goal of the communication part of prayer is to draw closer to God, and, in the end, to allow that act of love to take place.

The archbishop shared some of his experiences from when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans (it was during his time as the Archbishop of New Orleans). He shared something that proves another important change of mind for me. As I have been in ministry, when a problem occurs or when one of my kids has a crisis, a part of me always wants to do something or fix something or make it right. The archbishop shared the following:
“When we are present in any human tragedy pastorally, the most important thing is presence, not what we say or do, but presence, showing that God is present and that He cares.”
This was important for me to hear because recently I had been asked to visit the hospital to pray and spend some time with the family of one of my kids whose grandmother was in her last days. I spent the entire time I was in the hospital trying to think of and say and do the right thing. When I left the hospital, I was sure I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do there. It occurs to me that the “right” thing to do was just to be there and to love.

I spent some time the first morning of the retreat in Lectio Divina, and, from the options offered by the archbishop, I prayed Psalm 63. Specifically, I landed for a time on the sixth verse then returned to the whole psalm. The sixth verse reads, ” My soul shall savor the rich banquet of your praise.” The following are some thoughts I wrote in my journal while praying this passage.

Do I find joy – something to savor- in my acts of praise and worship?

Thinking back, it seems that I rarely find something to savor. I go through the motions, and, in my head, I believe in them, but there doesn’t feel like there is anything there for me to savor. Once in a while, God grants me that small consolation. It even happened this week (well last week) at the Mass for the lay ministers for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. As I prepared for and received communion, I was drawn a closeness to my kids I left behind in Florida. For the first time that phrase from Danielle Rose that Emma picked up, “I’ll see you in the Eucharist” held real meaning for in my experience (beyond an intellectual understanding).

As I think of the rest of the psalm, I wonder if the writer was a bit in the same boat. He is expressing a desire in his heart for God to be close to him. He is not claiming that he feels that closeness. Instead, he declares his trust in God to care for him and deliver him. These are certainly different from consolation in the heart. The former requires assent of the intellect; the latter requires a heart stirring only for God.

The next morning, Archbishop Hughes shared a few comments that were stirred by the previous nights discussion before we went on to talking about the truth of self and, in discussing that, our own vocations. Here are those three observations. They were quite helpful for me.

  1. Don’t expect prolonged spiritual events. They will come in small moments. Rejoice in those moments.
  2. God usually talks to us through graced insights, not so much theophanies. Those insights may happen at any time, not just prayer time proper.
  3. At the end of prayer time, always express something back to the Lord from your heart. Here, bring your prayer session to an act of love. That is the goal of any time of prayer. This particular one was poignant to me because I was asking the archbishop how to handle dozing off in prayer and a wandering mind. He said that, while we have to keep trying and not get discouraged in our prayer, God also knows what we are going through at any time, and He knows our challenges. We must just offer up our good and bad prayer times alike to God in love.

The Truth of Self

In talking about vocations, the archbishop said that his reaction to hearing Luke 9:25, and I paraphrase, “What profit is there for a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” The archbishop added the thought that “If it is that important to save our own soul, what a great grace to help others save theirs.”

The truth about ourselves is the true deeper self that God sees and loves and wants to call out from sin, whether personal sin or original sin. We tend to either focus on sin instead of the deep us that God sees and that is infinitely lovable or we deny sin and, thereby, deny our need for a savior and a relationship with God. We must know our sinful and fallen nature. We must know that we have sinned. However, at the same time, we must know that God can, will, and does forgive that sin, and that He loves us, anyway. We must accept that love – that truth of us that God created us and loves us.

To be continued in the next entry. There, I will share my thoughts from the session preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

One Reply to “My first retreat as a seminarian”

  1. Life’s a lot different now. It’s not about everybody else… it’s about finding your true self and watching God lead you to where you are truly supposed to be. That’s something very special Joe. Sometimes I know that may be why we aren’t very quiet very often, because we have to look within ourselves. 😉 I joke, but sometimes, its scary for me. I’m taking this journey with you. Looking inside myself too. Thank you for your thoughts and reflections and helping me along the way. (see, sometimes you don’t know the difference you’re making, just living and being and doing the things you need to do for you, help out others along the way.) Love you.

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