“In silence and quiet the devout soul advances in virtue and learns the hidden truths of Scripture.” –—Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
There is an old adage that suggests that you become like the company you keep. This is why we get a blessed opportunity to spend a whole month with the Lord in silent prayer: to become like Him! Of course, we are striving to live in constant relationship with Christ in everyday life, but silence plays a crucial role in the development of this relationship. When there is external silence, we become more aware of what is going on internally. In the silence, we are able to discern the voice of God more easily from our own thoughts and the promptings of the evil one.
The 30-day retreat was popularized by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who structured it for members of the order he founded: the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The structure is designed to facilitate an intimate relationship with Jesus. A typical day includes Mass, five hours of prayer, and an hour of spiritual direction. Within the silence, whether praying with Scripture, eating, exercising, etc., the goal is to always be aware of God’s loving presence and activity in the soul. In a way, everything done and experienced becomes prayer. This is what St. Paul encourages when he tells us to “pray unceasingly.” Everything is in relationship with God, who gives Himself to us and desires that we give ourselves as a gift back to Him.
Before beginning, I was intimidated by the length of the retreat. I have done a few eight-day retreats as part of my previous formation, but going from a week to four weeks is a big jump! I was also very encouraged by those who had participated in the retreat before me. They told me that it is life-changing and that prayer will not be the same afterward. They told me that silence would be difficult at some points, but that grace would be sufficient for me and that God would bring greater blessings through those struggles. I completely agree with the advice I received! The silence was difficult at times, but on the 30th day, I found myself trying to savor the silence as it was coming to a close. My prayer has been transformed, and I have an increasingly acute sense of how the Lord is working in my everyday life.
A large part of the retreat is focused on praying through the life of Christ. Saint Ignatius encourages allowing God to use our imagination to help us enter into Scripture in a tangible way. The most powerful example for me was praying with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Throughout three days of the retreat, Jesus and I carried the cross together, we died together, and we rose together. Jesus was patient with me as I stumbled while we carried the cross and we fell together. We got back up together and continued on to Golgotha. On the cross together, Jesus showed nothing but love and mercy as He bore the weight of my sins and offered Himself in confidence to the Father. Strengthened by His example and my desire to love as He loves, I followed Him in death. On the third day, we rose together, giving me new life and increased faith. As Saint Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Through these intimate experiences in prayer, I see now that the rest of my life will be a continual cycle of life, death, and resurrection with Christ. He is preparing me for the day when He will call me to Himself and ask me to trust that He will be on the other side of the sleep that we call death and that there will be a true resurrection to eternal life.
Joshua Luttig is a Theology II seminarian for the Diocese of Lansing.