Go deeper on retreat

Friday, June 14, 2019 - Updated: 3:42 pm

By Deacon C. Matthew Hawkins

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I want to experience a richer prayer life and a fuller life of devotion. I want to live my faith in a more meaningful way?” These thoughts are not uncommon among today’s Catholics. They are invitations to a deeper life in Christ. We should respond to them with open hearts.

As I prepared for my diaconate ordination on the road to the priesthood, I made a five-day retreat at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat Center in the green hills of Pittsburgh’s South Side. Father Gerald Laba directed my retreat. The center offers plenty of space, both indoors and outside, for prayerful reflection.

Going on retreat is not just for those who are preparing for a vocation to the ordained ministry. It is for anyone who wants to deepen his or her life of faith and encounter Christ on a deeper level. For many people, five days may be impractical, but they would still benefit from a weekend retreat or even one that lasts overnight.

Father Jerry, at the retreat center, pointed out that in today’s world many people suffer from an inability to live with the awareness of God’s presence in their lives. One of the goals for retreats, he said, is to help people experience the presence of God, and to recognize God’s movements in the events of their lives.

God speaks to people in different ways, Father Jerry said, including Scripture, liturgy, sacraments, other people, music, art and even nature. The retreatant becomes prayerfully sensitized and learns to listen and respond to Christ’s voice. This is often transformative as people begin to make retreats a frequent part of their journey of faith.

While a popular image of retreats is hermit-like isolation, in reality retreats combine time alone in silence and in prayer with prayer and worship in community. There is a balance between being in community and being alone. It is also often helpful to have spiritual direction on a retreat.

Our secular culture of radical individualism makes it harder for people to experience a richer life in Christ, Father Jerry said. Many people today believe that all they need are good, charitable works and a vague sense of “spirituality.” He explained why such people usually find eventually that something is lacking.

“The spirituality of doing good works is transformed (and empowered),” he said, “when we come together as a community around the Eucharist.”

In my preparation for ordained ministry, I found the religious community of the Passionists highly supportive. Fellowship with them deepened my experiences during periods when I was alone. There were others at the retreat center who came as couples or in a larger group. They benefited from being guided by the priests, and they inspired one another. While we have individual needs, we must not lose sight of how our spirituality is strengthened by being brought together in Christ as members of communities of faith.

Our individual encounters with Christ, while we are part of a larger community of faith, are two aspects of one journey. Those who do charitable work find that these efforts are focused and meaningful when they are grounded in the Eucharist. Likewise, those who seek a prayerful relationship with God find that they meet God most vividly when they open themselves to everyday human encounters.

“Your relationship with God,” Father Jerry said, “is important because that relationship shapes how you relate to other people.” It is also true that how you relate to other people determines how receptive you will be to hearing the voice of God.

We all need occasional time away from our daily routines to experience our faith at a deeper level. This will make our walk with God more meaningful and our interaction with other people richer and more fulfilling. Going on frequent retreats gives us the opportunity to meet God in the silence of prayer and to encounter him in the faces of the people around us. Catholics who want to energize their lives of faith should consider going on frequent spiritual retreats.

Deacon Hawkins was ordained as a transitional deacon June 8 on his journey to the priesthood. He is studying at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He is a member of St. Paul Cathedral Parish.

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