Solitude is defined by the dictionary as the state of being alone. However, in Christian spirituality, we refer to the spiritual practice or discipline of solitude as being alone for the exclusive purpose of fellowship with God. We do not seek to be alone because we are uncomfortable being with people and wish to avoid them. Nor is the purpose “me time” – being alone to do my own thing, to have a time-out, whether it be a Netflix binge, a café visit, shopping, or being absorbed in a hobby or sport. The practice of solitude is about time alone with God, being alone and free from all distraction of people, amusement, things or tasks. “Go to your room and pray in secret”(Matt 6:6) was Jesus instruction on discipleship and prayer. To pray in secret is to pray alone. Room (Gk tamion) is a chamber, an inner room for one to retire, to have privacy. In effect Jesus was encouraging a practice of solitude and prayer.
Why Solitude Frees Us
When we are alone we feel free of the need to meet up to people’s expectations. We do not worry about having to impress people with our eloquence or our breadth of concerns for the world. We are able to be ourselves and express what is in our hearts of hearts: our deepest desires, the darkest secrets, the abysmal failures, our exalted hopes and dreams without fear of a confidentiality leak or condemnation or evaluation. Solitude means being alone with Someone who loves us like no other. It creates a sacred space for God to meet with us, and for us to be changed by our encounter with him.
In this state of aloneness with God there are no scaffoldings: no activities to keep us occupied, no people or smartphone to keep us engaged, no Netflix or YouTube to keep us entertained, no work to keep us numb towards feelings we have unknowingly suppressed. There is no one to get LIKES from, no one to impress so that they FOLLOW us. It is only the solitary soul and God.
When we give God such exclusive attention the meeting with him is bound to impart life, invite change, initiate action. We are available to reflect on and receive communications from God through the many way he messages us in our daily life, through the Bible, dreams, impressions and the stirring of our desires and imagination.
When we are alone with God we find ourselves inevitably facing ourselves. Often this may be uncomfortable as the Lord surfaces for us things in us that needs his cleansing, reforming, and purifying power. Suppressed fears, anger, resentment and other insights about our true selves are able to surface because the blocks that keep us from seeing or dealing with these have been removed by the practice of solitude.
WHAT DO WE DO
We wait in silence before God, resting in the knowledge that he looks on us in love, kindness and gentleness. We breathe slowly and deeply. We still our body and our inner selves and silence all the noises in our mind. We quiet ourselves and present ourselves to him, like saints of old, “Here am I, Lord, waiting before you in solitude and silence”.
We can then turn to a passage in the Bible and read it slowly and meditatively. Or reflect on the day or week that had past. Or tell him what the day was like as a friend to a friend. Or tell him how we feel right there and then.
To help us continually be aware of his presence and our purpose, we could light a candle. We could place a cross before us, or hold a cross, or have the Bible in our hands. We could even have an empty seat or additional mug to remind us we have Jesus with us. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”(Rev 2:20).
We could start with an hour, and gradually increase it to longer periods of solitude and prayer, perhaps to a morning and later to a whole day with set times of 45 minutes to one hour of prayer with breaks in between. The day of solitude could then grow to two or three days in a retreat house with the help of a spiritual director to guide our prayer. This progression is not to be forced but the fruit of the grace of God at work in the soul that makes a soul hunger for more solitude, more time with God in prayer.
With the Covid-19 pandemic curbing travel overseas you may want to consider using your annual leave and savings to find real refreshment and rest in God’s presence. Consider going for a silent retreat in 2021. People who found that with their regular travel plans dashed, staycationing does not really give you a sense of refreshment. A complete change of scenery was what it took in the past for a re-charge. Why not consider a change in perspective: maybe its spiritual refreshment that is needed. Jesus call to us who are weary and heavy-laden is simply: “Come to Me”. So a silent retreat of three, five or seven days may be what you need in 2021.
WHAT IS A SILENT RETREAT?
Seeking God in silence and solitude has a rich biblical tradition that reaches back as far in the Bible as Moses and his 40 days on the mountain waiting on God in silence and solitude to receive what God wanted to reveal to him: the ten commandments. Even Jesus, the One Greater than Moses, sought God in silence, solitude and prayer for 40 days before he embarked on his mission.
Silence and solitude wean us away from internal and external distractions and expectations, and creates an inviting space for us to pray with greater ease and focus, and to know and love God more.
In a silent retreat we are intentionally withdrawing ourselves from human and digital interaction, to set ourselves apart for a specific period of a few or more days, with the sole purpose of seeking to know and love God more, and to receive whatever graces or gifts he chooses to pour on us.
While this can be done from home, there are dedicated spaces designed specifically and intentionally to make the space conducive for prayer and reflection. Often these are owned by Catholics because they have a rich tradition in dedicated spaces of silence for retreats that goes back many centuries. The evangelicals are awakening to this need too but there are few in our region.
The blessings of a silent retreat are many and you may experience a few of these: being healed of painful and tough experiences from your past; a freedom from attachments and idols; greater awareness of self, the world and God; an increase of love, joy and peace; feeling you are Beloved of God; and deepening of your friendship with God. Other side benefits are a digital detox, a good rest, and refreshment.
A spiritual director accompanies and guides you as you seek God in prayer. He usually meets you daily in a one to one meeting, to listen what you have experienced in prayer, in order to co-discern with you the stirrings of desires, memories, emotions and hope that have surfaced. He helps you clarify what God is doing in your soul, and how you may respond to Him.
WHY DO PEOPLE GO ON A RETREAT?
Here are some of the most common reasons:
To seek God for wisdom and peace in decision-making
To rest and recover from feeling stressed and drained
To seek God’s answer to burning question
To seek God’s peace and help because you feel troubled
To make peace with your past hurts, losses, faults
Wanting a closer relationship with God
Jesus at the centre. Therefore, pray before, during and after the retreat
HOW CAN I PRAY ABOUT THE SILENT RETREAT?
Use this prayer for spiritual openness to prepare your heart for your retreat- before, during and after:
Father, I ask for your divine presence before, during and after my retreat. Thank you for preparing my heart for this time of intimacy with you.
I ask for openness to listen to you speaking to me through the insights and feelings that will come to me at this retreat. May I be attentive to the movements of grace in my heart, as you lead me in prayer, worship and intimacy.
Remove obstacles and distractions that may prevent me from receiving from you.
Open up my mind to the life-changing truths of your Word, and give me a new understanding of who you are to me and your personal love for me.
Touch me profoundly so that my life is changed by your living presence in my heart. Thank you for loving me and for reaching out to me.
I worship you. In Jesus name. Amen.
WHAT DO I NEED TO DO BEFORE THE RETREAT?
Ask yourself why you wanted the retreat: what’s your specific purpose in making a retreat?
Find out more about the retreat house. Probably someone had told you about it but if you could see photos and videos and read about the place you will be more physically and psychologically prepared.
Pack sufficiently for comfort and safety: mosquito repellent, medicines, personal toiletries, flask, cap, comfort dried foods, favourite beverages.
Do not bring stuff that distract you from prayer and rest. The basic stuff to bring are: Bible, journal, stationery(for coloring or artwork), earphones, cell phone.
If possible, do slow down your pace a few days before your retreat. Most times we are anxiously getting things done and handing things over till the very last minute.
Do not miss the group or personal preliminary session, if any, as they delineate the theme or give reminders of the right attitudes for the retreat.
WHAT IS IT LIKE DURING THE RETREAT – IS THERE A PROGRAMME?
In your first meeting with the spiritual director share why you came for a retreat and how much experience (or lack of it) you have in making a silent retreat. (Most people begin with a day retreat, moving on to a two- or three days retreat, then a 5- or 7- or 10- days retreat. They gradually increase the number of days as they see the need and benefits of doing so).
The first day or two are usually for you to settle into the new environment, and to rest physically and emotionally as much as possible. A tired body and a stressed mind are not conducive for listening prayer. Frequently, it begins with rest, relaxation and light reflection and the first meeting with your spiritual director.
Do not be afraid to tell the spiritual director it is your first time in a silent retreat and ask for some instruction on how to pray and what to do during a retreat.
After that first session, the spiritual director will tailor the programme or schedule according to your needs and his sensing. If structure helps you, schedule your day into several one-hour periods of prayer and journaling. Perhaps two periods in the morning, one period in the evening, and one at night. If more or less is expected, add or subtract as you see fit. Some retreatants prefer structure while others prefer a spontaneity and freedom to pray, walk, sleep, meditate whenever they want to. A sage once said, Pray as you can, not as you must.
Some silent retreats have more organized group programmes and schedule so retreatants gather daily for a fixed period to experience God together in some activity like a contemplative walk, or the Eucharist, or an hour of recollection. (As the silent retreat may include retreatants of different Christian traditions or physical fitness level, retreatants may discuss any wish to withdraw from any activity with their spiritual director).
Observe silence throughout the retreat unless yours is a preached group retreat that may have periods of interaction interspersed with silence. It is not called a “silent” retreat for nothing.
Avoid distractions like social media, doing work, watching videos, surfing the internet. Wean yourself from the need to use your mobile: this is a form of “virtual” silence and solitude.
Record your key insights, emotions, memories, images in a journal, voice recorder, or cell phone. Our memories cannot be trusted, and simple records will enable us to see significant patterns and repetitions, and recollect experiences.
Before meeting your spiritual director pick the main issues, emotions, memories, desires that surfaced during your times of prayer. It is not a time for you to rattle the cognitive Bible study insights and lessons you have gleaned from your reflections, but more importantly focus on the emotions and desires.
AM I EXPECTED TO GIVE A STIPEND TO THE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR?
It depends. Some retreats include the stipend for the spiritual director in the overall cost of the retreat. Others do not. You have to ask if it is not clear.
A stipend is simply a gift of money to appreciate the services or ministry of the spiritual director, who in some cases, depend totally on retreatants’ or directees’ generosity to support themselves and the services they offer. It is sometimes called a love offering given out of gratitude for services rendered.
The amount is not fixed in most cases, though Kingsmead Centre, a local retreat house, recommends $30 per session of 45minutes or 1 hour for its spiritual directors. This is only a recommendation but should not make you feel bad for giving less, nor hinder you from giving more if you wish to. You can even give a stipend or love offering even though it is already included in the retreat cost.
HOW CAN I RESPOND TO GOD’S GRACES AFTER THE RETREAT?
Recollect and review all that the Lord has done in you, or shown to you:
-Did I experience movements during the retreat? Examples: moved from fear to peace; condemning and hating myself to accepting my weaknesses; from hopelessness to hope; temptation to resolution and strength; confusion to enlightenment; from lukewarm prayers to strong desire to pray.
-What graces have I received during this retreat? Examples: strength; awareness of my weaknesses and sins; realization of my helplessness and need of God; experience of praying for longer periods; more accurate knowledge of who God really is; assurance about a decision to make; freedom from a shameful past or an addiction; honest sharing from my heart with spiritual director; a good rest.
Share with others you trust what the Lord has done for you and showed you during the retreat. Request prayer for the faithful follow-through of decisions and plans you have made during the retreat, if any. If there is none, do not kick yourself or force yourself. Get out of that productivity mode – God’s way is higher than our ways. Most times leaving the retreat feeling beloved of God, or at peace with God and people, or rested and refreshed is all you have and need.
Seek to incorporate some of the practices you have learned during the silent retreat. For example, you may want to set a time of daily prayer. Or practice silence and solitude for a half-day every month.
If you need individual spiritual direction or a full silent retreat you may write to Kae Ng at Ignatianjourney@gmail.com for more information about upcoming retreats for 2021.
For those who want retreats led by experienced Protestants retreat directors, may I recommend Rinda and Simon, my friends and ex-colleagues in the church staff. You may want to take a look at Listening Inn and click on Calendar for their years schedule of group silent retreats.
The Montfort Centre offers spacious and comfortable facilities
WHAT DOES A SILENT RETREAT FEEL LIKE FOR A NEWBIE?
I remembered my first full silent retreat. It was about a decade back. We went to Seven Fountains Spirituality Centre in Chiangmai. I wrote what it was like for me. You may get an idea of what it was like by reading this. Click HERE.
If you have questions to ask about silent retreats feel free to put it in the comment box. God bless you.
It took an hour by bus from Manresa to Barcelona. We stayed in Denit Hotel near the Plaza Catalunya, where protests were taking place. We were there to trace St Ignatius presence there during his grammar studies and labour of love.
We were reviewing and remembering and sharing to conclude the retreat and camino.
Tireless Fr Jose steadfastly diligently conducts his final pilgrimage sharing about St Ignatius
A wefie with St Ignatius
Barcelona has its quirky art in many public places
Graffiti can also be found in side streets and alleys
We had visited various places where Ignatius gave help and received help and hospitality while in Barcelona. Nothing has remained after nearly 500 years. They could locate the sites, but other buildings have been built over them.
Wefie with the Sagrada Familia in the background
The Passion facade was stark yet striking
The inside of the Sagrada Familia is a fit dwelling place for God and worshippers to meet
We also visited the world famous Catholic minor basilica called Sagrada Familia. It had been under construction since 1882 and is estimated to be completed in 2026- 100 years after Gaudi, the chief architects death. The tour kept me in awe throughout the hour and was worth every cent.
The last supper…this is starters only!
On the final day, we sat outside a cafe in lovely weather, ordered our drinks, and shared where we were and what God has been doing and saying during the retreat before closing in prayer.
Last faith sharing session over coffee (photo by Lance)
After the camino officially ended, we walked around on Sunday afternoon. Over the two days I have witnessed three peaceful demonstrations: one by catalans protesting the jailing of their “independence” leaders; one that supported a unified Spain, and one near the cruise center with Lebanese protesting against mismanagement by their nation’s elected government.
Our hotel was located near Plaza Catalyuna so we had to skirt the protestors on our way home from dinner(photo by Juliana)
You cannot but be impressed and moved by the life and work of St Francis Xavier. Here I was at Castle of Xavier, where he was born, and grew up. Its surreal. I once did a paper on Xavier’s missionary toils in Japan. Now Fr Jose gave us the saint’s birth to death sketch of his life. Brilliant student in Paris University, sportman, confident, respected, from a rich family. Gave up all to follow Christ in the mission fields. Served in Goa, India, Malacca, Indonesia, Japan, Macau. He died of sickness at age 46 while waiting to enter China. Estimated 30,000 baptisms in his one decade of preaching Christ. Stupendous. Just to get from Portugal to India took almost 2 years by ship!!
Castle of Xavier: St Francis early years spent here
St Francis and his passion for reaching the lost in Asia in a giant poster
What motivated him? I asked. It was the experience of the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love. He had done the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and had a real trust relationship with the Lord.
The tiny chapel with an unusual crucifix in the Castle of Xavier
I saw the tiny chapel in the castle where he likely prayed in. An unsual figure of a smiling crucified Christ dominated the chapel. All around the walls were dark figures of death, of white bones and skeletons.
A smile on the dead Christ’s face
Why a dead Christ with a smile? The job of saving mankind is finished? Peace and joy knowing He pleased the Father? Laugh of victory over sin, death and Satan? A smile of love as He knows He will be with His Father soon? No one knows what was on the sculptor’s mind. Anyway, it must have fascinated and moved St Francis in his younger years, or at least stayed with him through his years of hardship and suffering.
My room for two nights in the retreat house
I felt grateful too when I thought of God’s call on my life. I had experienced great encounters with God during the charismatic revival of 1970s. I believe it was experiencing this vast love of God that propelled me into obeying God’s call, with all its sacrifices and service. And it was being kept in this love of God that kept me serving in WRPF all these past 39 years of ups and downs. I feel grateful to God for this grace and privilege of serving this one church all this while.
Its vineyard country we have entered, following one of the journeys of St Ignatius.
Vineyards all around us
The Jesuit priest leading us eating the fruit of the land
We walked 15km on Saturday and about 14km today. The only difference to me was that the former was quieter and hardly anyone crossed paths with us, while today, many who were walking the Camino Santiago walked past us, including locals exercising on Sunday, a few every seven minutes.
The weather was windy, cool and sunny yesterday, but cloudier and less windy today. In both cases a short sleeve T shirt and long pants sufficed. The jackets we wore earlier in the morning had to be removed by 10am because the day grew warmer.
We walked through the town on Sunday
We got our Camino Passport stamped.
Our hotel was formerly the medieval palace of a duke whom Ignatius visited
I felt that two blessings were being granted as I relished the long walks in cool weather and lovely scenery. It took my mind and heart off church responsibilities and burdens. This disengagement is such a blessing. Secondly, I also needed to simply rest, eat, exercise and be fully present with the physical world, its sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. This grounds me in the now, instead of dwelling on the past or the future.