A Gift From God – Silent Retreat During Pandemic

Annual silent retreats have been a wonderful break from the world for me for the past 5 or 6 years now.  It was an invitation from a fellow parishioner that got me to my first one at Manresa and I’ve been hooked ever since.  I thought I would have a difficult time being unplugged and silent for a whole weekend, but it turns out I took to it like a duck to water.  Now I feel bereft if I don’t have that recharge the batteries time with God in silence. 

With the pandemic everything has been moved online, including our annual Carmelite retreat that took place in October.  Fr Nicholas Blackwell, O.Carm., did a great job of providing us with a wonderful retreat online via Zoom.  But in my basement office I could hear the family constantly overhead on a busy Saturday so it wasn’t quite the same quiet environment! 

My mom asked if I wanted to go to the Manresa women’s retreat in November.  I didn’t realize they were still running their retreats so I called and got all the information as to how they were running them and keeping all the participants safe.  I was very impressed.  So, I put our names down and we were placed on a waiting list as the retreat was already full.  After that, I left it in God’s hands.  If He wanted us there, we would be there.  If not, it was not His will for us. 

The day before the retreat started I received a phone call; Manresa had just received two cancellations and would my mom and I be joining them!  I was thrilled. After phone calls to husband and mom and coordinating pick up times for carpooling, we confirmed our spots.  We arrived at Manresa in good time for the start of the retreat the next evening.  Everything ran very smoothly; the staff had put a lot of thought and care into running the retreat safely. 

It was another reminder that there are no coincidences with God! 

I remembered my Formation Director’s advice to make sure I’m always studying or learning Carmelite spirituality so I had packed Thomas Dubay’s “Fire Within” book all about St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and the Gospel on prayer.  It’s a heavy read and I had already attempted it before becoming a Lay Carmelite.  I figured with a year of formation under my belt maybe it would make more sense to me!   The retreat theme was “Silent Music, Encountering God in Silence” and was run by Fr. Scott Lewis, SJ.  I thought I would attend the first talk, and if it wasn’t hitting the right notes from a Carmelite perspective I would spend the weekend reading my book, walking the grounds and praying.  I should have known better.  I have found on these weekends that somehow, someway, God orchestrates everything just perfectly.  It turned out Fr. Scott’s talks were mostly about contemplation and based heavily on St. John of the Cross.  He had even named the retreat after one of St. John of the Cross’ writings:

My beloved is the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous gales;
The tranquil night
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love.

The lessons I was learning from reading “Fire Within” seemed perfectly in tune with the talks Fr. Scott gave and even what I learned during confession with Fr. Henk that Saturday evening.  God always gives me a theme that I need to be aware of on these weekends and it’s usually a blind spot or something He wants me to focus on more closely.  Here’s some examples of how intertwined the talks and my personal reading were:

From Fire Within: “..God will give everything just as soon as we give up everything.”

Fr. Scott: “practice of silence is the practice of letting go and losing control”; “we’re afraid of silence because we’re afraid of loss of control and you lose yourself – be willing to learn a new language.”

From Fire Within: “…people are given what we may call a being-drawn-to-God, a quiet leaving of worldly things, a desire for solitude within Him ‘a call so gentle that even they can hardly recognize it’.  They are at times ‘within the castle before they have begun to think of God at all’, and He gives an understanding of divine things unattainable by human reasonings.  The Lord gives an awareness ‘ which holds its attention and makes it marvel.’  It is a quiet attention that the recipient cannot attain by his own efforts.”

Fr. Scott: “attentive alertness”, “silence is attention, not just the absence of speech”

Just a few samples of how it seemed to me the whole retreat blended seamlessly from the talks, to the reading material I had brought with me, to the “epiphanies” experienced during contemplation that were reinforced by other experiences throughout the weekend.  The entire weekend was a beautiful gift from God and I thank Him so much for His bounty.  It was another reminder that there are no coincidences with God! He gives good things to all His children.  We just need to listen in silence and He will show us what He has done for us.   

Carmelite Saints During Times of Persecution

Image of one of two cathedrals in Santiago, Chile that were set fire to on October 18, 2020 © AFP / Pablo Cozzaglio

With the spate of violence against Christianity recently, particularly against Catholic churches, it appears we’re in the midst of an upsurge of Christian persecution in the western world. Throughout Christian history there have been many periods of persecution. We have several amazing examples of how Carmelites have responded during times of persecution. The themes in the examples below is a wonderful roadmap for all Carmelites to follow and to ponder in our current times:

Forgiveness: our Carmelite saints forgave their persecutors wholeheartedly
Offering: they made themselves and their suffering as an offering for others
Calm acceptance: they accepted their fate as the will of God and found peace and joy in doing the will of God
Prayer: they prayed for others even in the midst of their trials, especially praying for those persecuting them

Love will always be victorious. The one who loves can do everything.

The Martyrs of Compiegne
During and after the French Revolution the Catholic Church was persecuted mercilessly. The revolutionary government passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 which made it illegal to live a religious life. In 1792, all women’s monasteries were ordered closed. The Carmelite nuns were forced to leave the monastery and live in the community. However, they continued to follow their Carmelite community life spread out amongst four separate apartments, wearing civilian clothing. The Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, had by this point already “suggested to the community that they commit themselves to martyrdom, and offer themselves as a sacrifice for France and for the French Church.” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martyrs_of_Compi%C3%A8gne ) The Reign of Terror began in 1794 and the Carmelites were arrested on June 22nd, and tried and executed by guillotine on July 17th. They were transported through the streets of Paris for 2 hours, during which time they sang hymns such as Salve Regina. None of the sisters showed fear and they forgave their guards. Each sister asked permission to die from the prioress and kissed a statue of the Virgin Mary before mounting the steps and they each died while singing Psalm 117, “Laudate Dominum. The oldest sister, 78-year-old Sr. Mary of Jesus Crucified was heard to say “I forgive you, my friends. I forgive you with all that longing of heart with which I would that God forgive me!”

Ten days after the martyrdom of the 16 Carmelites, the Reign of Terror ended. Mother Teresa of St. Augustine’s axiom “Love will always be victorious. The one who loves can do everything” came to fruition.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
Born in France in 1880, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity entered Carmel in 1901 in Dijon. The French government was still very much anti-Catholic and the persecutions continued. Catholic education was outlawed and Church property was being confiscated. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s Carmelite community prepared for the worst by making plans to move to Belgium under cover in civilian clothes if need be. Elizabeth wrote to her mother asking her to send her the pattern she used to make skirts, writing “Our Reverend Mother must have told you that because of recent events we are taking a few precautionary measures in case we should have to leave our dear cloister”. Elizabeth shared the following in a letter to her aunts: “Thank (God) for having called your little Elizabeth to Carmel for the persecution; I do not know what awaits us, and this perspective of having to suffer because I am His delights my soul. I love my dear cloister so much, and sometimes I have wondered if I don’t love this dear little cell too much, where it is good to be “alone with the Alone.” Perhaps one day He will ask me to sacrifice it. I am ready to follow Him everywhere, and my soul will say with St. Paul: ‘Who will separate me from the love of Christ?’ I have within me a solitude where He dwells, and nothing can take that away from me!” (L 162)

Blessed Titus Brandsma
Blessed Titus Brandsma was arrested and martyred for speaking out against the Nazi ideology in German-occupied Holland in 1942. He remained calm, peaceable and forgiving throughout his ordeal, which included being subjected to medical experimentation at Dachau before being lethally injected in July 1942. While in prison he was requested by the Gestapo to write a paper on why the Dutch people, especially the Catholic people, rejected National Socialism. Titus held no ill-will against the German people and wrote at the end of his letter “God bless the Netherlands. God bless Germany. God grant, that both nations will once again stand next to each other in total freedom, in recognition of him and for the sake of his glory, for the salvation and blossoming of such closely allied people.” He would often ask his fellow prisoners to pray for their captors. When one fellow Dutch prison complained, and asked how they could be expected to pray for the Nazis, Titus responded “You don’t have to pray for them the whole day! The good Lord will be happy with one prayer”.

Come, we are going for our people.

St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
St. Edith Stein, the patron saint of Europe, was a Jewish German who converted to Catholicism as an adult. Although she wanted to become a Carmelite, she was instead persuaded to utilize her talents as an educator (she had a Doctorate in Philosophy). She was forced to leave teaching in 1933 due to German laws against Jews and was able to enter the Carmelite convent in Cologne and took the name of Sister Teresa Benedict of the Cross. In 1938, Germany intensified its persecution of the Jews and St. Edith found refuge at the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland. However, in 1942, in retaliation against the Dutch bishops who had openly condemned the Nazi treatment of Dutch Jews, all Jewish converts to Catholicism were rounded up from convents and monasteries in Holland and deported. Edith and her sister Rosa were sent to Auschwitz where they were gassed on August 9, 1942. Her last words heard in Echt were to her sister Rosa, “Come, we are going for our people.”
She had written the following three years earlier: “Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death…so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.” Even earlier, in 1930, she wrote the prophetic words “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.

An eyewitness account of her demeanour while in prison and transported to Auschwitz is as follows:
Among the prisoners who were brought in on 5 August, Sr. Benedicta stood out on account of her great calmness and composure. The distress in the barracks and the stir caused by the new arrivals was indescribable. Sr. Benedicta was just like an angel, going around among the women, comforting them, helping them, and calming them. Many of the mothers were near to distraction; they had not bothered about their children the whole day long, but just sat brooding in dumb despair. Sr. Benedicta took care of the little children, washed and combed them, looked after their feeding and their other needs. During the whole of her stay there, she was so busy washing and cleaning as acts of loving kindness that everyone was astonished.”

Our Carmelite saints show us the way to respond in times of persecution. Forgiveness, offering of ourselves, prayer, and calm acceptance can only come from a deep and abiding love of God and neighbour.

Since man’s life on earth is a time of trial, and all who would live devotedly in Christ must undergo persecution, and the devil your foe is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for prey to devour, you must use every care to clothe yourselves in God’s armour so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy’s ambush. Rule of Saint Albert, Chapter 18





The Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne