This summer I went to refresh my soul at an eight-day silent retreat.
The format of the retreat is simple: Each day you meet for one hour with a spiritual director to talk about what had come to mind during prayer or while reading Scripture the day before. The rest of the time you’re free to do as you please: Pray, wander the grounds, nap, read. Mass is celebrated daily, and the dining room dishes up tasty meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All of this is done in silence except the responses at Mass and the meeting with the spiritual director. There’s no talking, no television, and use of social media is strongly discouraged.
For me, this is as close to a perfect vacation as I could get, particularly with travel restrictions due to COVID.
Six years ago I went to that same retreat house and returned spiritually refreshed, invigorated in faith and physically rested. I’d had one “God moment” and numerous insights while pondering Scripture. This time, with a deeper grasp of theology and a more developed prayer life, I was looking forward to an even more profound experience.
The retreat started off well. My spiritual director suggested I reflect on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man sitting alongside the road who calls out to the Lord to heal him. An excerpt from my notes reads: “The text says to me we shouldn’t let others quiet our calls for God to have mercy on us. It’s interesting that Bartimaeus ‘sprang up and came to Jesus,’ apparently going to him without help despite being unable to see. And Jesus doesn’t presume to know what Bartimaeus wants, but asks. Also, the crowd doesn’t seem to want the blind man to follow Jesus.”
My written reflection ends with this: “God, I’m blind, but if you call me, can I find my way to you?”
I was quite pleased with the day’s reflection. That made it even harder when the remaining days brought journal jottings like “Not have anything to write about. Reflected on Jesus’ baptism and Isaiah 55 but nothing comes to mind.”
Part of the problem might have been that I wasn’t fully focused on the retreat. At the time, I was taking an online class on the Old Testament that required quite a bit of reading. I also was finishing a novel to discuss with my book club. Not only that, but I’d brought along a crochet project that I was determined to wrap up.
I did get everything done, but I think it might have been at the expense of the retreat.
I was fairly sanguine about my lack of spiritual insights until the last night of the retreat. That’s when we all gathered in a circle to share our experiences. Everyone but me had something wonderful to share. One woman got us all laughing with a funny story about sitting on a bench watching the sun set and trying to pray but instead being distracted by a lizard, which pooped right in front of her.
“It taught me not to take everything so seriously,” she said.
I went to bed that night full of desolation, because I’d seen dozens of lizards during my stay and none had given me a story. I’d spent time in prayer, but hadn’t had the amazing experiences the other spoke of. I’d talked daily with my spiritual advisor, but gotten no stirring insights.
I did have enough wisdom to realize that perhaps for me the retreat had been about planting seeds that need to germinate, rather than a time for things to come to full bloom. A little voice in my head also has repeated Christ’s admonishment to St. Peter: “My grace is sufficient for you. …”
To which I somewhat grudgingly reply, “Amen.”
And then I remember the insights gained from my reflection on the story of Bartimaeus, and say with more conviction, “Amen.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at email@example.com.