30 days. Wow! 30 days of silence and being in conversation with God. It is easy to say that the 30-day silent retreat is what I have been most apprehensive about during these past five years in seminary. It is the summer experience that is most talked about by those that attend it, while maintaining a sense of secrecy or mystery. The secrecy is due to the intimate nature of the 30-day retreat. For myself, someone that does not seek out silence all too often, the retreat was always this looming question mark. I had many questions: What is a 30-day silent retreat? Can I survive that long without talking or technology? Will I make it through? It’s from this point of uncertainty that I traveled to Irene, South Dakota with sixteen of my classmates to begin what is always described as “a life-changing experience.”
Sacred Heart Major Seminary places the 30-day silent retreat at the end of each seminarian’s first year in the Graduate School of Theology, which is a pivotal point in a seminarian’s prayer life. Ordination is fast approaching at this point; in most cases, diaconate ordination is less than two years away and presbyteral ordination is less than three. A deep and intimate relationship with God is all the more important as these major life events approach. How can a man become Jesus’s priest without having a wholehearted relationship with God? The overarching goal though is not just to get to ordination, but to find greater intimacy with the three persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The only way to grow in this desired intimacy is to spend time with Him, because intimacy is profound knowledge of the Beloved and knowledge that one is beloved.
You might be asking yourself, “Why Irene, South Dakota?” Well I was asking myself that same question during the thirteen hour drive into the heart of the Midwest. There, in the Southeast corner of South Dakota, you’ll find Broom Tree Retreat Center. As you can probably imagine, surrounded by farms and cornfields, it is the perfect setting for one to enter fully into silence, which is a principal aspect of the retreat.
The 30-day silent retreat is nothing new. In fact, it can be traced back to the 16th Century, when St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), directed those that followed him through a series of exercises. These exercises are split up into four “weeks” and make up the foundation of the retreat. Each day, the retreatant prayers four to five holy hours, has an hour of spiritual direction with a priest, and attends Mass. The day is punctuated by those holy hours, and the rest of the time you continue to have conversation with Jesus about what is happening in your heart. The entire day is focused on one seemingly simple thing: being with Jesus. Thus, these holy hours are not just sitting in the chapel praying various devotions, great as they may be, but in making the relational choice to share everything with Jesus. He desires to know us and to be known by us, if we but give him the time and the opportunity.
The prayer exercises outlined by St. Ignatius are focused on the life of Jesus, from his Incarnation to the period following his Ascension. Most days your spiritual director will point you to meditate on one specific mystery of the life of Jesus. To mediate on this mystery, you read scripture and then you ask Jesus to share with you what he was experiencing in these moments. When Jesus reveals to you something about the mystery, you acknowledge how your own heart is moved and relate that to Jesus. This is how the intimate relationship with Christ grows — through making the relational choice to spend each minute with him, sharing with him everything in your heart.
An example from my own prayer on this retreat focuses on the Visitation. I was praying with Luke 1:39-56 and I asked Jesus to bring me into this specific moment of his life. I received very vividly the great amount of joy and excitement that Jesus was experiencing when he interacted with his cousin St. John the Baptist for the first time. When Mary and Elizabeth embraced, their stomachs touching, Jesus and John met in a real way. This automatically stirred in my own heart the great joy that I had growing up with my cousins. They were my best friends and we were inseparable, especially at the local pool in the summer. I was able to relate to the joy that Jesus himself had and share with him the great memories of my own childhood.
A priest once told me that one who goes through the 30-day exercises will describe their spiritual life as “pre 30-day” and “post 30-day.” Perhaps I was a bit skeptical at first, but now I could not agree more with that statement. This dedicated time of prayer was life changing for me, offering me the ability to spend 30 days in silent prayer and communion with the one with whom I desire to spend eternity. Prior to this retreat God felt a bit distant for me. Of course, I loved him and wanted to serve him and do His will, but He still seemed to be unapproachable or inaccessible at times. Now, I am able to share everything with him, and I know that he desires for me to do so. I am confident that he yearns for me to come to him in each moment of my life, because he comes to me in each moment of mine. While I was apprehensive about 30 days of silence, I can see now that the intimacy with him that I so longed for would not have been possible had it not been for this silence, the very aspect of the retreat that initially caused the most hesitation. The silence allowed for a complete and unreserved sharing because there was little to distract me from him.
The world we live in now is often a cacophony of chaos, constantly surrounding us with noise and busyness. I have learned that we should try to build moments of silence into our daily lives, like spending the first minutes in the car without the radio, instead being with Jesus in a dedicated way, telling him everything that is going on in our lives. For myself I undoubtedly know: it is in the silence that God speaks.
I thank God for this grace-filled opportunity to grow in intimacy with Him. In the words of our own Blessed Solanus Casey, I thank God ahead of time for the graces that will continue to flow out from this life changing experience.