Introduction to Retreat and to Lent

Reading from the first letter of St John Chapter 1 verses 1-4.

“Something which existed at the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands; the Word who is life, this is our subject. The life was made visible, we saw it and we are giving our testimony and giving our testimony of eternal life which was with the Father and has been made visible to us, what we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us as we are in union with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, we are writing this to you to make our own joy complete”.

In the first century after the time of the death of the Apostles the Christian Church came into close contact with the prevailing culture of the time, the Greek culture. Greek philosophy applied its mind to understanding and expressing what Jesus was, what He did and what He said. This presented a challenge to the Christian Church.

Gnosticism was one of the main challenges to the church. Gnosticism reduced Christianity to mere knowledge. It reduced Christ to an idea and it introduce the community of the church to a secret esoteric way of living.

This can happen to us. We ourselves can reduce our Christian faith to a thing of knowledge only. Again our faith can be reduced to our ritual way of life without any soul.
Or we may see our Christian call as ministers as a job to be done. And our Christian Theology can become mere speculation and matter of opinion.

It is to this attack on the Christian message that St John addresses his opening words in his first letter which we have just read. John is insisting that something has existed from the beginning and it is something concrete, it is something real, it is much more than an idea or a thought. He says we have heard and we have seen with our own eyes, we have watched, we have touched with our hands the Word Who is life.

John and the early Christian community is insisting that Jesus is a real person and Christianity consists in meeting the real Jesus and living in Him in intimate friendship. What John is inviting us to do at the beginning of this retreat is to once again make our faith real. Faith is a real meeting with Jesus Christ.

Yes, they had heard Jesus. They heard his cry on the cross, “Father forgive them they know not what they do”. They heard His human voice when He spoke the parables.

They had seen with their own eyes, they had not imagined, they had seen Him risen from the dead. They sat around and had breakfast with Him. One of them placed his fingers into the side of Christ. He prepared fish for them.

There is a very interesting verse in St John’s Gospel, where St John speaks about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is in Johns Gospel chapter 20. And he describes how Simon and John ran to the tomb early in the morning and John stood outside waiting for Peter to catch up. Then Peter entered and then we read, “Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first, that is John, also went is and “he saw and he believed”.

This is a surprising comment, John walked into the empty tomb where Jesus had been laid on Friday evening and seeing that Jesus was not present he immediately believed. Why did he believe so easily and so suddenly? I mean, somebody could have stolen the body of Jesus– would that not have been a more logical conclusion. Yet we read John believed. He believed because John had been there on Friday evening at the burial of Jesus. He knew how Jesus was laid to rest. The body of the dead Savior would have been wrapped around, and around and around by a long linen cloth. And then another cloth would have been put on his head and the head would have been anointed.

And when John entered the tomb he saw that the cloth which had wrapped the body of Jesus had not been disturbed and yet His body was not in it. It was as if a block of ice had been placed in the cloth and it simply melted. Jesus was not there. Again the cloth on the head was a little to the side, it was standing because it had been crusted by the anointing. John knew immediately that Jesus had not been taken out of the cloth, Jesus had simply gone to the Father, He was risen from the dead.

So they truly say “we have seen with our own eyes”, and John believed.

Scripture tells us that they watched and touched Jesus after the resurrection. And they are proclaiming that Jesus is really alive, it is not an idea, it is reality. Retreat and Lent is the time in which we come to meet Jesus as real.

I once had that sensation of the reality of Jesus when I went to visit the tomb of St Peter underneath his great Basilica in Rome. There through a dark glass you see the bones of the big fisherman. I was deeply moved as I looked at those old bones of St Peter. I had a real sense of being close to this man who knew Jesus of Nazareth so well. This man had been chosen by Jesus, he had traveled with Jesus, he had been there when Jesus went into the house of Jairus and raised a little girl from the dead. Peter had been with Jesus when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. Peter had given hospitality to Jesus in his own home in Capernahum. Peter was there when Jesus died and rose from the dead. To stand so close to the bones of this man who was so intimate to Jesus gave me a real sense of the reality of the Gospel, the reality of the real concrete Jesus.

This is why we come to Lent and to retreat to really encounter Jesus, the Word who is life. This is what we are called to do in this time of rest from Ministry. We are asked to go aside to the mountain and spend time with Jesus to allow Him to become real for us again.

Since the 1950’s the church had always emphasized catechetics. But over the last 20 or 30 years the church, especially under Pope John Paul, has come to emphasize Evangelisation. Catechetics is indeed very important. But it can be something that ends at the mind and at knowledge only. Evangelisation means real encounter, a real meeting with Jesus, a real friendship with Jesus Himself.

John calls us to experience life, to encounter life. And this is what the retreat is.

A man speaks of visiting the village of Oberamergau in Germany for the passion play. Here the villagers perform in a most dramatic fashion the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life. The drama takes place through the village over the whole day. This man was intrigued by the drama but he was very impressed by a little girl of twelve who was with him. This little girl was moved to tears many times as she watched the Agony of Jesus. The man says; “I was jealous of her. For me this drama was simply a drama but for her it was real”.

I think we are called to see our faith as something real that touches our heart. And this is what a retreat tries to do.

The reading above goes on to say that “What we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us and have union with the Father and His Son Jesus”. Here is a central idea of the Mystical teaching of St John. His aim is fellowship with Jesus. Remember, “I am the vine, you are the branches, cut off from me you can do nothing.”

“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God lives in him”.1John 4 v 15-16. If we acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, God lives in us. If we live in love God lives in us. And it is when we are in union with Jesus that we experience joy, a joy that the world cannot give. Sin cannot give us joy. It is the Holy Spirit of joy who gives us joy and that is why John tells us in verse 4 is the reason he is writing– to make our joy complete. That is the reason for a retreat– to return with joy.

The retreat is the moment to give time to God. It is the time to restart.

Sometimes we are too familiar with Spiritual things because we meet them every day. We say Mass, celebrate Sacraments, we attended funerals, we visit the sick, we go to hospitals and because we are busy we do not reflect on these events. And when we fail in our active ministry to meet the real Jesus our prayer life can become external routine. Our Liturgy can become an empty ritual without personal feeling or joy…..

So we should ask ourselves when last did I somehow experience the presence of Jesus in Ministry, in people, in Sacraments, in the Word? This is an exercise that could be used from the beginning of the retreat.

The retreat is a time of grace. Grace means the touch of God’s finger in our lives. Many of the great saints have related to us how God dramatically entered their lives. They had been searching, they had been thinking and then suddenly their faith became real.

Remember St Theresa of Avila who for twenty years lived religious life without any depth. That one day coming up the stairs she saw the image of the crucified Christ in a painting and was deeply touched by the suffering of Jesus. Her life changed at that moment.

We remember St Francis of Assisi who was a rich young man seeking glory. He met the Leper and showed kindness to him for the love of Christ and suddenly Jesus was alive in all people for Francis.

We remember St Ignatius of Loyola who discerned the presence of the Spirit when he was injured in war. Ignatius read romantic novels which left him in a state of confusion and little peace. But when he read the lives of the Saints or of holy things he always felt a new peace and a new joy. And so he knew that God was present in prayer and things of the spirit. He changed his life. From now on he listened to the peace of Jesus in his heart when he prayed and worked with the Lord.

St Augustine and many others have left beautiful stories of their conversion. But when touched by grace they made a decision. And this retreat will be a time for decision for us. It will be a time of deciding to go back with a new commitment and a new love of God in our lives.

This retreat is a time to make your ministry more real. Personal experience and reflection can make the work we do much more real. I visited my father in Ireland when on holidays and spent all my time with him. He was a fine strong man, healthy all his life. But in the last few years of his life he began to get frail. He could not walk around as easy as before. He had to struggle to do what he formerly did so easily. And spending time with him I became aware of how old people feel vulnerable. How they become fearful, how they have a sense that they are useless, how they easily feel that they are in the way and think that they inhibit the joy and life of those around them. This touch with reality always brought me back to South Africa with a new appreciation, a new sensitivity to old people. They were like my father.

Use this time in retreat in silence. The very first word in the great rule of St Benedict which did so much to form the culture of the Western world is attende! St Benedict is gathering people around him. He is forming them to live the religious life. And his first advice is pay attention, attende, listen. The retreat is a time to listen, to listen where you are coming from, to listen to the working of the spirit in our souls, to listen to the word of scripture and to listen to the love that God has for us.

William Slattery ofm