Re-post from March 2013.
Through the graciousness of my generous wife, I was able to steal away from life’s busy routines and go on retreat a week or so ago at a lovely, out of the way place called Rosaryville in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. It’s run by Dominican sisters. My purpose in going on this retreat was to discern a decision that was suddenly presented to me recently — to give up my teaching at the Seminary and assume the administrative role of Academic Dean. My hunch that this was God’s will for me was…I didn’t want to do it. It seems whenever my knee-jerk reaction to an opportunity is “no,” it’s usually the sign to me God’s call is hiding somewhere in there; in the shape of a freshly minted cross.
It was a private, silent retreat. My favorite kind. To be alone with the Alone.
Liber naturae, “The book of nature”
While the Christ event is at the heart of divine revelation, we also need to realize that creation itself, the “liber naturae,” is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. — Verbum Domini
One day, I took a long stroll through a woodsy area that surrounded the retreat house. It was a cool and breezy March day, in the 50’s, and a milky sun shone through the wispy cirrus clouds that sped across the azure skies. Breathtaking.
It’s so wonderful how silence amplifies the simplest sounds of nature that frequently are drowned out by the buzzing noise of life.
The forest floor was littered with decaying wood and leaves. Everywhere, there were stalks of yellow flowers rocketing out from beneath the gray and brown carpet like festive dancers disrupting a solemn funeral. As I walked further on through the tangled thickets beneath rows of towering pine, I could hear the sweet chorus of excited chickadees, downy woodpeckers and blue jays, their clashing cries echoing beneath the breathtakingly beautiful cathedral of the skies. I even spied a female cardinal, camouflaged by her muted feathers, busily foraging in the matted piles of oak leaves. I stood motionless, and could hear my heartbeat.
Then, as I pushed further into the woods, I came to a patch of slash pines bordering a small pond. The wind was blowing steadily, causing the pines to whisper their haunting melodies. Have you heard them before? I’ve always thought that Elijah must have heard them at the entrance of the crag in Mount Sinai. Their softly whispered wail is, for me, the voice of the Almighty. Maybe it is that all pines, everywhere and through all ages, imbibe the whispered prayers of that saints that were once-for-all gathered on the knotted Tree of Golgotha.
At least it seemed so that day.
As I walked around onto a beaten path, I bent down and paused to admire the fragile beauty of what I think was a Tiny Bluet that was blooming early. Probably because it was sheltered on a south-facing slope that caught more sunshine.
I thought at once of St. Peter Damian’s words, as he describes the benefits of choosing to retreat now and again into solitude (the ‘hermitage’) to recollect in prayer:
The hermitage is a paradise of delight where the fragrant scents of the virtues are breathed forth like sweet sap or glowing spice-flowers. There the roses of charity blaze in crimson flame and the lilies of purity shine in snowy beauty, and with them the humble violets whom no winds assault because they are content with lowly places; there the myrrh of perfect penance perfumes the air and the incense of constant prayer rises unceasingly.
But why should I call to mind these in particular? For the lovely buds of all the holy virtues glow there many-coloured and graces flourish in an undying greenness beyond the power of words to describe. O hermitage! delight of holy souls, unfailing in your inner sweetness.
“You have placed my tears in your flask;
are they not recorded in your book?” — Psalm 56:9
A tear rolled down my face, provoked by the innocence of these flowers — unlike me, they are unshaken by the cares and worries of life, as the Lord had commanded. Luke 12:26-28.
The “gift of tears” written about by the desert fathers, and several centuries later by St. Ignatius of Loyola, is not about finding meaning in our pain and suffering. They do not give answers but instead call us to a deep attentiveness to the longings of our heart. They continue to flow until we drop our masks and self-deception and return to the source of our lives and longing. They are a sign that we have crossed a threshold into a profound sense of humility. Tears come when we learn to live more and more out of our deepest longings, our needs, our troubles. These must surface and be given their rightful place. For in them we find our real human life in all its depths. And when one begins with these unacceptable feelings and desires, which have to be submitted for examination, we must look closely at, and learn to live with, this amazing degree of this weakness of ours… St. Ephrem writes: “Give God weeping, and increase the tears in your eyes, through your tears and his goodness the soul which has been dead will be restored” — Andrew Louf
The flowers seemed to say to me, “You are tiny.”
Feeling the weight of life’s many responsibilities, I prayed: “Lord, hide me beneath the shadow of your Wings.” Just then, in that moment, the sound of Psalm 95, as I heard it many times at New Melleray Abbey, came alive in my mind — listen here if you wish. Psalm 95:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides in the shade of the Almighty
says to the Lord: “My refuge,
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”
It is he who will free you from the snare
of the fowler who seeks to destroy you;
he will conceal you with his pinions
and under his wings you will find refuge.
You will not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness
nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand fall at your right,
you, it will never approach;
his faithfulness is buckler and shield.
Your eyes have only to look
to see how the wicked are repaid,
you who have said: “Lord, my refuge!”
and have made the Most High your dwelling.
Upon you no evil shall fall,
no plague approach where you dwell.
For you has he commanded his angels,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you upon their hands
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
On the lion and the viper you will tread
and trample the young lion and the dragon.
Since he clings to me in love, I will free him;
protect you for he knows my name.
When he calls I shall answer: “I am with you,”
I will save him in distress and give him glory.
With length of days I will content him;
I shall let you see my saving power.