LONDON, ONTARIO – Holy Week is upon us and the churches are blessedly open so I know where I’m putting my head and my heart for the next seven days as I drink in just as deep a draught as I can to make up for last year’s government-imposed drought. For your edification while I’m otherwise engaged, here are some journal selections from a near-silent religious retreat I underwent in late March of 1999.
Thursday, March 18
Booked in this afternoon to an Opus Dei retreat for three days at Cedarcrest in Belfountain, Ontario. This is a very swish neck of the woods, north of Hogtown in beautiful, rolling farm land which is being transformed into a Yuppie enclave with four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles parked outside of imposing log homes that look like ski chalets. The old general store at the main corner has gone entirely up-market. You can’t buy a spool of wire, a bag of seed or a pair of work gloves but if it’s exotic mustard you’re after, they’ve got (and I counted ‘em) twelve different kinds.
From the outside this building is too modern for my taste but inside (except for unnaturally thin walls) it feels traditional enough thanks to the addition of an altar and some pews and a sprinkling throughout of crucifixes and holy art. Got the story from Harry the realtor that until about five years ago this was a new age retreat centre for flakes of various stripes – astral projectionists, yogic flyers, left-handed lesbian yodellers, etc. Then Opus Dei bought the joint, had it exorcised, installed the Oratory and moved a few beams and walls about – and voila – it’s now a Catholic Retreat Centre. Particularly after seeing the Holy Cross Centre in Port Burwell get completely flakerized a few years back, it’s good to see one of these transformations go in our direction for a change.
We’ve already had one introductory meditation from the priest who will be leading this retreat – a Peruvian who’s only been grappling with English for two years. Big themes – prayer, relating to God the Father, and silence. Much to my surprise, this is to be a silent retreat. Not absolutely but as much as we can reasonably manage. What with the long drive, just arriving and checking in, it was a little hard to concentrate. Tomorrow should be clearer that way.
Phoned home to say all was well and to see if K could insert a tagline at the base of this Saturday’s newspaper column. I was in a tiny office behind a closed door but still felt compelled to speak softly, even while knowing that our kitchen phone hasn’t carried voices with sufficient volume since the receiver got dropped into Badger’s water bowl.
After making my call it was just me and the usually talkative Harry in the refectory having our evening snack in perfect silence. When Harry inadvertently whacked his plate and sent food flying across the table, we both had to stifle our laughter as we cleaned up.
Friday, March 19
Happy eighteenth birthday, Em.
Two more meditations as of noon. The first – at the very crack of dawn, thank you very much – referred to the eternal sense of momentousness which a Christian perceives no matter when he happens to live. Perhaps that sense is cranked up a little more self-consciously than usual right now because of all this millennial jubilee business; our sense that the end of an era is at hand. I couldn’t help thinking of Gandalf’s response to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when the wee hobbit laments his luck in living at a time when such daunting duties have been placed on his shoulders. "So do I," Gandalf tells him. "And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Our priest quoted a shrink reflecting on his incarceration in one of the Nazi death camps, noting how those without a compelling reason to live or a goal in life, gave up more readily than the others.
This being the feast day of Christ’s earthly father, our spiritual reading was a chapter from Josemaria Escriva’s Christ Is Passing By about the life of St. Joseph. I get all goose-bumpy to remember and realize anew that this feast day also happens to be the anniversary of the day when I first became a father. Our second meditation was about the nature of sin, how much we can learn about its dynamics and its hold on us, by studying the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the fall.
Then we had Holy Mass. No options presented with this Opus Dei crowd. You receive the Host on the tongue and that’s all there is to it. So I finally did. And what a shockingly intimate transaction it is.
Man oh man. I ducked out of two of the day’s carefully structured activities because I felt like I was being nibbled to death by soporific ducks. Walked into town for an hour after lunch, up and down many hills, the air surprisingly cold but it was great to be outside and swing the arms and legs about. Had a battle with myself while passing the Yuppie General Store, suppressing a strong urge to duck inside and buy a newspaper. I do miss my morning burrow through the papers. Returned (feeling negligent and guilty) for the day’s third meditation and thought I was going to fall asleep on the spot. All these rooms get so warm and it’s hard not to slip into a narcotized state.
Today’s mealtime readings – the book passed from reader to reader after every few pages – is a 1979 book on Fatima entitled, The Great Sign. Pretty hair-raising, apocalyptic stuff. Finished Peter Ackroyd’s life of Thomas More which I brought with me and then scored a long sought volume among the titles for sale here; an Ignatius reprint of To Know Christ Jesus by good old Frank Sheed. I just melted when I read this conclusion to his account of Joseph and Mary’s wedding in Nazareth:
“How far the wedding feast of Mary and Joseph resembled that of Cana, we can only guess – we simply cannot see either Mary or Joseph putting on any very spectacular show. But one thing the two feasts have in common – Christ was present at both of them! No royal wedding had ever had a glory to compare with that. The poorest Catholic can have it now with a Nuptial Mass.”
Harry’s got an impressive number of kids at home (I’m not sure if he and his wife have broken through the two digit barrier yet) and it was amazing to watch him buy a small mountain of children's books in one go; wondering if he got a discount if his stack added up to so many feet or a yard.
During the evening snack – fifteen minutes in verbal silence which only emphasized the other noises which mouths can make – the refectory sounded like a livestock pen at chow time as twenty-two guys simultaneously chomped down on chips and nuts and crackers with cheddar.
I’ve never set eyes on three-quarters of these guys before yet their faces have already become familiar to me. I also feel I have some insight into their characters and personalities yet the only language we’ve exchanged is a nod of the head, an arch of the brow, a smile, a shrug, and the strictly gestural vocabulary of dinner table semaphore. Our first meal together, I wanted to introduce myself to the people next to me but once you get past the initial strangeness of not doing what you’ve always been taught is only good manners, a tremendous mental freedom soon descends. How much more comfortable bus rides could be if you weren’t allowed to say anything to the stranger next to you. Take away all the idle chatter that you won’t even be able to remember two minutes later anyway and you’re able to stay focused on your thoughts to a much deeper level.
Malcolm Muggeridge visited a monastery once and wrote about it in an essay entitled A Hard Bed to Lie On. I must revisit that when I get home. At various points here, I’ve felt bored out of my skull, exhausted, and so over-regimented I could scream. And then, just when I think there’s no hope for me in this pseudo-monastic life at all, I’ll briefly slip into a radical new perspective, a pure and holy space if ever there was one, where the beauty of the natural world outside the refectory window just shimmers, where a simple wordless gesture by one of my fellow retreatants moves me to the very brink of tears in its goodness, where an oft repeated parable or prayer opens up to whole new levels of meaning and consolation, where taking part in this so-called ‘retreat’ suddenly seems like a major ‘advance,’ like the most urgent and important enterprise in all the world.
Saturday, March 20
A meditation on the unconventionality of faith; how much your attempt to live a Christian life can put you at odds with the world around you. It was introduced by the story of a megalomaniac who goes barrelling down the freeway in the wrong direction, then hears the traffic report on his radio, warning that there’s one kook out there wreaking havoc with the traffic flow. Incredulous, the man addresses his radio. “One? Thousands of them is more like it.” The payoff for this joke was enormous, partly because of our priest’s fragile command of English. The joke worked well in its own right but seeing this man successfully navigate the telling somehow doubled his victory.
Falling asleep last night, I recalled my morbid ‘what if?’ fantasy; if K and the kids were abducted by Martians or some other family-erasing atrocity and I was left free to cut myself loose from society and enter the monastic life. This retreat has provided a deeper sense of what such a life would actually be like, making it less romantically appealing but perhaps more approachable in a practical way. I’d have to think long and hard before taking such a step. Have I been missing the world so much here? Just the family, really. And newspapers. And music. Not TV or radio or the Internet at all. And I’m delighted to be knocking back books at the rate of one a day here. Today I’m re-reading the University Sermons of Monsignor Ronald Knox – one of my favourite homilists.
A meditation on the quality of our faith, the constant need for reinforcement and nourishment. Was it St. Catherine of Siena who prayed: “Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief”? That prayer's simultaneous admission of devotion and failure rings true for anyone who's given themselves to some great ongoing enterprise. It scarcely matters whether you're trying to raise a family, to uphold your marriage, to write a book or to follow Christ. With depressing regularity you'll discover ways in which you're blowing it and will need to find ways to recalibrate the terms and approach of your commitment in order to see it through.
But do you know what? .Riddled with mistakes and interruptions as your progress will be, the great and invariably flawed enterprise is actually underway and proceeding toward its completion. Consider the sheer unlikelihood of the Church’s endurance, built as it was on the rock of the disciple who denied Christ thrice at the time of His arrest. Our Fatima readings at dinner were alluded to, their preoccupation with Communism, and here we are twenty years after that book was published and (who saw this coming?) Communism has collapsed everywhere but China and Cuba and the Pope has sought to consecrate Russia to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – the same Pope who was shot on the anniversary of the first Fatima apparition and who played the leading role in the peaceful dismantling of that atheistic system. Draw a long enough bead and you can start to see that the forces at play in our universe are stranger than fiction, wilder than the most implausible dream and bolder than love.
At one point in that meditation, guys to two sides of me were sawing logs. Bill opened a window, briefly reviving two of them. We seem to be on opposite cycles. My great battles with sleep were yesterday. Today, I’m disgustingly perky while many around me are visibly drooping.
The last meditation was about Christ’s only new commandment: “to love one another as I have loved you.” And his special identification with the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty. Wonderful story about an admirer of Mother Teresa who told her that she could never do the kind of work Mother did; not even for a million dollars. “Neither could I,” Mother Teresa answered. “I can only do it for charity – for the love of Christ.”
Fascinating talk. How is it that we can visit a spiritual director and know so much less about our problem areas than the man with a toothache who visits his dentist? A veterinarian examining a speechless dog has a better chance of making an accurate diagnosis than a priest with an inarticulate Catholic on the other side of the confessional screen. At least the dog yelps when the vet probes the problem area whereas we can become particularly mum at just that point.
A beautiful meditation on the Eucharist, dwelling on things I may already have known but driving them home to a new depth of resonance. The words we speak at Mass prior to receiving the Host – “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You but only say the word and I shall be healed” – are a paraphrase of the words of the centurion asking Christ to heal his servant. He feels unworthy to have Christ come into his house (exactly our situation before receiving the Host) but knows that if Christ wills it so, all can be healed and redeemed.
Sunday, March 21
At Mass this morning, I was particularly taken by the symbolism of that small amount of water which is mixed with the wine prior to the Eucharist. That represents our contribution to the blood of Christ; mixing our small token of suffering with Christ’s greater outpouring.
Our final meditation was on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Annunciation was cited as the only instance in all of history when absolutely everything depended on the assent of one human being. What if she had said, ‘no’? What if Joseph had put her from him, exposing her to condemnation or even execution? What if a discreet abortion had been an easily procurable “medical” option in first-century Nazareth? Women tend to be spiritually stronger than men, our priest said; a good thing considering all that they must bear. I think I finally begin to apprehend why Mary had to be – and had to remain – a virgin. A woman who had given herself to a man in that way, would never be so universally approachable as a mediatrix for the entire Church.
Bill and I are packing up to hit the road back to London with lots to mull over. It was good to be here.
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