“What do you do at a silent retreat? You just… Don’t talk?” asked many friends and co-workers. Usually i replied with a “yes, obviously”. But oddly enough, silent retreats are probably the most talking I have ever done, with the most real and honest conversations one can get.
(Snippets of prayer moments over silent retreat at Sevenhills@Adelaide)
Over the course of a short 5 days, I did have several other big thoughts like preparing for marriage or the longer terms plan of life after October, but the biggest takeaway I had was about prayer. It’s funny because prayer is like my kryptonite, it makes me weak and raw and my mind blank. In a Christian sense, that might actually work to my advantage in connecting with God. :O
You would think 120hours to play with, lots of time to do a variety of things, read some books or draw or exercise. I was feeling quite relaxed about it until the night before where my spiritual director (SD) who was just giving an admin brief said “we can talk about your prayer life in the morning”. That is the exact moment my stomach sank, I was not going to have a good answer, and from then on I realized the very uphill task before me for the next 120hours. I was scared.
I was so scared I actually tried to pray it away with Shaun. Even though church keeps me busy, I knew that I was a mess inside. So God very kindly reminded me that this was the ‘warning’ since the start of the year, that it’s going to be a tough year of preparation and decision-making. I relented and sighed, He did warn me.
What if, I have been praying wrongly all this time?
My SD (a very kind elderly man) told me to pray then to journal. I was puzzled because I can’t, I need to write! My brain is an unfiltered bullet train mess if it just remains in my head. Am I praying wrong? He encouraged me just to try it out and gave me my readings for the day.
I did give it a shot but it wasn’t very fruitful, I figured speaking out loud would be the next best thing and to be honest, it slows me down and it becomes a conversation. I always have the most ‘connected’ prayers when I say them out loud. Isaiah 55 hits the spot and I finally arrive. Feeling like a child that isn’t perfect but simply loved. I don’t have to be 100% right all the time.
What do you see?
Later on, God goes on to poke me with Jeremiah 1:4, telling me not to hide behind the words “I am only a child”, “to all to whom I send you you shall go. and whatever I command you you shall speak”. Man, just as I was getting comfortable and cosy.
From verse 11 onward, God was asking Jeremiah what he saw and he spoke to Jeremiah through those. I never knew God actually plainly spoke to someone like that so I did likewise! I sat on my tuft of grass and said “What do I see?”, He proceeded to tell me how like the tree bark wilting that it is a season of change, as ugly as it looks now, it’s just part of the process. God asked Jeremiah twice, so did I. Again, like the roses being watered, so too am I being watered and nourished even though I don’t see the water I draw from the ground. Ah, maybe I haven’t been praying wrong, this feels quite right.
I start to feel quite confident of prayer once again, I can pray with metaphors. I sat with Mary at the grotto, was pretty inspired by her role in Jesus’ life and then as I was talking out loud I suddenly stopped and just sat there. I don’t think I’ve felt that in a long time. It’s a similar idea when a person is talking and talking and then that sudden hug from the listener, and that comforting hug just says so much more than words ever could.
You love me, I love you, then what?
Prayer grew dry once more. I grew impatient. What now? Do I think about heavier life stuff now or am I suppose to bask in love until something shoves me out? Oh patience, we can do this. “My soul is thirsting.. I am a land parched” Psalm 63. My heart was getting incredibly restless.
The great wall.
On day 3, my SD gave me a task which I found terribly confusing and vague – No bible verse this time, I was lost. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the task correctly, was I answering the question? Is it suppose to be in situ, abstract or practical? One of the questions was “pondering Jesus on the cross, what ought I do for Christ?” I tried to ask God how to answer them. I tried pure thought, talking it out and writing (drawing even!) but I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. I had thoughts but were they the ‘correct’ thoughts?
I gave up on the exercise itself and when I thought back about my day via the examen, I saw how much I desired to just connect with God. Whoa. It wasn’t anything productive, rolling on grass, spending hours in a church, driving to a place with a boring view and singing to myself while walking. That’s.. kinda cool.
One other side observation I had was that I was not quite connected to Jesus as I was to God the Father. In my prayer I was quite used to father, creator, protector, and less comfortable with saviour, lover and friend. Maybe that’s why I’m not quite feeling the whole connection to Jesus on the cross. (Who you’re praying to actually makes quite a difference even though they technically are one and the same)
So, I lamented to God how I couldn’t make sense of this exercise. When I look at the crucifix, I was filled with nothing but numbness. It’s as though I could look at the greatest sacrifice and feeling nothing. That was scary. I was facing a wall, I couldn’t go through it, I had to climb it. So I grunted and gave my energy to just climbing over the wall to get to the other side and hey, it actually worked.
The moment came when I read John’s gospel and was honoured to even think of myself as a disciple of God. I remember telling my SD the story and he gave me a very expectant “yes…and..?” I didn’t feel consolation like the first 2 days but determination. God, you have got to pound my heart into flesh and let me see your glory. At this point, I am clinging on for dear spiritual life.
Excitement died down once again when I felt like bible passages made sense but weren’t all that inspiring. I started to wonder if I was looking for newness and excitement just to keep my spirits up or whether it was a joy just from sticking close to God. Selfishly chasing a high or encouragement and desire from God?
One more rainy moment from reading Galatians before feeling dry again. So, I ended my retreat with myself just standing at a cross and singing “Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you”. When I get a little tired trying to connect and talk it out with God, singing can’t hurt 😛
So prayer was really a roller coaster ride. I hit many up and downs, dew, jets of water and dryness. And my point at the end of the day is that, I think I learnt to pray through walls. I learnt to stay there even though it feels empty, to claw for God even though I don’t really see him, and that ultimately, it’s okay to be that way, if I was being watered all the time, I would drown.
On the last day in Adelaide city, We were at a shop and I picked up this book “Why bother praying” and quite predictably, it correlates to a lot of my thoughts the past few days: Who we pray to, types of prayers (praise, thanksgiving, lamenting, trust, waiting), traditions, Mary and praying for others.
This small step has given me quite a lot of hope. All I can do when I look back to recap my retreat is praise God for the severe amount of grace given. Grace =/= Consolation. It’s worth it to bother to be silent. It helps me in what I ought to do for Christ: Listen.