2018 Advent Retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey (Part 1)

St. Joseph’s Abbey“Rejoice that you have succeeded in escaping the countless dangers and shipwrecks of this storm-tossed world, and have reached a quiet corner in the security of a hidden harbor.”
— Saint Bruno

I usually select one or two books from the library (in the retreat house) the day I arrive and this year it was Lessons from the Monastery That Touch Your Life by M. Basil Pennington and Spiritual Exercises by St. Francis de Sales. The former was fortuitous (there’s NO such things as coincidences) since the slim volume by the late M. Basil Pennington (St. Joseph’s Abbey) has a chapter devoted to Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio and was the subject of Fr. William Meninger’s Saturday/Sunday talk.

Fr. William Meninger started his talk by asking the retreatants if we had any expectations for the weekend.  It was a mature group and most were just seeking a break from the noise. In the end Father Meninger opted to focus on Centering Prayer (although a talk on forgiveness and Julian of Norwich were also options). He gave us a background on its origins and some of the controversy. He also discussed the benefits, some techniques to manage distractions (like monkey brain), and then we practiced collectively during the last ten minutes of the talk.    

If you are interested in the subject and want to learn more try The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and the Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve also posted a link to an amazing video in the ‘other observations and notes’ section.

My journal entries for the rest of the weekend are fragmentary but sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to identify and distill themes. There’s a simple pre-retreat entry in my journal about our capacity to be surprised (something maybe I heard in a Bishop Barron program) and I spent a bit a time ruminating on that entry since I’d been dealing with a hardened heart all year. 

I also had two books from the limestone library. The first was The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen and the second was The Power Of Silence: Against The Dictatorship Of Noise by Robert Cardinal Sarah.  I spent so much time reading the latter that I never re-read the Nouwen book. I transcribed several quotes, but this is the one that’s a good precept for a hardened heart:

“God always watches over us. Man may experience the darkest nights, endure the worst outrages, confront the most tragic situations, yet God is with him. Often man forgets that God is present. If he is an unbeliever, he supposes that God does not exist. If he has a faith that has grown lukewarm because of the secularized atmosphere of the times, he despairs, thinking that God has abandoned him. But the Father stays with him despite all possible denials.”    

A couple other observations and notes…

There’s a beautiful circular stained-glass window in the back of the church that’s typically the last thing retreatants see at the end of their week/weekend. I usually focus on it only when I’m walking back to my pew after receiving the sacraments.

I always visit the visitors chapel before I start the trek home and NO matter how hard you strain (or how you position yourself in the chapel) you can only see a little sliver of the stained-glass in the back of the church!  I am often tempted to sneak through the cloisters or scale the wall in the visitors chapel to snap a photo, but the risk of being banned from the Abbey and the stigma of showing disrespect is too great a risk. I suppose there’s an analogy here about the stained-glass, with its obstructed view, and that passage about “faith being the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1-2

There was also NO snow on the ground this weekend but the sky was clear and at night, before vigils at 3:30 AM, the stars were immeasurable (although the brutal cold made stargazing impractical). I also didn’t take any photographs…content with the ones taken in a snowy landscape (and during previous retreats).   

This video isn’t a tutorial on centering prayer but includes some amazing images of the cloister (including the circular stained-glass window at the back of the church). It also includes an interview with Fr. Matthew Flynn who sadly passed away on December 4th. Here’s an excerpt from the video of Fr. Matthew:

“God loves unconditionally. They just told us that you’d better behave yourself and God will love you. But if you don’t behave yourself God will leave you. Well, God can’t leave you! There’s no place for God to go! He is in everything. And so, the experience of that love, that’s the contemplative experience. The experience that God loves you in time and space. He intervenes into your history and into your life and touches you in some way. And that can change a person’s life. That’s it. At that moment, you might say, that was the center of the universe, that a human being in time and space was so united with God that he experience LOVE.”

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