After a long semester of school, ministry, and fraternal gatherings, it was time for some reflection, some peace, and most of all, some quiet. Do you ever stop to think about how much noise is in our lives? It’s everywhere. From the sounds of the city, to the television or music that is constantly playing, to our phones that allow (and demand) constant contact. We are constantly being bombarded with sound, moving from one distraction to another.
Last week, I got away from it all. Traveling with another student friar, I spent the week at Mt. Irenaeus, the secluded spiritual center of the friars in western New York. Miles from the closest town, set on 387 acres of woods on a hillside, I spend five days in a cabin with nothing to do but relax and pray.
Words cannot describe the peacefulness of the week. Snow fell lightly but constantly for two days, muffling any sort of sound there might have been. A walk in the woods rendered nothing to the ear but the wind through the trees and my own breathing; even the sounds of chirping birds were nowhere to be found. There were no cars. No televisions. No radios. For much of the week, it was just me and nature.
And oh how relaxing compared to the daily grind. Although I spent a couple hours with the friars each night for dinner, prayer, and fraternity around the fire, I was free to do whatever I wanted for much of the day. Part of my focus, I’ll admit, was simply not having a focus at all: I woke up when my body woke up, I read what I wanted to read, and prayed when and how I felt compelled to pray. Much of the semester was so full of structure and deadlines that it was a true joy to simply unwind and relax in a prayerful way.
That being said… I knew I needed some order in my life; no focus at all would have killed me after 12 hours! I decided that the retreat would have a loose theme to it: “How have I done so far at being a friar, and in what ways might I still need to convert myself to the way of St. Francis?” In other words, where have I been, and where do I need to go. As a Franciscan, the task was simple: bringing a Bible, the Rule of St. Francis, the General Constitutions of the Order, and the Ratio for formation (basically the plan for training friars), I reflected on my own life and either “checked” things that I do well or circled things that I needed to try better. I know what some of you are thinking. “That’s incredibly juridical and boring!” In a sense, maybe. There is always a fear that we will turn into Pharisees, conscious only of the letter of the law and becoming proud of our ability to fulfill it. Point taken. But at the same time, these documents are not simply a list of narrow laws, they are spiritual documents to guide us in the way of St. Francis. Written very generically, they speak of values and ideals, encouraging us to live and act in a way that best fits our time and place. “Law” in this sense is fundamentally important to being Franciscan and Christian.
I’ll leave the details of the evaluation up to my formators, but I’ll just say that it was a really fruitful experience. Not only did I find that much of what was written was already fully integrated into my person, an encouraging step in my formation, I was able to spend a lot of time reflecting on those aspects of my Franciscan life that were left wanting and to come up with ways in which I could make my life more “authentically Franciscan.” While I think there will always be a discomfort within me when comparing my ideals to my lived reality, this experience grounded me in who I am, and inspired me to continue becoming who God has called me to be. In the quiet of the forest, the Holy Spirit spoke and I listened. It was a wonderful experience.
But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done speaking when I turned the final page and felt that my “life plan” was all in order. No, the Holy Spirit is funny like that: s/he can’t be contained by my silly plans. Having nothing more to “do” by the end of day three, I picked up a book by the prolific Christian writer Henri Nouwen to fill the time. Here’s what he wrote in the first few pages:
If you can’t find God in the middle of your work–where your concerns, worries, pains, and joys are–it does not make sense to try to find Him in the hours set free at the periphery of life. If your spiritual life cannot grow and deepen in the midst of your ministry, how will it grow on the edges?
Prayer is not a preparation for work or an indispensable condition for effective ministry. Prayer is life; prayer and ministry are the same and can never be divorced. If they are, the minister becomes a handyman and the priest nothing more than another way to soften the many pains of daily life. (Introduction of Creative Ministry by Henri Nouwen)
I found myself indicted by his words. In a sense, wasn’t that exactly why I was here on this retreat, to escape the burdensome school, ministry, and fraternal life in order to find God? Wasn’t I here to recharge so that I had something to bring back to those parts of my life? While it is never a bad thing to seek God in the context of a silent retreat and recharging is an essential part of anyone’s life, I wondered at that moment why I hadn’t heard God speaking as clearly in my busy life as I did in my quiet retreat. Surely, God was equally as present and speaking in both situations. Right?
What I realized on the mountain was that it was me who had changed: I was quiet enough to hear Him speak. You see, what I realized when I left the noise of the world and entered the quiet of the mountain was that I became quieter, too. I turned off my phone. I gave intentional time for prayer. I was content with the present moment to simply be with God. The way I sought God was entirely different on the mountain than it was in the city. And I wonder: why? Sure, the snow was beautiful and the woods were quiet, but why must my external surroundings be quiet in order for me to be quiet on the inside? It doesn’t. It just requires me to be a bit more Franciscan.
When I read this quote from Nouwen, it immediately reminded me was my own Franciscan charism. For Francis, one did not need to flee the world to find God for God was so clearly in and through the “concerns, worries, pains, and joys,” even the most mundane experiences of life. God could be experienced anywhere at anytime if he was quiet enough to hear: “The world is my cloister, my body is my cell, and my soul is the hermit within.” Whether he actually said these words or not, the essence of the quote is purely Franciscan: Francis was someone who brought an inner quiet to every place he went, a peacefulness in the midst of chaos, and saw God no matter where he was. This is what I will take away from my retreat at Mt. Irenaeus. It was there that I truly found some quiet; funny thing is, it was there inside me all along.
Great post, much growth can happen in such times. Just a thought although; the Holy Spirit is a divine person not a force or a thing. It is better theologically and personally to say “he” rather than “it”.
Great post Casey. Your reflections are always appreciated. With me, and the bustle of life, it is hard for me to find God. I tend to use the excuse of chaos in my life to not really be still and listen to what God is saying in my life. Maybe, sometimes I am afraid to hear Him.
Merry Christmas and blessed New Year.
You are becoming a GREAT writer, Casey. Merry Christmas!
a perfect Advent post, I am very thankful for the quiet in the hubbub of daily life here but getting away is critically important. I am inspired by the Spirit working in you Casey.
I think that’s one of the big differences between Franciscan and Benedictine communities. We have set times of the day where there is silence, Greater Silence at night and times of Lesser Silence (you can talk but only for work purposes) during the day, as well as times when there are no restrictions apart from the place. That gives us a space for the silence wherever we are. But then we do have to have regular retreats – in my community, we have a day retreat each month, a 3 day retreat in Advent (normally) a 3 day retreat either in Holy Week or Easter week, and then a 7 day retreat in the summer. I’ll be getting a 5 day retreat starting in just over a week, as I’ll be making my First Profession on Friday 30th January.