Reflections on the Monastic Community Retreat: “For All Are One in Christ: Benedict’s Transforming Vision”
Mary Elizabeth Ilg
“…silence is the royal road to spiritual formation.” -Henri Nouwen
A velvet hush of silence descended upon St. Paul’s Monastery on the evening of the Feast of Pentecost as the annual Community retreat began, facilitated by Sister Laura Swan, OSB, from St. Placid Priory in Washington State. This sacred time each year is marked by an almost palpable difference as you walk through the front doors of the Monastery and are greeted with holy stillness, the absence of voices or conversation, as the Community enters into this week of spiritual renewal. On the first morning of retreat, I was reminded of a phrase by Saint Francis de Sales: Put away all useless and anxious thoughts. This was a week to focus on the most important thing of all in our lives: connection with God and using the tool of self-examination as a means to spiritual growth and transformation. As Sister Laura said, “The extent to which we know ourselves is the extent to which we can become what God intends for us.”
Serious about the Interior Life
Sister Laura began with a Scripture passage from the Book of Galatians: “…there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” She stated that Saint Benedict established a lay movement and insisted on welcoming others to participate in lives of prayer and service-- anyone who was serious about the interior life and following Jesus. He took in people who were illiterate and those of lower social/economic status. “Saint Benedict leveled the playing field, as Jesus did,” Sister Laura said. “He started a contemplative movement open to all who were willing to do the hard work of transformation.” Outside of his Italian monastery, no one was permitted to wear their monastic garb that would distinguish them from others as being more holy or worthy of respect. As we know, The Ruleof Saint Benedict focuses heavily on acquiring the necessary virtue of humility, a prerequisite on the spiritual journey to holiness and divine union.
We are all one in Christ
If we are all one in Christ Jesus, then it doesn’t matter what we look like, how old we are, what our race or ethnicity is, if we are Democrat or Republican or how many college degrees we have. It doesn’t matter if we live under a bridge or live in a mansion. What does matter to unite us is that we follow the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus in the Commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. When we mess up, there is always an instant remedy for it: the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one of the most powerful experiences any Christian can have on the royal road to spiritual transformation, forgiveness and healing.
Sister Laura asked many soul-searching questions as a threshold to deeper self-reflection, to reach the desired goal of interior transformation:
What are you being invited to at this point in your life? This invitation can pierce our heart. If we don’t pay attention, we can cripple ourselves with expectations and limitations that are too small.
If you are experiencing fear or anxiety (despite the urging of Saint Francis de Sales), what are these feelings trying to tell you? What should you be paying attention to? If we are listening very carefully with the ear of our heart, as St. Benedict instructs, we can gain a new understanding of possibilities. Sister Laura also stated, “if a door slams in your face, that is probably not God’s calling for your life.”
Lectio divina and visio divina require that we slow down
Benedictines “savor the words” of poetry and prose, and especially the beauty of art work found in museums and in our monastic gallery. If we savor the words, we can hear where authentic joy is calling us. I have also gained a more intense appreciation of the beauty of nature as a manifestation of God’s love for us, where the natural world of trees, sky, birds, deer, and even turkeys fill my soul with great excitement and wonder. We recently had a turkey visitor at the Monastery admiring his reflection in the windows and I was able to catch a few good pictures of him, as he stepped gingerly around the courtyard on his delicate feet, looking for seeds.
Nature as Mystical Experience- Visio Divina
One hot July Saturday, I was able to get away from the city to our family farm and sit at the top of my favorite hill in a field filled with wildflowers. Bright summer daisies dotted the tall grass. There were tiny star-shaped flowers, glistening buttercups and the red-orange flare of Indian paintbrush. God’s artistic canvas was stunning in its variety and detail; I was in a state of bliss all afternoon. The temperature pushed up near 85 degrees and it was very humid. At times, I asked myself if this was a good idea-- to be there alone in the intense heat and the bugs-- but I decided to stay for a while, witness to so much beauty. Even better than the wildflowers were the billowing white clouds. To watch them moving across the wide-open blue sky was like standing before the ocean, waves rushing. Each barely perceptible breeze felt like God’s kiss.
Stay on the Path
I am personally very excited about the “lay movement” started by Saint Benedict 1500 years ago, as I discern the invitation to become a Benedictine Oblate next year. I find that I must listen very carefully at this point in my life to what God is calling me to. God always wants what is best for us. If we can surrender our will to God’s will, things always work out, though we may have to put our egos aside. Your will not mine. I am sure that if I accept this invitation, it will be another way for God to pierce my heart.
The spiritual journey continues to astonish as it unfolds. Stay on the path. May God bless you and keep you.