I often look upon a retreat in its original meaning. To retreat means to withdraw. The English word is taken from an old French word retret. It is a noun derived from the Latin retrahere, which means to “pull back.” One retreats from the present situation (which is normally difficult or uncomfortable) to another (more relaxed) situation. So, for most of us who are filled with activity and noise, we retreat into a more secluded place where activity and noise are minimum. Retreats, for many of us, are times when we can be in a slient place to commune with God. However, here comes a little problem: the place may be silent and serene, but we aren’t in our minds.
Here in Kampung Ponggol, we have a generally silent atmosphere during prayer times. However, we may or may not be in a prayerful disposition. Sometimes, we are tired after an exceptionally tiring night of studying and we fall asleep during meditation in the morning. Thus, our prayer time is reduced. What’s worse, I think, is when we keep silent but we start processing data in our minds, especially data that has nothing to do with prayer.
In the traditional form of Christian prayer of lectio divina, our minds are pretty active. It’s when we enter into contemplatio that we are able to let our minds slow down and allow God’s presence to fill us. What’s more … God’s presence usually comes in the silence:
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli'jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (I Kgs 19:11-13, RSV)
Thus, it is a good practice for priests and seminarians here at Kampung Ponggol to have a way of getting into interior silence before we enter into the exterior silence that punctuates the various parts of the day. I remember that, as a seminarian, I used to take a small pair of gardening shears and snip away stray branches of some of our hedge shrubs when I was cooling down after games. It helped me to keep all other thoughts away, especially the frustration of how badly I played the game of volleyball or how I could have let that ball slip away. I focused on the trimming for about 15 minutes and would be a good silent frame of mind as I cleaned up and prepared for Vespers. I was misunderstood by a formator who asked me not to waste time doing gardening. I prayed about explaining to him but discerned that he would not really understand and chose to obey instead. I had to look for other ways to calm down and get into the silence.
Holy Hour is a very special time. I remember a parish priest remarking to me that most lay people did not understand the silence of the Holy Hour and so he attempted to fill up the hour with hymns and guided reflections. I did not question the priest as I felt that he would understand his parishioners better than I did; he was, after all, a holy and beloved priest. However, in the seminary, Holy Hour should only have a hymn to set the tone of the adoration and then, perhaps, a passage from scripture, to focus our minds on God. We have seminarians taking turns to lead in Holy Hour. The last thing any seminarian should do is to fill the whole hour with music and vocal reflections. I remember that during my time as a seminarian, we had one Holy Hour where someone used New Age Music, complete with crickets and birds, to keep us in the meditative mood! I remember that it didn’t help me to keep the hour holy.
As future priests in the parishes, seminarians should learn to cultivate the love of silence. The parish has no lack of activity if a priest was willing to look for it. However, even within the parish, the sanctuary of the church or chapel as a temporary refuge from the hustle and bustle of parish work is a definite welcome. I remember Fr. Peter Lu who “retreated” to the church every morning between nine and ten. Even five minutes of silence in the office between appointments could be a good time to recharge one’s spiritual batteries. God grants us, priests, grace to help whoever comes to us. The short periods of silence would help us not to forget that.
So, at Kampung Ponggol, we keep a practice of keeping the silence, so that when we are immersed in activity, we can still find the silence to allow God, in his small voice, to speak to us. We would be able to listen inside even when we are bombarded with noise outside.
PS: If you’re interested in lectio divina, click on this link to St. Andrew’s Abbey or their page on lectio divina here.