22nd-27th August 2022
Why do monks need to go on retreat? Surely their whole life is one of prayer?
The purpose of the monastic life is to search for God. When a Novice or Junior monk applies to make temporary or solemn profession, the letter to the Abbot states, ‘I â€¦ desiring to seek God in this monastery â€¦’ So the life of a monk sounds like a life of constant prayer. But the Benedictine motto is ‘prayer and work’. This means that monks also spend time at work, whether on manual labour, administrative tasks for the monastery or parish, school tasks, or other work. Besides work, many monks are also studying. Sometimes, these other tasks can overtake the prayer part of life.
The prayer life of a monk involves the Divine Office (also called the Liturgy of the Hours), lectio divina, spiritual reading, the rosary, quiet prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament or the Tabernacle, meditation, and other prayer. This is a lot of prayer and can be difficult at times. One of the most difficult things is shutting out the concerns of daily activities and concentrating on God, yet if we do not manage this our prayer is the poorer for it.
‘There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with a cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.1 Kings 19:11-13
The monastic community retreat is a chance to take a step back and concentrate on that search for God. A retreat involves replacing work time with more prayer time. Social time is also replaced by prayer time. The Desert Fathers of the 3rd century (and later) lived in semi-isolation, coming together only for prayer or talk about God. Many of them lived in caves so that they would not be distracted by things they could see. There are still some religious orders today whose members spend their lives in almost total silence. When the external sounds are stilled, the internal sounds take over. Once those are silenced, there is space for God to make himself known in that ‘still small voice of calm’.
When we put away the wind of manual labour, the earthquake of study, and the fire of parish work, we can appreciate the gentle breeze of God. Then we can listen to His voice or just be with Him. that is when our seeking God is at its most productive.
There is too much that still has to be done for the whole community to be able to go away for a retreat. Instead, we have someone come to us, to give a preached retreat. This involves a talk of about half an hour in the morning, with another in the evening. Usually, all the talks will be around the same theme, building on each other. During the day we try to meditate and pray on what we have heard in the talks. This is why we ask that people only contact us on the most urgent business. Some people try to go away for a retreat sometimes and switch of the phone and internet so that they can focus on God.
Elijah was tired and running from his enemies when he met God on Mount Horeb. After meeting God he had the strength to go back to Israel and carry on with God’s work. We pray that our retreat may strengthen us to continue with God’s work here at Ealing Abbey.