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.   

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