The solitude of retreats

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - Updated: 7:46 am

By Deacon C. Matthew Hawkins

Many Catholics ask how they can deepen their prayer life and the awareness of the divine presence in everyday life.

In a recent column (June 14 issue), I discussed how retreats play an important role in the formation of spirituality within our church. In that column, I mentioned Passionist Father Gerald Laba of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat Center, and how a person’s relationship with God shapes that person’s relationship with other people, and how a person’s relationship with others determines how receptive that person will be to hear the voice of God. Our prayer life enhances our human relationships, and our human relationships embody our prayers.

I would like to add another dimension on retreats: stillness, silence and being alone as we are dwarfed by God’s creation.

While prayer in community has its benefits, there are times when we need to withdraw and contemplate the enormity of God’s work in nature and our role in God’s larger design. One is reminded of the words of the psalmist: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place — what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4-5)

During a retreat at Loyola on the Potomac in Faulkner, Maryland, I found myself surrounded by wooded hills. In that environment, I was quickly reminded that the world does not revolve around my desires. As I prayed the psalms in the midst of God’s creation, I was in awe of the beauty of God’s handiwork.

Later, I climbed into a canoe and paddled to the middle of the Potomac, near the mouth of the river. The river was expansive; the setting of the golden sun reflected on the ripples of the water. I paused amid the stillness of the water and prayed the rosary. One realizes, in the middle of God’s creation, how small they are in comparison. This cannot help but impress upon us a sense of humility, the mature awareness that we are not the center of the universe. And yet we realize that everything is connected and we are part of God’s plan.

This was God’s message to the prophet Jeremiah when he said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you …” (Jeremiah 1:5). This is also what the psalmist meant when he said, “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works” (Psalm 139:13-14). When we are on retreat, amid God’s creation, we become aware of this more easily.

When we are still and silent, aided by spiritual reading, we are able to pull back and put things into perspective. Every drop of water takes on great significance in relation to the whole of creation, and yet the details of our problems that once caused us anxiety no longer obscure our vision of what God is doing in our lives. In stillness and in silence we are no longer obsessed with ourselves and with our petty obsessions. As St. John the Baptist said of Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Many people report that when they go on retreat they gain insights into how they should respond to problems or relationships they have wrestled with for a long time. Those things that once seemed hopeless and inevitable no longer bind us within the limitations of our fear. As we sit on a hillside, or by a lake or river, we realize that a retreat is not a flight from reality. It is an opportunity to enter into reality at a deeper level, with greater clarity and integrity than ever before.

There are many fine retreat centers in western Pennsylvania. In addition to St. Paul of the Cross, I have had fruitful retreats at the Passionist nuns’ center on Churchview Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, St. John the Baptist retreat center in New Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Rednal retreat house in Ligonier and Villa Maria, which is located near Youngstown, Ohio. I have also heard many good things about the Martina Spiritual Renewal Center in West View, which is run by the Sisters of the Holy Spirit. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of the wide range of resources available for deepening your prayer life and encountering Christ.

Deacon Hawkins is a transitional deacon who is studying for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He is a member of St. Paul Cathedral Parish. His diaconate assignment is with the Catholic Community of Lawrence County.

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