Arriving at La Verna Retreat Centre on the Vaal River on the afternoon of 28 November 2019 to attend a silent retreat I imagined myself as this weary and thirsty desert traveller who was about to plunge into a cool spring which would soothe his aching muscles and quench his thirst. The accommodation was comfortable enough but the closest thing I found to a spring was the undrinkable Vaal River.
It took a while, but I adjusted to the rhythm of a silent retreat. My initial anxiety about not speaking to anyone for about 4 days was eased by a handout entitled, “AS YOU MOVE INTO THE GREAT SILENCE” which included:
“He who comes, comes to us now in the silence, in the darkness, in the confusion, in the aloneness as Word and as Light, as Truth and as Love, EMMANUEL GOD-WITH-US NOW.”
For me to hear what God was saying to me I accepted that I had to be silent for a significant amount of time. As Joan Chittister said:
“Silence protects us from our noisy selves and prepares us for the work of God within us. Silence brings us beyond the noise of clutter and confusion of a spinning world, to the cool calm centre of the spiritual self. Silence enables us to rest in that centre, to allow God to work in us there.”
I was not used to sitting silently and meditating. A few weeks prior to this I had been forced by the pain of depression to recognize that my workaholism had not allowed me to talk much to God and (even less) Him to me. I had recognized that breaking God’s law (not honouring the Sabbath) had nearly broken me and that my stopped-up spiritual wells urgently needed unstopping. The pain I had experienced, however, gave me the incentive to keep going until the silence silenced me (as Richard Rohr put it) and I realized that “God is the friend of silence” as Mother Theresa said.
Having time to review the error of my ways e.g. abusing my body with overwork and other self-imposed difficulties this year was initially very painful. I also realized that I had been too busy to properly mourn the unexpected deaths of my younger brother and my older sister earlier in the year (my sister’s death following about a week of my brother’s).
Fortunately, we were able to break silence for about 50 minutes per day when we had a session with our spiritual directors. I’m thankful to Sue Tinsley for making me feel safe enough to unburden myself during this time. This was initially accompanied by copious tears which came as a relief. She reminded me of how, despite the “prodigal son” having blown his inheritance, his father, nevertheless, ran to meet him and embraced and kissed him when he came to his senses and came home. Jesus was teaching us that our Heavenly Father does the same for us when we return to Him. It takes time, however, for the full significance of this to sink in. It depends on the extent to which we believe that God is really like that. It’s a matter of how much we trust God. There were experiences in my past that made it difficult for me to fully trust God.
When God revealed Himself to me (about age 18) much of my psyche had already been formed. Despite God having then transformed my life there were still dark areas that needed attention. Prayer and years of psychotherapy had made a big difference in dealing with depression and the challenges I inevitably had to face in my life but there were still areas in which I had to acknowledge defeat.
My spiritual wells had become stopped-up and I would have to do a lot of digging to unstop them. Sue gave me wise directions on how I could start to unstop them. One of these is the fundamental exercise that St Theresa of Avilla recommended – “See him looking at you” – taught by Anthony de Mello:
“Imagine you see Jesus standing before you … He is looking at you … all you have to do is see Him looking at you …”
St Theresa added:
“See Him looking at you, lovingly and humbly.”
For this exercise to work, however, the one being looked at must believe that this is possible. To do this I would have to fully know the Jesus of the New Testament. According to the handout those who find this impossible:
“.. have never taken seriously the fact that Jesus has become their servant and slave, a man who washes their feet, who willingly died the death of a slave out of love for them.”
At the start of the retreat we were asked to write down (for our own private purposes) what we hoped to achieve during this time. I wrote that I wanted to unstop my spiritual wells so that I could get closer to God and know him better. I knew a lot about God, but how well did I know Him as a person?
I tried to do this exercise during my meditations and it did make a difference – I felt closer to God. I was awestruck again by the humility of God coming as a vulnerable baby (probably born in a cave) in Bethlehem; the compassion he showed to the poor and hurting during His short ministry on earth; and the ultimate sacrifice of His life on the cross for everyone. This feeling did not, however, put an end to my nagging doubts e.g. how much on-going seemingly needless suffering there was. To me God could not be both omnipotent and all compassionate. I am not completely convinced by the explanation that for there to be freedom there had to be the option to choose evil which was the cause of all the suffering.
My meditations were taken to another level when we were introduced to the colloquy – an intimate conversation between you and God. I was aware of dialogues in the Bible between God and special people like Moses and Job, but I had never tried it myself in the formal way that was suggested to us. I had asked God plenty of questions in my mind but had not expected any answers.
My first attempt went like this:
Lord, I’m scared
Of what, Eric?
Of not having enough money.
Have you ever lacked anything before?
Yes, Lord. When I couldn’t pay provisional tax and had to borrow it from my mother.
Eric, who gave you your mother?
I suppose You did. I’m grateful for that, but you took her away.
She was in pain and needed to come home to me.
Sometimes I wish I could come home as well.
That time will come, Eric, but right now you’re needed where you are.
But will I always be needed, Lord?
Yes Eric, but not always where you are right now.
Lord, I need help where I am right now.
I am always there to help you, Eric. Did I not promise to never leave you?
Yes Lord, but I don’t always believe it.
If you don’t trust me, Eric, I can’t help you.
I know Lord, help me to trust you.
That’s as far as I got in my first try at Colloquy. I found it quite intense. It focused my attention and I felt closer to God.
After discussing this with Sue I understood more clearly what the underlying cause of my difficulties was. I was driven by fear of scarcity. I recalled from a young age how my father was always worried about not having enough money and how we had to go and live with my mother’s parents because we lost the first house my parents tried to buy. Fear is the opposite of faith. This mainly accounted for my workaholism.
My second attempt at a colloquy went like this:
So, Lord, you see everything I do.
You know everything I think.
So, there’s no privacy with you, Lord.
Yes, Eric – privacy is a human concept.
Are you not shocked by some of my thoughts?
No, Eric. Nothing surprises me. If I was surprised, I wouldn’t be God.
So, you have an advantage over me.
This is not a game of chess.
What is it, Lord?
A relationship, Eric.
Why do you want to have a relationship with me, Lord?
Eric, I made you to have a relationship with me. You’re incomplete without me.
I designed you to live in close communion with me. Sometimes you lose touch with me, Eric.
But sometimes I don’t even like myself, Lord.
Well, I love you, Eric – there’s a difference.
What’s that, Lord?
People usually like other people or things that give them pleasure – love does not depend on the beloved pleasing the one who loves.
That’s a tough one, Lord!
Eric, does your love of your children depend on them pleasing you?
Sometimes. Lord, it’s difficult to love my children when they defy me.
Yes, Eric. But do you stop loving them – wanting the best for them, making sacrifices for them?
Well, that’s like what I mean when I say that I love you, Eric.
Does that mean that I can do anything and you’ll still love me, Lord?
I find that difficult to believe, Lord.
It does not mean that I won’t discipline you, Eric, if I believe it’s necessary.
I knew it was too good to be true.
That can never apply to me, Eric, because I am good and I am true. Why do you see discipline as a problem?
Because it usually hurts, Lord.
Pain is often a warning to avoid greater danger.
True. Lord, getting really depressed recently warned me that I was overworking and I committed to keeping the Sabbath.
Exactly, Eric. I felt your pain, but you had to know that I never designed you to work every day of the week. Even I had to rest after 6 periods of creation. So, what makes you think you’re so special?
You do, Lord.
Not that special.
Lord, if you love me so much, that means you love everyone as much as you love me.
Yes, Eric. I don’t have favourites.
But the lot of some is much harder than others.
That may seem so from your limited perspective, Eric. You don’t know everything I know. If you did, you would be me – it would blow your mind.
That was all I could manage that retreat, but I plan to do more colloquys in future, starting with the question of suffering.
When I shared this colloquy with Sue, she was happy with my progress. She pointed out that I had even shown a sense of humour in my interaction with God. I think it indicated that the more I engaged with Him, the more I began to trust Him.
On 1 December 2019 I formally confessed my sins to the priest who did most of the teaching on the theme of Advent. I felt a great relief that I had been absolved of my sins, especially my lack of self-control (which resulted in me hurting myself and others) and lack of faith that God would help me to manage myself according to His will.
The retreat gave me the time and resources to converse with God again. I believe I made significant progress in unstopping my spiritual wells so that I can again access the Fountain of Living Water who will give me the strength to overcome whatever challenges face me in the future.
I need not fear for I believe that He will never leave me nor forsake me. “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
If you see an advert for one of these retreats in future, I recommend that you go – it may, literally, save your life.