Dear Members of the Fellowship of Saint John and other Friends,
When people first come to know our community, they are often surprised to discover that we Brothers – who gather to pray five times a day, every day – also go on retreat! “Don’t you already pray all day?” they ask. Of course it’s more complicated than that, which is one of the reasons that even monks need to set aside times for retreat. As a community, we take a yearly retreat every summer, as well as a retreat day each month. And individual Brothers have further times of retreat throughout the year.
Now I’ll confess that, depending on how I feel, I tend to use our annual retreat time for a number of different purposes. Sometimes it’s an occasion simply to catch up on my sleep or my reading. Other years I’ll use the retreat to spend significant periods of time in the garden. Yet what sustains me in the weeks or months that follow our retreat is not what I have accomplished, but who I have come to know.
I remember one evening after supper sitting in the Chapel. We had gathered to spend some time in prayer before the Sacrament and in the midst of our silence we could hear the chorus of birds singing as dusk fell. I remember being in awe as the song of the birds gave voice to the song of creation as it joined with us in praising the Creator.
I remember Sister Rosemary SLG inviting us one year to experiment with praying in the middle of the night. I got up at 2 am and made myself some hot chocolate. I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat in the rocker. I then had an incredible hour of prayer as I held before God all those who were in any danger at that very moment. I had the physical and emotional experience of literally standing between people and danger, of being their intercessor in the fullest meaning of that word.
I remember gathering one morning in the Chapel for the Eucharist and being overwhelmed by an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the gathered community; for “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). As I sat in my Brothers’ presence, I was deeply aware of the presence of Jesus, not simply in our midst, but embodied in my Brothers.
Retreat times sustain me for weeks and months – and sometimes even years afterwards – because of the memory of the One I encountered. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson puts it this way: “in the retreat you want the real surrender of your soul with all the affections of the heart to God” (Instructions on the Religious Life, 2). Surrender to God rekindles our love for God and renews our experience of God’s love for us. This surrender is the heart of retreat. “We have meditated well if in our meditation we have loved much” (3).
Retreat is a time to become lost in love with God. We hope this issue of Cowley will invite you to consider how God might be calling you to explore a time of retreat. Throughout these pages, Brothers share different approaches to retreat, as well as ideas for ways to weave retreat into our lives and daily routines. Whether we come away with God for a week or an hour, we know that when we truly look and listen for God, God will indeed reveal himself to us, for “none ever come unto God and are sent away empty. None come to God ever without receiving far more than they spend. Only come to Him, wait upon Him, look to Him, listen for Him, rejoice in Him. Put away everything else which can stand in the way of His being the simple joy of your heart” (9).
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Koester SSJE