Reflections on a retreat – Part I (or, You can(‘t) go home again)

I recently arrived back home from a retreat at Silverstream Priory. The next few blog posts will focus on the fruit of prayers and reflections during those days; for now, this one will relate my experience of the residing monastic community.


As I caught the bus from my house to the airport at 5 in the morning my head was full of thoughts about the journey I was embarking upon. While I had been eagerly looking forward to this retreat, now thoughts of leaving my wife and children – my home – behind, if even just for a few days, began to make me question my decision. These doubt-filled thoughts continued to loom in the back of my mind, even as Giovanni (a friend of the monastery, who collected me at the airport in Dublin) and I talked on our way to the monastery. Yet, as the car pulled up in front of the Gatehouse and I saw D. Finnian’s familiar and friendly face, the “buzzing” of those lingering thoughts went silent. I was home.

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Shortly after greeting D. Finnian, the guestmaster D. Cassian, a young monk hailing from Australia, came out to meet me; it was the first time we met in person. D. Cassian took me to visit Our Lord, and as we made our way up the stairs to the house, and then inside to the oratory, I saw that things were the same as I remembered them since my last visit, yet much had changed as well. Shortly thereafter I returned to the guesthouse; D. Cassian appeared with some coffee, we spoke for a bit, and I had the chance to make the acquaintance of a young man who is currently an “inquirer” at Silverstream. I was then shown to my room. Not too long after that the bell rang: it was time for Terce followed immediately by Mass.

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I met the rest of the monks over the next day or two. It was impressive to see the community’s current size. When last I visited, nearly four years ago, there were just four monks; since then Silverstream has grown threefold! It was nice to finally meet face to face all our monastic brothers who we had only seen in pictures online and prayed for, recalling them with “…et cum fratribus nostris absentibus.” I had a chance to speak with most of them, to a greater or lesser degree. I tried as much as possible not to get in their way, or distract them with idle chatter.

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Besides myself, the inquirer, and one of the monk’s parents, there were two other people staying at the guesthouse – two priests. One is an oblate of the monastery, and I believe was just there for a few days; the other had been there for quite some time now, and would be staying for an indeterminate amount of time. This priest mentioned to me that he had never heard of Silverstream before; he had mentioned needing a retreat to an ordained friend, who replied he knew just the place for him. And so this priest found himself far from the country where he was ministering in, praying and waiting, taking his time listening to the Lord (which, apparently, is not part of his character, being the type of person more inclined to action. [If you are reading this, Father, I hope I haven’t misrepresented you, or said anything I shouldn’t have.]). This is not the first time I have met a priest here in such a situation. It seems to me that Silverstream is a place of healing, most especially for priests, a fact which does not surprise me given the place’s charism. I will try to say some more about this, perhaps, in the next post.

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Dame Hilda Benilda was not seen out and about as much as last time; it seems her age is catching up with her. However, I chanced upon Constance and Mildred; the former seems to be taking her monastic vows seriously and avoiding contact at all costs with visitors, while the latter has no problem interacting with guests (or perhaps she’s just vying for D. Cassian’s role as guestmaster?). On my daily walk within the enclosure I would quite often pass by the chickens, which seemed to think I was one of their own after I clucked to gain their attention (the rooster did not seem amused with this).

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A verse from Chapter LIII, On the Reception of Guests, came to mind during my stay:

[…]guests, who are never lacking in a monastery […]

I never understood why monasteries should be busy places, but after a few days of seeing people coming and going, it finally made sense. It is not the easiest place to arrive at (and this is a good thing, especially for the monks), yet people managed to find their way there. While the World Meeting of Families was going on, people would happen to find their way to the monastery. People from all over the world seem to find their way to this secluded monastery, and many times someone will know someone in common with another visitor.

The house no longer resounded with the bustling noise of renovations, as it did four years ago. Nonetheless, works were still being carried out, with the new novitiate cells being built, as well as the new church (aptly named Bethlehem). Silverstream has a vocational problem: it’s a growing family, yet does not have enough space to take in all those who “persevere in knocking” at the door. If you can help this growing community, please consider making a donation here.

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In the second part I will say a bit about my experience of the Liturgy during my stay.

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“The world is passing away…”

This blog’s purpose is not to comment on current events, but I felt impelled to say a word or two on the sexual abuse scandal that has recently come to light within the Church in the USA, as well as in England.

Corrupt priests are nothing new, and it should come as no surprise to those who know Church history. In times when discipline and morals become lax priests fall into sins of simony, fornication, sodomy, pride,… There is nothing new under the sun. I don’t say this to lessen the gravity of the sins committed; I’m only pointing out the obvious for those who might think this is something “new”. While hearing about these things always saddens and grieves me greatly, it does not surprise me. I am not surprised, not because I think there is something wrong with the Church’s structure (as some seem to believe is the origin of this crisis), but because I believe in concupiscence and the scars of Original Sin. If one doesn’t fight the good fight, if one does not cooperate with grace, should it be any surprise that one falls into vices and sins of all sorts? As a saint (whom I can’t recall) once said “if you are not advancing in the spiritual life, you are moving backwards”.

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A homily

A wonderful homily by Father Prior, wherein he speaks of points in common between the monastic and married life, touching upon that of witness.

I am not my own

We’ve recently been reading a collection of homilies by St. John Chrysostom on the topic of Matrimony. A common theme throughout them – husbands and wives bodies are not their own – brought to my mind Chapter XXXIII of the Holy Rule, a chapter which, perhaps due to a superficial reading, I never thought had anything to say to those in the married state. That has changed since reading these homilies. It was the following verse that came to mind while reading the saint’s words and which, in my opinion, shows a common thread between the monastic and married life:

[…] since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills
at their own disposal.

The homilies are based on some of St. Paul’s epistles. The Apostle reminds us that our bodies are not our own, that we who have been baptized are incorporated into Christ as His members and that we have been bought at a great price. Our bodies, therefore, belong first and foremost to the Lord. Read more

Love in obedience

In last Sunday’s Gospel we hear Our Lord say:

If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me, does not keep My words. And the word that you have heard is not Mine, but the Father’s Who sent Me.

This talk of words [speech], hearing, obedience and acting brought to mind a couple of chapters of the Holy Rule, specifically the opening Prologue and Chapter V.

I was immediately reminded of:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

One could almost say that these opening words were those of Christ Himself: He is the Master (Jn 13:13) and father of all baptized, they being the fruit of His nuptial embrace on the Cross with His mystical bride, the Church; He asks His children to obey Him so that we may return to the Father Who loves mankind. He requires of us the faith of a child (Mt 18:3), to trust as a child trusts in their parents. As the eyes of the servant are upon their master’s hands, so too are those of the child on their parents’. Children tend to listen to and watch their parents (even if most of the times it doesn’t seem like it), and end up emulating them.

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Magister

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Pax Christi [II]

Today I return to a theme I touched upon some time ago and which, even though I never got back to it, has been lingering in my mind. The Gospel pericope from two Sundays ago brought it to the fore once more, particularly this bit:

Jesus came, and stood in the midst and said to them: Peace be to you. And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you.

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This Pax vobis, along with the priest’s Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum, got me to thinking yet again about Christ’s peace. While for some time I thought that this might be some kind of interior peace, a kind of absence of struggle, reading the Fathers and the lives of other saints disabused me of such erroneous notions. Having written already about the interior struggle, I won’t go over that again; rather, I would like to focus this time on Christ.
Our Lord, in John’s Gospel, gives the Apostles His peace both before His betrayal (in the context of the institution of the Eucharist) and after His resurrection. In the context of the Mass the Pax comes right after the embolism, and before the Agnus Dei: both are entreaties to be free of sin. In the old rite, when the Pax is given, it descends from the altar – which is a figure of Christ as well – being given hierarchically as well as mediated.

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So what is this peace that Christ gives us? It is His salvific work, it is redemption. In short, it is the peace between God and Man, the broken relation having been restored.

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We read in St. Paul:

And through Him to reconcile all things unto Himself, making peace through the blood of His Cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven. And you, whereas you were some time alienated and enemies in mind in evil works: Yet now He hath reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before Him [..] (Col. 1:20-22)

Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: By Whom also we have access through faith into this grace, wherein we stand, and glory in the hope of the glory of the sons of God. (Rm 5:1-2)

For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son; much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. And not only so; but also we glory in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rm 5:10-11)

For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in His flesh: Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees; that He might make the two in Himself into one new man, making peace; And might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in Himself. (Eph. 2:14-16)

It is through Christ that Man can finally be at peace with God, that Man may be God’s “friend” once more, as it was in the beginning, when they walked together in the Garden. His peace is the shedding of His precious Blood, as the Paschal Lamb, which keeps the exterminating angel at bay, returning to us life everlasting; it is the outpouring of water from His pierced side, by which one crosses from the land of sin and death into that of milk and honey and life.
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Christ’s peace is the foundation of all the Instruments of Good Works, but I think especially of the last one – to never despair of the mercy of God. Being at peace for the Christian is not some inner feeling of tranquility or of stillness; it is not even being at peace with oneself. I would go so far to say that if one is at peace with oneself, if there is no inner struggle, then something is not right. As said above, peace for the Christian is being reconciled to God, it is living in a way that Christ lives within us. We should never despair of the mercy of God because Christ has bridged the chasm; He has redeemed us from bondage; He has manifested the Father’s hesed, His charitas towards Man. This is something worth meditating during Paschaltide.

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In media res

We find ourselves midway through Lent already! This Sunday, known as Laetare Sunday, is one of reprieve amidst the somberness of Lent (even if the Great Fast isn’t kept as rigorously as in former times), with the violet vestments giving way to rose, the ancient Roman colour of joy. Many of the texts for the Propers are taken from the Gradual Psalms (or, Songs of Ascent), psalms which are believed to have been sung by Jewish pilgrims as they reached Jerusalem and the Temple during the three great pilgrimage feasts of the Old Testament. While they are psalms of joy, they are intimately bound to Jerusalem; today’s stational church is that of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, a church built to house a relic of the True Cross and filled with soil brought over from Jerusalem!

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I found the imagery present in the Latin of today’s collect quite beautiful. The English gives us: “Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that we who justly suffer for our sins may find relief in the help of Your grace”; however, if one were to translate the final part of the oration – tuæ grátiæ consolatióne respirémus – literally, it would be something like “[we] may breathe the consolation of Your grace.” This “breathing grace which consoles” invokes in me images of the Divine Breath, the Holy Spirit, Who is the Paraclete, the Consoler; it is the Paraclete dwelling within us Who vivifies us; just as with Adam, so does God breathe back Life into us as we make our way through this earthly life. This reference to the Holy Spirit seems quite fitting at this particular stational church, as it is through Christ’s Passion and Death upon the Holy and Life Giving Cross that He then Resurrected and Ascended to the Father in order to send us the Consoler. Read more

A third regeneration (II)

As mentioned in the previous post, our third son’s baptism got me thinking about Baptism in general. I’d like to share some loose thoughts on this today.

Recently someone propose the following exercise: describe Baptism using only three words. While most of the answers heard were “original sin” and “washing” and “creation”, yet the words “death” and “resurrection” did not feature much. What happens at Baptism? Is it just an outward washing that effects an interior purification, a “cleaning of the stain of original sin”, or is it something much more? And are we looking at the Scriptures – especially Genesis – to find out what it is that we believe?

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The Spirit hovering over the waters

Let us look at what the Liturgy has to tell us. I have previously written about the blessing of the baptismal font during the Paschal Vigil.  The blessing mentions the Spirit hovering over the water; the admixture of the Holy Oils emphasize visually the presence of the Holy Spirit within the waters (oil being a symbol for the selfsame Spirit); the prayer mentions over and over regeneration. If we are paying attention to all this, and if we have a decent foundation in the Scriptures, we should realize that Baptism is pointing us back to Genesis, back to the very beginning of Creation. In the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the primordial waters and brings life from them. In fact, throughout the Scriptures we see this motif of death/water-new creation/life repeated several times, most notably in the story of Noah, as well as in the Exodus. So, in Baptism, we are not just being washed of our sin – we are being made anew. The image and likeness of God, marred by the Old Adam’s sin, is regenerated in us thanks to our participation in the Death and glorious Resurrection of the New Adam. The New Adam is the obedient son, sent to fulfill the Father’s plan for Creation that the Old Adam, in his disobedience, caused to go wrong.

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The Spirit hovering over the waters

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A third regeneration (I)

This past Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, saw the baptism of our third child. I find it providential that he should have been baptized at the beginning of this penitential season for two reasons.

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The first reason is that our child’s middle name is Ezequiel, a saint of the Old Covenant during the Babylonian exile who called upon Israel to repent, especially those who were already in exile and were still hard of heart and stiff necked.  In the Book of Ezekiel we are told of how the Lord took the prophet, who was in Babylon, by the hair, to the Temple in Jerusalem. There the Lord showed him how the people of Israel continued to provoke Him – through His priests – by committing adultery with foreign gods: i.e., by offering sacrifices and worship to idols in the Temple alongside the Lord.

And he said to me: Surely thou hast seen, O son of man: is this a light thing to the house of Juda, that they should commit these abominations which they have committed here: because they have filled the land with iniquity, and have turned to provoke me to anger?

The priests then lead the people astray:

Because they have deceived my people, saying: Peace, and there is no peace: and the people built up a wall, and they daubed it with dirt without straw.

I don’t think it is stretching it here to see an application of lex orandi, lex credendi: the priests, no longer worshiping as they should – as the Lord commanded of them – then began to believe and practice abominable things, leading those they were in charge of, those whom they were supposed to lead to God, down a path that pushed the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) from out of their midst. As a novice oblate belonging to a Benedictine community which has as one of its charisms to pray for priests and to make reparation for them, and looking at the situation of the Church in my home country, this message of Ezekiel resonates deeply with me.

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Alleluia, dulce carmen

After I Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday the family had a small burial service for the Alleluia at home. The eldest helped out with the arts and crafts side of things. We put a paper with the word “Alleluia” written on it into a “coffin”, then processed to the place where the “coffin” will lay until the Paschal Vigil; all the while incense was burned to the sound of the ancient hymn Alleluia dulce carmen. At the end we sang a triple Alleluia (such as can be heard here, and was pretty much the only Gregorian chant one heard in the parishes we attended back home). We hope with these small things to start inculcating in the children a sense of the liturgical year, of getting them to measure the seasons by the Church’s feasts.
Forelent is upon us; the Great Fast will soon be here!