Dear Donagh…. I make a 6-day retreat every year… at the time I feel that it does me a lot of good. I always come away feeling great and convinced that I'm a changed person. But it only takes a cross look from my boss or a bit of misbehaviour from my son to put me right back where I started…. What can I do to keep the experience? I would love to be able to go back to it at will. Would spiritual direction help me? What would you advise? Mary H.
Dear Mary, thank you for your letter. I don’t think that the value of a retreat depends on having and retaining some sort of special feeling. Feelings and experiences have their own importance at the time that they are 'live', but they come and go, like the weather. (In fact we use much the same language to describe inner and outer weather: depression, bright spells, etc.) But whatever the weather is like, life goes on. As people say, the retreat begins the day it ends. In other words the measure of its value is the way you are next day with your boss or you son or indeed with everyone and everything.
The Christian life is about unconditional love. It would not be unconditional if it depended on having certain feelings and experiences. A small but interesting sidelight on this is the German word for 'unconditional': unbedingt. Ding means 'a thing'; unbedingt means 'un-thing-ed' (if there were such a word in English) - not tied to any thing. It is for all weathers. It is nice to feel close to God, but I may be even closer to God in times of desolation than at times when I feel wonderful. "The Lord is close to the broken-hearted," says Psalm 33. Many saintly people have experienced this, some with great intensity. "My suffering was severe," wrote St Thérèse of Lisieux, "but I must admit that, in spite of my tears, I felt a great peace deep down within me. Yet this inner peace did not prevent my feeling an immense sorrow. And Jesus was silent. He seemed to have left me and nothing revealed his presence to me. That day the sun dared not shine, and from the gloomy clouds…the rain poured down as I wept." (The inner and outer weather mirrored each other!) More recently many were surprised to hear that Mother Theresa suffered great inner desolation and uncertainty. In both cases, however, life went on, unconditional love went on.
This opening up, this unconditional quality of love, doesn’t leave us. It is in us as God's gift, even if we manage only occasionally to bring it to the surface. Catholic theology speaks of 'infused virtue'. I love this. It tells us that our lives are not measured by our own weak efforts at self-improvement. There is something in us from beyond. It is an unconditional gift of God, and in us it doesn’t lose that quality, even if it is never activated. It is a permanent possibility. No matter what I think of myself I am capable of loving others as Jesus loves them. This is deeper than experience: I may never have experienced it, but I am still capable of it. It doesn’t go away when we forget, or when I act without it, or against it (unless totally and deliberately against). "We have the mind of Christ," St Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 2:16). We can talk about "the Christ-mind" as Buddhists talk about "the Buddha mind". We are members of Christ's body: we can talk about "the Christ nature". This is our birthright. We are never cut off from it. We often imagine that something has changed when only our thoughts and feelings about it have changed. We create a separation where none exists. This separation - this loss - is only in thought.
Would spiritual direction help, you ask. It can be helpful to check things out with another person; we are not alone on our journey. Many people take possession of something only when they hear themselves claiming it. Don’t forget, however, that the other person has illusions too! And don’t allow yourself to be beguiled by the air of professionalism that some people give it. (One can even get a diploma in it!) Your 'spiritual director' is a companion on the journey, not an expert on your life. If he or she can help you to keep up your courage in bad times as well as good, that is something to be thankful for. But every person and thing in our life can be our 'spiritual director', in the sense that they can pierce our illusions and help us to discover the truth. We usually don’t learn much from pleasant situations - that's when we are coasting. The real journey is often through the difficult situations - that's when we learn our weakness, our dependence on God's grace, and the need to have a heart.
God bless you on your journey, Mary.