The Beauty of Holiness
The Holiness of Beauty
Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Beauty is not a veneer. Beauty is not entertainment, nor a lovely distraction, nor the domain of the privileged. Beauty is essential for life. Beauty is of the essence of God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). The worship life of the church is infused and informed by beauty mediated through all of our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). In the Genesis creation account, God creates, and then God observes that it is all very good. In the fullness of time, when God takes on human form in Jesus, we experience the reclaiming of the original blessing in creation. It is good, very good.
Beauty is infinitely evocative. Beauty belongs to an ancient triad called the “transcendentals,” gateways through which all of creation both reveals and knows God. The transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. Goodness relates to the will; truth, to the mind; beauty, to the heart, feelings, and imagination. The transcendentals are attributes of God and, therefore, of God’s creation. Beauty, truth, and goodness infuse one another, and each is a portal to God. We have been created in the image of God. Thereby, what is most important is not what we may say about God, but what God’s creation says about God. We have been created “to participate in the being that flows from God, and to manifest God’s beauty in the depths of our nature” (David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite,” in Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa, 112).
Beauty speaks to and through our senses and transfigures our mind, because beauty is magnificently ordered. Beauty teems with harmony, rhythm, the splendor of shape and form, evocative meaning, sometimes eliciting our enchantment and wonder, always connecting us with something More, its Creator. Beauty rightly liberates us from the narrow confines of our rational minds. The great Swiss priest and scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), spoke of the “theological aesthetic”: to perceive through holy people and holy images the objective glory of divinely revealed truth. Creation matters.
In our experience of beauty, we are enveloped in the signs of God’s magnificent presence among us, God’s immanence. Simultaneously, we are pointed onward to the attraction of God’s glory, God’s transcendence: God, from whom and in whom all has been created. Beauty envelopes us with its Source. Panentheism describes this. Not pantheism: everything is God. But rather, panentheism: everything is in God. All of creation is iconic: a window through which to know, reverence, and worship God. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, recalls the elder monk, Zosima, telling the youngest Karamazov son, Alyosha, that creation is “an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part … the world a mirror of infinite beauty … beautiful as in the beginning of days.”
Beauty attracts, sometimes very powerfully. We can be smitten by what we find beautiful. However if we worship what we find beautiful – that is, if we give ultimate worth to what we find beautiful – we will be disappointed, and we may get lost. Beauty, to be experienced most wholly and freely, needs to be experienced in the context of its Source. What we find beautiful is participating in the glory of the Creator. We, as creatures, have been given the inspiration to be makers or re-makers of beauty (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, 48). Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish friar and priest, writes of this longing for the beautiful, whose beginning and end is in God. In life, what we are first attracted to are God’s creatures, and they say, “‘What you are looking for is not here, but God has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.’ What attracts us in creatures is something of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts” (Cantico Espiritual, can. 4 & 5). What we find beautiful is always a participant, a creature, not the Creator.
Beauty can be a very powerful channel for healing. When life has been ravaged by pain or loss, by disorder or distress, by chaos or fear, the experience of beauty can be a very balming, calming, re-ordering channel for re-righting our soul. On occasion I will be invited to listen to someone speak about the distress and debris of life that is infecting their soul. Their experience of life is death-dealing, and they are disconsolate. For these dear, suffering souls I am not inclined to suggest a tough spiritual exercise. I more often send them to a museum, to a flower shop, to a concert, to a delicious meal, to a wildlife park, to a pool of water, to a playground to watch children, to a forest or mountain. It’s to reacquaint them with what they’ve forgotten, what may have been lost or stolen from them: that amidst life’s sometimes appalling suffering, chaos, and death, life teems with beauty. Beauty is so weighty; the experience of beauty will very powerfully rebalance the fulcrum of our life. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), said: “A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you find beautiful? Beauty is worth attending to; you are worth attending to beauty.
The Anglican theological tradition is sacramental, that is, we recognize outward signs in creation as channels of God’s inner work of grace. How splendid it is to order our prayer and worship with a generous splay of beauty. Very gracious. The psalmist sings to us: “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9). Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative. Beauty is worthy of our attention as we order both our corporate and personal prayer. Beauty may be a very large instrument in our lifelong conversion to Christ. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Beauty is of the essence of God, in whose image we have been created. Pray your life beholding the beauty of God that surrounds you and fills you.
Br. Curtis Almquist
for everyday living
Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
in the architecture
WHY CHURCHES MATTER
Two summers ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in Oxford, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road, where SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church – the pipe organ, the stained glass, the altar and reredos, the arches – it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did not talk much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word “angel,” meaning a bearer of good news. While my mother didn’t speak about angels, she certainly seemed devoted to them. Upon entering my parent’s home, the first thing you would notice would be two curios filled with angels. There were cherubs, angels with trumpets, boy angels, girl angels, cupids, as well as a rather menacing angel standing on the head of a dragon-like creature with his sword in its mouth. In my adult life, I would come to know that this was the Archangel Michael, whose name means “Who Is Like God?” In Revelation, Michael defeats the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9).
The angels of Scripture are as varied as those in my mother’s curio cabinet. Angels bear all sorts of different vocations. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”) is a messenger: he visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after, an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. The sky fills with angels praising and worshipping God, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:26-38; 2:8-14). There are also angels who minister: after Jesus is tempted in the desert, the devil leaves him and angels come to serve him (Matthew 4:1-11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays in anguish about what is about to happen to him, and an angel of the Lord appears to him and gives him strength (Luke 22:39-43). In the book of Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael (whose name means “The Healing of God”) who restores Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:7-9). All angels have a specific vocation and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout the pages of scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered anew about the angels lining the walls of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage. Who were these angels in the architecture, and what was their mission? Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit our monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will notice many angels straight away. Angels throng the great Rose window at the back of the church in a vibrant vision of Heaven. Below the Rose window, where the Nativity is portrayed, angels gaze adoringly at the holy child. In the Lady Chapel, the lancet windows portray the mysteries of the Rosary, beginning with the depiction of the Annunciation and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. When the light streams through these windows, all these angels shine forth in brilliant array, witnessing to the glory of God.
What about the angels we cannot see? One of my favorite scriptural encounters with an angel features Jacob. He contends all night with a mysterious figure whom some traditions have called an angel. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has struggled with God. Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God”: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Our monastery church, like Peniel, is a holy place because it is a place of encounter. The angel who wrestled Jacob greets us every time we enter the worship space, every time we prepare to encounter God.
In a subtle yet very real way, every church has angels beyond those carved in wood or illuminated in stained glass. The architecture itself acts as angels do: sharing messages which enlighten our prayer and worship of God.
Take what happens as soon as you enter the monastery church. To enter it you must ascend a small staircase and go through a door into the narthex. However, that is not where your journey ends. Once there, you must turn ninety degrees to your left and go through a second doorway in order to enter the church. This detail might be lost on us initially, but it actually is intentional: all those who enter the monastery church must undergo a “conversion” experience. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere, which literally means to turn around. To enter the church you must physically turn, in order to cross a threshold, into holy space.
A passerby on Memorial Drive might venture in, curiosity piqued as to what is inside this gothic-style building. Others experience a conscious yearning to know God. These seekers or pilgrims are not wandering randomly, but rather are following the desire of their hearts, which is mysteriously moving towards the source of all holy desire: into the heart of God. The building itself thus hints at the conversion God invites, as we give up any semblance of control and are turned – sometimes even pushed – in a direction that we would not normally go in order to enter. Simply to enter the sanctuary, we have already turned and converted – perhaps unaware that we have just encountered an angel in the architecture.
A few years ago, a small group of school children, led by their teachers, made their way into the church. One of the children asked a Brother in quiet amazement, “How do you do that!?” He replied, “What do you mean?” She whispered, “How do you make it so quiet?!”
In the profound silence of the church, our eyes are drawn upward toward the light, as we follow the shape of the arches pointing to the saints depicted in the clerestory windows. The silence invites us to listen intently. In our Rule of Life, we say that in silence, “we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” In the silence of this sanctuary, we join the angelic hosts in the ennobling act of prayer, as we seek to deepen our relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. In silence, we, finite creatures, seek the infinite.
The architecture of the monastery church depicts this intersection of finitude and infinite, chronos and kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time: the way that we, as finite beings, delineate time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. Chonos greets us in how the rounded arches at the back of the church – in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries) – give way to pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries), in the Quire on the other side of the gate. This journey through chronos points and leads to the altar, which is a place of kairos: God’s time, the critical moment that holds all of eternity. Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
The altar is the focus of our sanctuary, as it is of all sanctuaries. In our church, the high altar is adorned with an unusual architectural feature: a baldacchino, a canopy arching high above. Here, another angel in the architecture points us to the deeper mystery of God taking place before our eyes.
The baldacchino forms a cube through four pillars, representing the earth with its four directions. These pillars support the canopy, which is topped with a dome representing heaven. Connecting heaven and earth – and protecting a stone altar beneath – the baldacchino recalls another story earlier in Genesis where Jacob falls asleep, using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven, with angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19). In John’s gospel, Jesus recalls this story from Genesis, identifying himself as the stone altar, the place where heaven and earth meet: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:47-51).
Upon the altar, heaven and earth are joined, and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine (which become to us flesh and blood), descending with the angels and bringing us with him up to heaven. Each time we consume this bread and wine, we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness to which we have been called, becoming one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:11-14).
This passage from Revelation gives me chills, because this is what we do here in this monastery church every day: worship God, bestowing on Him blessing and honor and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices is sometimes nowhere near angelic; but we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator. In this, we mirror God, who gazes in reverence on the Creation and yearns for us to know God as God knows us. Our love and praise are mutual. We offer them in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.” With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is a sanctifying act. The word “sanctify” has the same root as the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. These roots imbue the word “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, in the shared experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings, and we give it to God in sacrifice, asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully God’s. In the same sermon, Newman goes on to say: “To be holy is … to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.” In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
A pew card at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley near Oxford, describes the meaning and purpose of its church building: “With the passing of the centuries there have been inevitable changes, but there have been no drastic alterations to the basic plan of the building, nor to its function. It exists to praise God. And for worship, sacred ritual and teaching. It is a sacramental reminder to the identity of those who gather inside it each day.”
Our churches are angels – angels, made of architecture – which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels – both the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven – as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary to others. We lift up our voices with them, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community as the Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and has a keen interest in craft beer.
Retreat: Cowley Magazine - Spring 2019
“What framework might open your heart to God’s revelation at this season in your life?”
In this Monastic Wisdom reflection on “Retreat,” three Brothers share their vision for how to shape a retreat experience in order to “enter more fully into the divine life.”
“Retreat is a time to become lost in love with God.”
Br. James Koester introduces the issue’s theme of retreat and shares recent news of the community’s life.
“I know that God has a plan for our time together, but I don’t always know what it is. ”
FSJ Member Mac Murray shares how transformative his regular practice retreat-taking has been.
“Your retreat will be an answer to prayer, an answer to God’s prayer for you. ”
Br. Curtis Almquist explains why a retreat is not an advance, but rather a chance to recollect life with gratitude.
“Retreat is much more than going away and it does not require going far away. Start small.”
Br. Luke Ditewig suggests how we can experience the gifts of retreat at home.
“Whenever your life gives opportunity for leisure, dare to be spontaneous, even silly.”
Have you embraced your calling to the “priesthood of leisure”? Br. Jonathan Maury celebrates the importance of weaving recreation into daily life.
“Retreat, at heart, is simply about making ourselves available to God.”
A practical, four-page guide on crafting a retreat day invites us to collaborate with God.
God has already whetted your desire or awakened your awareness of your need for a retreat day. What is God’s invitation to you? Prayer is always a response to God’s initiative, and retreat is the same. Retreat, at heart, is simply about making ourselves available to God.
This guide invites you to cooperate with God as you plan your retreat time. Less is more. We hope the suggestions in these pages will set the stage, so that you can receive God’s gift of love in a time of retreat.
the current longing of your soul
Don’t frontload your retreat day with “guilt appeasement”: catching up on overdue correspondence, organizing your closet, reading the stack of books that is gathering dust. Don’t have your electronic gadgetry close at hand. (Take a digital sabbath!) Keep a “Not for Now” pad of paper at hand, on which you can make a cryptic list of the niggling thoughts and reminders that surface on your retreat day… things to which you will attend after your retreat day.
Do get current with the longing of your soul.
- From what do you need freedom? Perhaps from fear, despair, anger, jealousy, loneliness, discouragement, grief, overwhelmedness …
- What do you crave? Perhaps hope, forgiveness, peace, love, light, compassion, wisdom, encouragement, joy…
Your retreat won’t be about everything. It will be about something which has caught your heart’s attention. God is behind that.
setting the stage
Where can you be still and silent?
What setting will be re-creative for your soul? An inside space, or outside space, or both?
What “accompaniment” do you need? Perhaps:
- music, a window, a candle, an icon
- a comfortable chair, a prayer cushion, a kneeler
- a Bible, a book of poetry or meditation, a journal
- food and drink (enough, but not too much)
- a place to rest; a place for physical exercise
- gentle re-creative activity (e.g., drawing or painting, sewing or beading, photographing, playing a musical instrument)
What is necessary and helpful?
a loose schedule
When will your retreat day begin and when will it end? How will it begin and end?
The entire day will offer you space to “pray your life”; however you might find it helpful to demarcate three specific times in the day, each for about an hour, when you will be especially focused in your prayer. You know your own “biorhythms.” When are you most attentive between the early morning until the evening? The bright times will be the right times for you to be intentional in your prayer.
getting ready to pray
To begin, you want to come into a clearing, as best as possible. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, when asked if he spent much time in prayer said, “No.” But, he said, he spent a great deal of time “getting ready to pray.” How to prepare? Use the preparatory practice that is meaningful to you, or, if you are out of practice:
- You might find it helpful to use your breathing as respiratory therapy for your soul. Breathe out what is in the way. In a word, repeatedly name the “blockage” with each exhalation. Breathe in the elixir. In a word, breathe in what is healing, or helpful, or hopeful. Do this repeatedly with each inhalation.
You might get in touch with more than one thing that is in the way, and more than one thing that will help you get on the way. Breathe your prayer.
How long? Long enough.
- You might find it helpful to prepare with a passage or scene from the Bible, or with some poetry that helps you recollect your life in God’s presence. For example:
“I waited patiently upon the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.” (Psalm 40:1-2)
- What do you need to be lifted out of?
- What do you need to be lifted into?
“Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Psalm 85:10-11)
- God already knows the truth about you, and about others. Name the truth God already knows.
- And ask for mercy:
God’s gift of mercy for you.
God’s gift of mercy for some other person whom you carry in your soul.
receiving the gift
Prayer is a gift. If you are out of practice, or if you have lost your way, here are two suggestions.
- Pray your gratitude. Being thankful to God is Eucharistic, absolutely transformative. Being grateful for your life will help you pick up the scent on the trail of life.
- Don’t do all the talking. The psalmist says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Prayer is our relationship with God, at God’s initiative, and God has something for you. Listen up. All of your preparation to pray may simply leave you in a clearing where you can listen. Listen up.
collecting the day
At the end of each prayer session, “collect” the grace of your prayer. What did you say; what did you hear? What did you receive; from what were you relieved? In the Gospel according to John, after the feeding of the multitude, Jesus says to his disciples, “Gather up the fragments that nothing be lost.” Gather up the graces. You might find it helpful, at the close of each prayer time, to write what is clear to you: your questions or answers, the gifts you’ve been given or the help you need, the next step to take.
Finally, at the end of the day, collect and pray your gratitude for your day and for your life. The psalmist asks, rhetorically, “How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?” (Psalm 116:10). Start and end with gratitude.
In the first creation story told in the Book of Genesis, God’s spirit broods over the waters of chaos and speaks the universe into being, “Let there be light” — the first day of God’s creating work. Over a succession of five days, God continues creating — dry land, the dome of the heavens, winged birds, earthly creatures, and humankind — and blessing everything that God has brought into being, pronouncing it all “very good.”
Then comes the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” After much creative labor, God takes “a day off,” simply to enjoy the fruits of this work and delight in all that creativity. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Though enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Sabbath – a weekly day of rest – the rhythm of activity and leisure, creation and recreation, remains as countercultural in our present moment as it was in the world of our ancestors in faith. We live in a culture of doing, driven by a mindset that has accustomed many of us to deriving our sense of self from what we do, finding worth only in our work and its tangible gains. Small wonder then that, as a culture, we feel compelled to work almost constantly!
Yet relentless work distances us ever further, not only from the mystery we call ‘God’ — the One who rested on the seventh day — but also from the persons we are created to be, ever reflecting God’s image and likeness. In a chapter of our Rule of Life entitled “Rest and Recreation,” we recognize “the hallowing of rest and the keeping of sabbath” as “an essential element in our covenant with God.” Similarly, Chapter 29, on “Retreat” reminds of the “opportunity to experience the intimacy we have with God in our union with Christ,” as we rest in retreat, and allow “exercise and gentle recreative activities in solitude [to] help us be open to the Spirit.”
Lest, however, we turn taking leisure into yet another task, we do well to remember also Jesus’ parable of the good and trustworthy servant, who is commended, on the completion of much work, “Well done ... now enter into the joy of your master.” These words signal for me a mysterious truth: rest and joy are linked. They are complementary graces; they reveal to us the stream of divine love always running beneath the surface of our lives.
As we grow into who we are made to be, God stirs in us what I would call a vocation as “priests of leisure.” Leisure time can be as sacred as prayer: both invite us to pause and reflect on all the gifts we have received — and, even more importantly, the gift that we ourselves are. Resting from our labors as God did, we rejoice with God, who from the beginning has delighted in us.
Growing up on Nantucket Island, I had some very memorable encounters with God as I spent leisure time outdoors. On long solitary bike rides to the seashore, freshwater ponds, and saltwater marshes or walking on the autumn moors, simply gazing on the created beauty around me, I felt pervaded by a strong sense of peace, connectedness and gratitude. I came to recognize these re-creation times as acts of worship, complementary to the profound experience of liturgy in church.
Perhaps it was this rhythm that drew me to monastic life, for it still holds true for me today. In our community, we schedule annual times of vacation as well as retreat; and over the years, I’ve come to experience these two forms of leisure as occupying a single continuum. How often have I struggled to “work” my intentional time of retreat, only to find that the very gifts of reflection and connection I desired were graciously given to me during an itinerary-less vacation!
The title of Thomas Green, S.J.’s introduction to Ignatian retreats, A Vacation with the Lord, serves to remind me of the wisdom of Jesus’ promise in the Gospel according to Matthew, “Come to me…and I will give you rest and refresh your souls.” And I find it to be valid whether I’m headed to a retreat center or a vacation spot.
Our times of leisure need not be lengthy to be transformative. We can take up the “priesthood of leisure” during a week’s vacation, a weekly day of rest, or even an afternoon break. However long you have, risk appearing foolish and being playful with the time. As a culture, we are often as serious about recreation as we are about work. Playfulness puts us back in touch with our bodies and feeling selves, so that we’re not constantly analyzing with the mind, but simply experiencing in wonder. Play can restore in us the integrity of how God has made us —mind, body, and spirit.
The Book of Genesis preserves two folkloric creation stories, each illuminating the other’s vision of God. I find the second story pleasingly playful. In this rather anthropomorphic telling, God is portrayed as childlike, in the “cosmic sandbox,” forming humanity out the mud and breathing life into the “earth-being.” God created the universe to play in and companions for sharing the divine delight.
Whenever your life gives opportunity for leisure, dare to be spontaneous, even silly. Play a round of miniature golf and don’t mind if you lose. Take a vacation from analyzing and striving. Join in a raucous pillow fight! Literally or figuratively, work a lump of clay or take a handful of sand and make like God: breathe some life into it. And then, be sure to sit back and simply delight in all that you have done and all that you are — just as God does.
Br. Jonathan Maury
Retreat at Home
Taking a retreat does not necessarily mean going off to a monastery. Retreat can happen nearby, including at home. The core of creating retreat is setting aside normal work and routines in order to focus on personal prayer. Create retreat for yourself with a few hours, a day, or a few nights.
We Brothers create one day of retreat a month for ourselves at the Monastery. Since corporate prayer is our central work, Brothers pray together less on our retreat days. We reduce our schedule by not praying Morning Prayer or Compline together. Most of us sleep in and go to bed early. We do not host guests. Though we do have a Eucharist and Evening Prayer, no one preaches, and we spend the whole day – meals, dishes, and otherwise – in silence in order to honor and not interrupt one another’s prayer.
To create your own retreat at home: what would it take for you schedule a day off from most of your usual routine and instead focus on personal prayer? What would you reduce? To what extent, in what space or during what time could you be uninterrupted? How could you cultivate silence?
The first gift of retreat is often sleep. What would it take to go to bed early, to let yourself sleep in, and to take a nap? I call these three “the retreat trinity.” After receiving these, when our body is refreshed, we are more able to hear what God is speaking.
While retreat can happen anywhere, it may be easier or more helpful for you to get away, as home can be so distracting. Consider going to a park, a botanical garden, a forest, or a beach. Stroll and wonder at beauty. Stop to gaze and listen. What kind of places invite you to listen, to pray, to connect with God? It might not be outdoors, and it might not be quiet and away from people. Perhaps go to an art museum, a library, or a church.
When guests come to the Monastery, some stay inside, some walk along the river, and some walk the quiet streets nearby. Others enjoy the bustle of Harvard Square. One of my friends who enjoys silence also feels drawn to God when beholding the diversity of people in the city. Perhaps, like him, you may feel drawn to pray in a coffee shop or walking city streets with lots of people.
If you are able to go away somewhere for a night or more, wonderful. This is like a vacation, a reconnection, a restoration, an intervention with God. You might go solo, or you might go with a friend (if you do, choose if and when to talk and share some time together). Turn off your devices. Do one thing at a time. Savor food. This will help you slow down and pay attention.
Retreat can even be something to share with those with whom you live. What might it be like to cultivate silence together at home for an afternoon or for a day? Perhaps you could choose to not talk, not listen to music, not watch devices, and yet still be together. Build a fire, do your own reading, journaling, gazing, and praying. Then reflect later about your experiences and share what you’re grateful for. I know some housemates who tried this for a season. They doubted the idea but found it doable and refreshing. This practice might be as regular as a weekly Sabbath or a monthly or quarterly retreat.
We claim times of retreat, above all, in the hopes of setting aside more time for personal prayer. In our Monastery, each Brother generally sets three periods for personal prayer along with recreative activities like walks and gentle exercise. Four times a year, our monthly retreat day focuses on fasting and intercession. We fast throughout the day and, in the afternoon, take a turn of an hour in intercession before the reserved Sacrament at our side altar in the St. John’s Chapel. On your own retreat, pray as you already do, in whatever form is already familiar: with or without words, eyes open or closed, standing, sitting, kneeling, in another shape, or moving. Set a few times to pray through the day. Do what you know. And try something different.
If you have been on retreat at the Monastery or away elsewhere, what was most meaningful to you? What are one or two aspects of that experience you could choose to recreate for yourself?
Retreat, and any particular retreat, may take many forms and locations. How to begin? First, consider places nearby, even in your own residence:
- What spaces calm and refresh you?
- What activities help you slow down, rest, and listen?
- Where do you feel safe and secure?
- What invites you to encounter and struggle with God?
- What setting prompts thinking deeply?
The space you choose need not be far away. What’s more important is choosing to stop and spend time in those spaces. Stop and breathe. Stop and listen. Stop and pray.
Then, as you craft your retreat time, consider what you will stop, and what will help you to stop. What would support you in putting aside your daily work and routines in order to focus on prayer? How would companionship help or hinder you either in the planning, provision, or experience of the retreat?
Retreat is much more than going away and it does not require going far away. Start small. Try and try again. May you be creative and intentional as you choose time and space for retreat. You have what you need, and you are worth it. God waits with delight to be with you, to refresh and deepen you.
Br. Luke Ditewig
A Retreat Is Not an Advance: Why We Retreat & What To Anticipate
A retreat is not an advance. For much of life we are on the advance as we anticipate, investigate, instigate, navigate what is ahead. A retreat is moving in mostly the opposite direction. A retreat is a time to recover, restore, redeem, renew what has been spent or lost in life. If you only live life on the advance, you will completely miss the perspective you glean by looking back on your life. Your retreat experience will give you gratitude for the past, clarity and strength for the present, and hope for the future.
For many people, life is navigated at a pace which may blur their being able to see clearly what is going on. Sometimes what is happening in your life is so close to you, you cannot make sense of it. It’s blocked. Only by retreat, by stepping back, can you find perspective and clarity. The psalmist calls this experience “being lifted up.” Or you may have passed through a period of suffering. It is very difficult to see clearly through pain and tears. We want to escape from suffering. And yet, there may be something important to redeem from what is otherwise only pain or loss. Something incredibly good may be claimed from what was undeniably bad. The significance of something lost on you is now found. Until an experience is remembered – until life is remembered – it’s not a complete experience, because life looks very different looking ahead than it does when you look back and see it from behind. What even may have seemed a black hole at the time may well prove to be a goldmine, in the fullness of time. A retreat is an invitation to get on good speaking terms with the whole of your life, for “the eyes of your heart to be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18).
A retreat is also a graceful time to look and listen deeply into life. Entering a monastic setting, you will come into a place of silence, sanctuary, and sustenance:
Silence, where you can be still and listen deeply to your life, where God is meeting you, leading you, healing you, nourishing you. The psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Sanctuary, where you feel safe, where you can let down your guard. Who you are, what you are, why it is you are the way you are, God knows and God loves. A retreat is often a breakthrough. Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German Dominican, said that “the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love”
Sustenance, where you are fed deeply. The psalmist speaks of our hungering and thirsting after God; Jesus speaks of his “food that will last.” Soul food. And yet, Jesus went to many dinner parties and also knew that people are hungry for real food. A retreat time will help assuage your hungers.
A retreat also affords time for a reckoning with life. Life is a gift, and it will make a world of difference to you if you live your life as a gift, rather than as a given. Take nothing for granted; rather, live your life in gratitude. A retreat will offer you space to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” to recollect how your life teems with blessing (Psalm 34:8).
I am not suggesting you should sugarcoat an experience of life that is bad; however I am saying that claiming gratitude for so much that is so good in your life will be a significant counterweight on the scale of your life. Gratitude will rebalance your life. The psalmist speaks of this as “the sacrifice of thanksgiving,” where you have the time and perspective to name, claim, and offer your gratitude to God for the wonder of life that God has shared with you. (The psalmist speaks of “the sacrifice of thanksgiving” in Psalm 50:14 & 24; 107:22; 116:15). Gratitude transforms life from the inside out. Make your retreat time a sacrifice of thanksgiving as you reckon with your life.
Will your retreat time be difficult? Maybe. The clarity gleaned in retreat may be comforting; the clarity may also be confronting, exposing you to a spiritual trial. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we acknowledge there may be an emptiness in retreat time that “may compel us to face the painful signs of our need for healing that it was easier to overlook during our usual routines. So our retreat times will be opportunities to strive against everything that would discourage us from radical dependence on the love of God” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”).
Will your retreat time change you? Yes and no. Much of what you leave behind at your home and work will still be waiting for you, unchanged, upon your return from retreat. However your retreat will help you garner perspective and strength to do some old things in new ways. Think of the captain of a ship going to sea. In the course of the journey, the captain will need to adjust the ship’s course multiple times. It’s not likely that the captain will make radical, 180° course adjustments; more typical is the adjustment of the course by a fraction of a degree. Those slight adjustments will make all the difference, and will ultimately bring the ship to different port of call. A retreat will be a significant help to get you on course (or back on course) in life. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we speak of this as “lifelong conversion.”
What should you bring with you on retreat? Bring with you your emptiness, your ache, whatever fills, overjoys, or breaks your heart. Bring your questions. Bring your desire. Bring your exhaustion and your need. God is already powerfully at work within you “to accomplish abundantly far more than all [you] can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Minimize whatever will likely prove distracting. Don’t bring a satchel of books or work projects. Consider taking a sabbatical from your electronic gadgetry: email, social media, mobile phone. Bring a notebook to log what is catching your heart’s attention. You may want to bring walking shoes or exercise clothing to enjoy movement and the beauty of God’s creation. You may want to bring something for gentle recreation in solitude: sewing, drawing, painting, photography.
God has already caught your attention. Take Jesus at his word that he is with you until the end: the end of your retreat, the end for which God has created you, the end of your life. Your retreat will be an answer to prayer, an answer to God’s prayer for you.
Br. Curtis Almquist
Letter from the FSJ: Mac Murray
We all have busy lives. Twenty-five years ago, living in Reston, Virginia, I was a corporate executive for one of the largest aerospace companies in the U.S. Between 80-hour workweeks and a full family life (married with two children), I was looking for an opportunity to hit the reset button. Through the recommendation of my new spiritual director, I was fortunate to discover SSJE. My first experience was a week-long retreat led by Br. Curtis. I didn’t know what to expect, but I discovered a new world as I entered the gate of the Monastery Guesthouse: a place of quiet, a place of refreshment, a place to rest from the busyness of life. It became my practice to venture back to Cambridge on an annual basis for a ‘booster shot.’ I may have originally thought of my retreat times as an escape mechanism, but what I discovered was that the gift of retreat – a gift I gave myself – was actually teaching me how to live a more complete, more centered life.
Over the succeeding years, I left the corporate world, attended seminary, and was ordained a priest. I continued my annual retreats at the Monastery while working at my first parish in Virginia. When I was called to my current parish in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, I included in my letter of agreement the parish’s support for a monthly retreat. The practice of retreat has become essential to my ministry and to my life.
When I walk through the gate and enter the Guesthouse garden, I feel a weight being lifted from my shoulders. I am entering a new space, a space that has been prepared for me, a space in which I can relax and let go of whatever I’m carrying, a space that will renew and refresh me. I know that God has a plan for our time together, but I don’t always know what it is. Retreat opens space for this loving encounter.
Sometimes I am conscious of bringing a serious concern with me, such as a difficult relationship or a burning question like, ‘Why is it so difficult for people to work together?’ In the silence of the retreat, I can process my strong emotions and contemplate the options before me. But more often than not, I come without any specific expectations, other than to open myself to the work of the Spirit.
There are many ways to enter into a retreat. Sometimes I head for the Guesthouse library and select a book – usually the mystics or poetry – which can serve as the starting place for my meditations. As I read I listen to what I’m feeling, what I’m hearing, what I’m being drawn to pray about. At other times I make use of the art materials SSJE provides: I paint with watercolors or create clay figures or assemble pictures into a collage. There is something about moving into this different side of me – a side that is rarely accessed – that opens a window into the wonder and mystery of life and inspires worship. In every retreat I fold myself into the Community’s worship. The rhythm of the Daily Office and the Eucharist provides a helpful structure for retreat. I often find myself in the Chapel a full hour before worship, just to sit in silence and to listen to where God might be calling me. Even though I am an over-the-top “E” (extrovert) on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I find these rich times of silence feed my soul.
A few years ago I discovered Emery House. Wow! I now intentionally alternate my retreat times between the Monastery and Emery House. They offer two very different environments and invite two very different kinds of experience. When at the Monastery, I rarely venture out. I find myself burrowing in, soaking in the comfort of a safe and hidden place. At Emery House, I find time for long walks on the property or in nearby Maudsley State Park. I take time to sit and ponder, in wonder, the beauty of the created order, noticing particularly the small details of life around me which I so often miss in my busyness. Sometimes I take advantage of volunteer opportunities around the Emery House grounds. Some of my most memorable spiritual experiences in retreat have come through engaging with the land.
Retreats, of course, eventually come to an end. The time comes for me to step out of the place in which I have been held and nurtured in order to pick up again the call to hold and nurture others. Sometimes I head straight from retreat to one of the Boston hospitals to visit a parishioner or friend. I realize then that I carry a light within me that has been fanned into a flame in retreat, and I pray for the grace to offer that light to those I come to see.
As a full-time rector of a busy parish, I never have enough time to accomplish all that needs to be done. But I have learned to value the gift of retreat and continue to discover in it new insights, new perspectives, and new opportunities – truly the Holy Spirit at work!
The Rev. William MacDonald (“Mac”) Murray
Rector of Trinity Church, Milford, Massachusetts
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
for everyday living
Three Brothers share their vision for how to shape a retreat experience to “enter more fully into the divine life.”
“Times of retreat are essential elements in the rhythm of our life. They enable us to celebrate the primacy of the love of God above all else. Whenever we enter retreat we seek to be more available to God so that we may enter more fully into the divine life” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”). These lines encapsulate why we go on retreat: by setting aside the ordinary cares and patterns of our days, we hope to make ourselves more fully available to God.
Many different settings, structures, and shapes of retreat can meet this aim. After all, God is available to us everywhere; the question is simply where and how we can best tune our perception to become aware of God’s presence. The answer will not be the same for each of us, nor even for each of us in every season.
In these pages, three Brothers share three different visions for how one might shape a retreat experience. What framework might open your heart to God’s revelation at this season in your life? We pray that, however the Spirit leads you, your retreat will invite you to “enter more fully into the divine life.”
Return and Rest
recalling God's love on retreat
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
There are many ways of entering into retreat. At times we will want to use our time of retreat to listen and discern God’s purposes in our life, especially if we are in a place of confusion, conflict, or uncertainty. At other times we may be facing an important choice, and will find a period of silent retreat to be a helpful clearing space in which to weigh our options in prayer. At times, we will want to explore more deeply the nature of God, the person of Christ, or some aspect of our human condition. These are ways of using retreat to “advance” the spiritual life.
But as our Brother Curtis Almquist likes to remind us, most often “a retreat is not an advance.” Retreats invite us to return to the God we already know, to recall and to re-experience God’s love for us, to receive from God the gifts we need this day.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved.” - Isaiah 30:15
In the Book of Common Prayer there is a collect that summarizes this last type of retreat. We pray,
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The prayer is drawn from Isaiah 30:15: “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” It suggests that there are times when we need to return to God and find our rest in God’s presence, to draw from God’s strength in order to claim again the inner stillness and freedom that come from putting our trust in God’s wisdom and power rather than our own.
If you have ever watched young children playing on a playground you may have noticed how a child might from time to time interrupt his play in order to come over to his mother, sitting at the edge of the play area. She hugs him, tussles his hair, and rubs his back. He leans into her and receives her love. After a few moments, he pops up and returns to his peers to join again in their play. Retreat can be like that – a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection, and hear God’s words of encouragement and support. Retreats can offer us this kind of refreshment and renewal, and can prepare us to re-enter the fray of our daily lives with new energy and hope.
Retreat can be a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection.
How might we enter into such a retreat? I often encourage retreatants to begin their retreats by returning to a favorite passage of Scripture or to a favorite hymn, one that recalls for them God’s deep love and abiding faithfulness. Here are some possible starting places:
– Isaiah 43:1-9 “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
– Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
– Psalm 139 “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
– Romans 8:31-38 “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
– 1 John 4:7-21 “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us…”
– Hymnal 1982, 671 “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound”
– Hymnal 1982, 664 “My Shepherd will supply my need”
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there...
It will help if we remind ourselves that prayer is a gift, not a task. We come to prayer to offer God thanks and praise, and to receive the good gifts God has for us, gifts that God knows that we need. We do not come to achieve a goal or to produce a specific result. Nor do we come out of obligation, to fulfill a sense of duty. Christian prayer stems from a loving relationship. God has invited us into the Divine Presence in order to offer us love and strength, patience and courage, healing and wholeness. Prayer is the primary place where we receive these things. Therefore, we ought to approach our times of prayer or times of retreat not with a sense of duty, but in a spirit of receptivity and expectation. We are coming to meet the One who has created and redeemed us in love, and who reigns over all things, to receive all that we need from God’s heavenly storehouse.
The author of the First Letter of John writes, “We love because (God) first loved us” (1 John 4:9). The first thing (“we love”) is dependent on the second (that we have received and experienced God’s love for us). If we hope to be agents of God’s love in the world, carriers of God’s grace and ministers of God’s compassion, then we need to receive those gifts of love and grace and compassion from the hand of God. Only then can we offer them to others. Prayer is the place where these gifts are received. When I have experienced God’s unconditional love for me, I can offer that same unconditional love to others. When I have known God’s forgiveness, I can extend that same forgiveness to others. When I know that God accepts me as I am, without judgment, I can open myself to others and approach them with curiosity and interest rather than with suspicion and judgment. “We love because (God) first loved us.” This is the gift that God offers us in prayer and in retreat.
Begin your retreat, then, by returning to God, resting in God’s goodness and love, allowing God to restore your confidence in God’s protection and provision. God is at work in your life. “Be still, and know that God is God.”
...For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” - Psalm 139: 7-8, 13-14
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
Recall specific moments when you have known God’s goodness and love in your life. How did you feel? What emotions spring up in you now as you recall those earlier times? Offer them to God.
Write a letter to God. What do you wish to say to God? What does God need to hear from you? It could be words of love or heartbreak or doubt. Be as honest as you can. One of our Brothers, at the end of this meditative practice, likes to take up another pen in a second color and write the words he hears God speaking back to him.
You might find it helpful to meditate with an image. I love to pray with Katherine Brown’s image of the Good Shepherd, rejoicing as he holds his lost lamb. As you gaze at this icon, hear God welcoming you back home. You are God’s beloved creature, the one for whom God would leave the ninety-nine, just to bring you back.
Sip and Savor
reading sacred texts on retreat
Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
The spaciousness, silence, and freedom from distraction that retreat offers provide an ideal context for encountering Christ in scripture and sacred writings. Times of retreat free us from the obligation of assigned readings like the lectionary. They also beckon us away from the perpetual flow of the social media feed, headlines crafted to arrest us in our tracks, and images designed to hijack our attention. Unlike the reading we shoe-horn into a daily train commute or the spare, sleepy moments before bed, on retreat we are given the gift of genuine leisure to let our reading absorb, transfix, and even transfigure us. We can rediscover the grace-bearing potential of words by giving them our full and undivided attention. In the chapter entitled “Holy Scripture” in our Rule, we read: “It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meaning and life.” When the texts we choose to take on retreat are selected with careful, prayerful discernment and approached with reverent expectancy, the living Word can open our deafness once more. Our lives may be forever changed by just a single phrase.
“Without silence, words become empty.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”
There are a few elements that can transform our engagement with printed words into sacred reading while on retreat. I’ll consider three: what we choose to read, the pace at which we read it, and the space we give ourselves to step away from our reading and rest in wordless silence. There is abundant literature on the classic monastic practice of lectio divina – a practice which I heartily recommend. Here, however, I will consider sacred reading practices a little more broadly.
How do we choose what texts we read on retreat? This is a fairly personal choice, but remember that your aim is sacred reading. I prefer to avoid texts which are primarily didactic – whose basic purpose is to instruct, inform, or set forth an argument. Instead, I choose texts which I trust will efface themselves and usher me gently into encounter with God, toward whom they point. I particularly relish reading poems on retreat, because a good poem can communicate directly to the heart what prose can take a volume to express! The writings of the ancient and medieval church, though sometimes difficult and obscure, never fail to reward my patient attention with gifts of grace. Some retreats have become like intimate conversations between Jesus, myself, and the saint whose holy friendship is offered to me through her or his writings. As a consummate bibliophile, I need to be ruthless in limiting the number of books I take on retreat and remind myself that this is not an opportunity to catch up on the six to eight books from the Monastery library begging for my attention. My hard rule is no more than two, plus a Bible. In reading scripture, I often aim to delve deeply into one book, or sometimes a single chapter, though I leave room for detours if they are strong promptings from the Spirit. I must cultivate, again and again, a “less is more” approach.
Learning to read slowly and meditatively can take practice, but this is the pace and approach that our ancestors in the faith most strongly recommend. Just as timeless works of visual art or music communicate freshly to each generation of artists or musicians, texts that contain true wisdom repay an infinite number of readings. Each inwardly repeated sentence can midwife new insights or lift the eyes of our hearts to whole constellations of meaning that our initial reading passed over unawares. In the ancient and medieval worlds, the act of reading was an awesome privilege demanding intense mental and physical concentration. Receiving even a one-page letter was a singular event. The precious words on the parchment were read aloud, repeatedly. This way of reading rendered the author mysteriously and intimately present. The Rule of St. Benedict makes provision for each monk to receive one book from the monastic library as his Lenten reading. A whole book to absorb in meditative prayer over the course of a liturgical season was a sublime gift. On retreat, we can follow their lead. Rather than gulp, we sip and savor.
“He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat...
In the sustained, meditative reading of a sacred text we expect to be impacted or transformed in some way because we honor the text’s spiritual authority or authenticity, but we don’t pretend to know how the encounter may change us. We are open to the text’s points of difficulty and obscurity (think for example of the prologue to John’s gospel, or the poems of T.S. Eliot). The Spirit patiently teaches us that when the fist of the mind closes around the words to wrest away a manufactured, quotable insight, they inevitably become opaque. The doors of perception close. Yet when we are receptive and open, without the compulsion to comprehend each particular nuance, words and phrases take on a transparent radiance. In the words of Eliot, “Every word is at home … the complete consort dancing together.” We are graced by a boundless, holistic, heart-centered way of knowing that can only be inspired — in-breathed by another power. In this moment, we close the book.
Then what? Nothing and everything may quiver expectantly in that moment. We may remain still for a time, resting in the Word. We may gather together a few words of humble gratitude. We may turn our attention to something very different: a long walk in the cold air, a cup of tea beside the fireplace, a luxurious nap, an hour with the blessed Sacrament. The Word has used words to bear us into the silence that is their Source, and to which they will return. We let the words be, planted in the dark, mysterious soil of our hearts. We entrust their growth to the Author of Life, until the next time we take up the text, our attention refreshed and renewed, hungry again for the grace that sacred reading bestows.
...He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
Memorize a favorite passage from Scripture. Repeat the words aloud, slowly and meditatively. How do the words feel in your mouth as you “chew” them? After a while, let yourself become silent in the lingering presence of the Word. Trust that they have been written on your heart, and will be there for you when you need them.
Gaze at the icon of St. John the Evangelist. Momentarily lay aside your analytical mind and simply receive the figures, colors, and shapes just as they are.
Now take a look at the angel hovering over John’s shoulder, whispering in his ear: a representation of the Word of God. The Word whispers to us through the printed words in front of us. But the same Word communicates in unexpected ways from the margins, or at the periphery of our vision – gently interrupting, inspiring, suggesting, or challenging.
What is it like to “read” the Word present to you in both of these places – or to allow the Word to read you in this way?
Strive and Wrestle
reading sacred texts on retreat
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
Prior to coming to the Monastery, my experiences of retreat were of an extended time of sabbath with God, always in the context of community with fellow believers. While times of rest in community away from the familiar scenes, routines, and challenges of life were quite beneficial to me, it wasn’t until I arrived at SSJE to test my vocation as a monk that I encountered a deeper and richer experience of retreat. As a novice, when I first studied the chapter entitled “Retreat” in our Rule of Life, one paragraph captured my attention: “Retreats will often be times in which we hear Jesus inviting us to be at rest with him. But we must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial. We may be tempted to tire ourselves or waste the time in busy work and preparation. We may find ourselves staying on the surface to avoid an authentic meeting with the living God. And the emptiness of retreat time may compel us to face painful signs of our need for healing which it was easier to overlook during our usual routines.” Spiritual trial!? Wasn’t retreat time about spending ‘quality time’ with God? I had never considered retreat to be so venturesome.
“We must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”
This vision of retreat reminds me of a story from Genesis which I loved as a kid but never really understood until now: the story of Jacob and his encounter with a divine being. The author of this particular Genesis story says that Jacob is on a journey with his family and all his possessions when, at one point, he sends them ahead of him, while he stays behind. When he is completely alone, Jacob encounters a man who engages him in a struggle. The two spend the long hours of the night wrestling, and eventually Jacob overpowers the man. Before conceding defeat the man dislocates Jacob’s thigh and exclaims, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob perceives something about this man with whom he has been wrestling. Aware that this is no ordinary encounter, Jacob asks his holy opponent for a blessing. The man declares that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “a man seeing God.” The story continues: “And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.”
This story resonates with me because it highlights the truth that any encounter which brings us into real intimacy with God will be costly. It will involve sacrifice, intention, endurance, and a desire and willingness to be changed. Jacob sacrificed all that he had, sending his family and possessions ahead unguarded while he withdrew to be alone with God. He intentionally engaged God in struggle, perhaps processing and working out the self-doubts that had plagued him. We know that Jacob had a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of his family and was seeking reconciliation from his estranged brother Esau. He had to abide with God in a difficult struggle, perhaps wondering at times whether he would be able to endure God’s truth and judgment. He had to desire change and make that desire known to God. At the dawning of the new day, he asked God to bless him as he moved forward into new life. Jacob left that encounter with God, not only with the new name of Israel, but also bearing a wound of love, one that would be a constant reminder of God’s grace and blessing.
“There are many conflicts on the way into the experience of divine love. As the spirit exposes it to Christ’s healing touch in prayer we shall often have to struggle with our reluctance to be loved so deeply by God...
It may be helpful to you to pray with the story of Jacob’s encounter with God, especially on retreat, since a retreat may expose us to spiritual trial. We may enter into retreat with the intention of deepening our relationship with God, only to find ourselves distracted. We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with advertising which promises a better life. And the lure of social media – with its premise to bring us connection – actually isolates us from real, meaningful relationships. God does not relate to us through Facebook and Instagram. Rather God is drawing us into silence, stillness, and solitude, in order to share the intimacy of adoring love with us. Like any relationship that we care about, our relationship with God requires us to put aside distractions in order to gaze into the face of our Beloved.
It seems appealing to search for God somewhere ‘out there,’ in exotic places worthy of God’s glory. However, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries taught that the kingdom of heaven begins within us: “Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure. Both are one in the same. The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is in your soul ... there you will find the steps on which you can climb up.” The Psalmist writes, “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” You are God’s abiding place!
Most often Jesus enters into our lives through the cracks of our brokenness. We need not be ashamed of the fissures in our heart. Instead we must have the courage to bare them to Jesus, whose desire is to fill us with grace so that we may know the power of his love. Acknowledging our need for healing, our desire for happiness, and our longing for abundance is a sacrifice we offer to God. In return, God gives us a morsel of bread and sip of wine, the heavenly food of his own body and blood to sustain and nourish us as we begin our journey to healing.
Like Jacob, we need the courage first to let go of everything, to engage God and to ask God to reveal our true identity, the person God has created us to be. Retreat can be the perfect time for such challenging, rewarding striving with God.
...Christ himself will strive with us, as the angel strove with Jacob, to disable our self-reliant pride and make us depend on grace.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 21, “The Mystery of Prayer”
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
What are you struggling with in your life – perhaps something in your past that has left you wounded? Do you share this struggle with God? Offer your wounds to Jesus in prayer, asking Him to transfigure the situation, that it might be a source of blessing to you.
Before going on retreat, note the amount of time you spend on social media each week. During the course of your retreat, resist the urge to connect virtually. Instead make a list of those whom you hold in your heart. Remember them to God in your prayer. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, explains the power of intercessory prayer in this way: “....in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” Carry those you love with you to God in prayer.
In times of spiritual trial, you may find it meaningful to meditate with an image of Christ crucified, like the one here. Reflect on how Christ is willing to share with you in your struggle.
About Br. David Vryhof
About Br. Keith Nelson
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community both as the Director of Music and Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and sampling craft beer.