Advancing While Retreating

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Last weekend, I was away on a 2-day Ignatian retreat. This retreat was unique from all the others I attended or staffed in a few ways.

For one thing, the retreat was more contemplative, focusing on a series of reflections that centered on who we thought Christ was, forgiveness, and the idea of dying to oneself and rising in Christ.

I spent a lot more time in silence during this retreat than any other retreat. It wasn’t a silent retreat, but the contemplative nature of the retreat and the gorgeous almost-spring weather prompted me to forget about trying to make small talk and enjoy my surroundings. This was especially true on Friday evening, when I caught sight of the night sky as I was walking towards the Stations of the Cross. It’s true what they say, y’all. The stars at night are bigger and brighter in Texas. It was like seeing them for the first time. When there was a long break on Saturday afternoon, I walked around the retreat property, appreciating all the wildflowers and trees. But my favorite place was a small lake that was perfect for skipping rocks. It was so nice and quiet there.

One thing I learned in this retreat is that when you spend time in silence, there is nothing standing between you and God. During the times I spent in silence, I realized that I was still holding parts of myself back from God. I also had problems enjoying the moment because on the one hand, I didn’t want the retreat to end. On the other hand, I was already longing for the trip home and the promise of fries and ICEEs from Buc-ees.

I went to this retreat seeking out answers and came home with my heart and conscience clear, but my future still uncertain. In spite of the uncertainty, though, I feel like I found a starting point. My life with Christ starts with me dying to myself and letting Christ have all of my heart. I found detachment from a lot of things I was obsessing over, but I also missed my friends. I found a sense of balance.

I highly recommend that if you get the opportunity this Lent, go on retreat or spend at least an hour in silence with God. You’ll be amazed at what you will find.

Finding Ourselves in the Silence

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It’s hard for me to be quiet for long. Although I don’t like noisy, crowded rooms, I love having my music around so much that my headphones are practically glued to my ears. I hate making small talk, but if the conversation centers on Doctor Who or Buffy, I’m more than likely to talk someone ear off. There’s a calm to the quiet, but it’s still unsettling to my modern mind, which is so used to having some kind of background noise.

Gaining an appreciation for silence is something a lot of religions seek out. Elizabeth Gilbert practiced an intense Buddhist meditation called Vipassana while staying in the ashram as a way of practicing detachment. Vipassana requires just sitting in silence and not shifting the body once you’ve sat down. Practicing this particular meditation helped her gain an appreciation for the idea of being less talkative and neurotic.

Catholicism has its own appreciation for silence and has its own form of silent meditation. Sure we have praise and worship, Liturgy of the Hours, and a million litanies, but the Church also offers Adoration. I love the silence of Adoration. More often than not, though, I tend to use Adoration to dump all my thoughts in the presence of God. I pray a Rosary and then babble on in my thoughts.

Eventually, the calmness of the hour I spend in Adoration finally sinks into my heart. There’s a great freedom in letting go of your thoughts and focusing more on God’s presence. Vipassana doesn’t allow for thoughts of God because some Buddhists consider God to be “the final object of dependency, the ultimate fuzzy security blanket, the last thing to be abandoned on the path to pure detachment.” Liz Gilbert preferred her “Slumber Party Theology.”

Neither of these philosophies hit the mark. There’s a beautiful paradox in the way that Catholics detach themselves from worldly things and surrender themselves to God. It’s not becoming dependent on a warm and fuzzy imaginary friend. God is not safe, after all. The Pharisees and Romans didn’t crucify the Son of God because he was telling everyone what they wanted to hear.

Mother Teresa explains this better:

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.

When we are silent in the presence of God, we become less of ourselves and more like Him. An interesting thing I observed about Eat, Pray, Love is that although Elizabeth found the happiness she sought from her mid-life crisis, there were times that she came off as a tad pretentious and self-centered. She never liked the idea of Christ being the only path to God. Sorry, lady, but it’s right there in black and white in John 14: 6 “ “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I understand that some people will probably find that concept of only one way restrictive. But letting God into our lives and allowing us to lose ourselves in Him paradoxically brings out the best version of ourselves. Having a life in Christ doesn’t mean that everyone becomes a cookie-cutter copy of each other. You just have to look at the community of saints to see that in that “one path,” there is diversity. Bishop Robert Barron compares it to light being fractured through a prism into an infinite number of colors. Instead of many paths leading to one way, finding ourselves in God leads to a more beautiful life.

There’s a song by Matt Maher called “Empty and Beautiful” that captures this spiritual journey of God finding us and how emptying ourselves into Him leads us to finding True Beauty.

Are We Out of the Woods Yet?

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One quote from Buffy the Vampire the Slayer that resonates with me comes from the Season 5 finale “The Gift”:

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.

Season 6 of Buffy was themed around the idea of life becoming the Big Bad. As angsty and heartwrenching as it sounds, Whedon got it right. Going to extremes feels easy because of the high-risk, high-reward gamble. We all jump at the chance to do the extraordinary. We live for the celebration of special occasions.

But ordinary life? Ordinary Time? The daily grind, especially when faced with an uncertain future? That’s hard. It’s hard to just live from day to day if your life is surrounded by uncertainty or sadness or anxiety. There are times in life where it feels like you’re driving down a highway at night with just the headlights showing the next 200 feet. Or you’re wandering around the woods and the trees look like monsters. Or you feel like there’s nothing but fog and rain and no sunlight at all. How do you find your way out?

“We walk by faith and not by sight.” – 2 Corinthians 5:7

There will be times in your life that God calls us to completely surrender yourselves, your lives, and everything in it to Him. Your faith will be tested. It’s during these times that you need to fully rely on God. It’s not an easy thing to do. I know it’s not for me, given that there are a million things in this life that I don’t know for sure.

What I know for sure is that if I didn’t have my faith in God and if I didn’t trust him,  I would just be an empty shell of the woman I am now. In spite of the darkness, the woods, and the fog, God is always with us, leading us out. But sometimes, as I’ve been learning in Vacation Bible School, he just wants us to hold on. As in hold on to Him. Rely on Him. Fully surrender ourselves to Him.

There are so many songs that talk about walking by faith, but one of my favorites is Audrey Assad’s “Lead Kindly Light,” based on a prayer by John Henry Newman.

I pray that no matter what’s going on in your life today, you are taking that first step in faith, trusting in God, and handing everything over to Him.