Into Deep Silence…

Early morning autumn mists on the river

Early morning autumn mists on the river

Novo Millennio Ineunte has to be one of my favourites of Pope St John Paul II’s encyclicals, because while it speaks so boldly of new evangelisation, of pastoral initiatives, of identifying goals and methods, first and foremost, the emphasis is placed on Jesus. It has those classic lines: “we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person” and, “The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever” (NMI, 29).

One of my favourites has to be this:

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine “schools” of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love”. Intense prayer, yes, but it does not distract us from our commitment to history: by opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God’s plan. (NMI, 33)

Last weekend, I spent a fantastic day in Swansea, leading a day on intentional discipleship for the Diocese of Menevia. I base days like these around Forming Intentional Disciples – starting off with the statistical situation of secularisation in Britain, the importance of breaking the silence about a personal relationship with Jesus, before heading into a proclamation of the kerygma with a time of prayer, and then the thresholds of conversion and more prayer. It is really skating over the surface, but what I find fascinates people the most (because we Brits are such pragmatists) are, What does this mean practically? How are you doing things differently in your parish? Why is what we’re doing often not working? 

We love to get to the doing.

So do I, and I love talking about it. But, last weekend, I was aware of how deeply happy I was to stop talking, and head from Swansea away on silent retreat. You know what, my retreat is often the best week of the year. For the past few years I have gone to the Foyers de Charité, last year at Chateauneuf de Galaure, and this year, my favourite Foyer, Tressaint in Brittany.

There’s really nothing comparable to five full days of silence, with long stretches in Adoration. I find that when you first arrive, your heart is longing for the Lord but a little restless. The advice we were given – which is fantastic advice – was, “don’t take your watch to prayer” and, “even when you reach the point you feel you can’t pray any more – stay a bit longer”. As the days go on, the communing deepens, you are able to touch him and listen to him on a deeper level, and on the last day, you don’t want to leave his presence. I find that spending that prolonged time with him – not doing or saying lots of stuff – just kneads and moulds your heart into his Heart. There is a deepening attraction, a deepening of communion and love. On the last day, you notice how long everyone else is staying in prayer too. You notice the reverence towards Jesus in the Eucharist, here is a whole room full of people in love.

And you know what? I think silence is the only real vehicle to experiencing this.

It is expressed beautifully by the founder of Notre Dame de Vie, Blessed Fr Marie-Eugene:

… silence and God seem to be identified. For God speaks in silence, and silence alone seems to express him. (P. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, I Want to See God, p. 410)

Wow… Just read that again… Wow. Yes. Silence and God seem to be identified. If that sounds crazy to you, go on a silent retreat, let it penetrate you, and you will see.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I think this intense time away with God is essential for disciples, and especially for ‘apostles’, disciple-makers. I know so many wonderful workers in the vineyard who toil for years without any extended time away in silence. So many people say it would be impossible to take that time out, a luxury they couldn’t afford.

But, you know what, JPII doesn’t agree!

…it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians [i.e. lay people, not consecrated] can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but “Christians at risk”. (NMI, 34)

Woah – at risk! Without a deep prayer life! Don’t we realise how much more God would work – in our families, in our apostolates – if only we switched off our phones for a week – completely – and let him alone work in us? If we really believe that holiness is the priority of the new evangelisation (NMI 30-31), let’s allow him to do the work while we close our mouths and get off our keyboards – for just one week of the year.

(More info about Tressaint here – they even provide childcare for the week for those who need it – how amazing is that – and a fab short video below if you understand a little French… and yes, there are retreats in English too).


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