Guide for a Self-Directed Retreat as a Guest at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert
(The monks of New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, California, are thanked for their contribution to this Guide.)
For those accustomed to directed retreats, a retreat where a priest or other director present a specific retreat topic and your time is well scheduled, the self-directed retreat can by somewhat disconcerting. You might ask, “What am I to do? How should I spend my time? This concern is understandable and it is worth pondering these questions.
The term self-directed may be a misnomer. It would be more accurate to call it a God-directed retreat. Your being at the Monastery at this time in your life is no accident. God has called you here and your response has been to answer that call by taking time out of your busy life in order to give yourself completely to God, taking time to be silent and to listen to the gentle whisper of God within you.
You may be coming here with another or others. While it is fine to be present to others, it is most important to be present to God. Therefore, at the beginning of your retreat, please plan for certain times to be alone. Explain to your friends with you that you, as well as they, ought to allow as many occasions of solitude as possible, as well as attending as many of the prayer services in the Church with the monks as seems reasonable.
What follows are some suggestions for helping you experience a God-directed retreat in which you become more fully aware of God’s presence here and in your life, as well as becoming ever more fully aware of how much God loves you.
It is essential, however, to be still and silent as much as possible because we are unable to hear God’s voice if we are busy talking and thinking about those things that serve only to distract us from our purpose of being here with God. There are many places at the Monastery where you can find the space to sit or walk and be totally alone and undisturbed. The space itself is not important; it can be your room, the courtyard of the guesthouse, the Abbey Church when there are no services, or the many beautiful locations in the Chama canyon accessible to guests. What is important is to find a place free of distractions.
One helpful exercise is to be in some such place, close your eyes, calm yourself and image that God is sitting next to you, welcoming you into His presence and inviting you to share all the things you find troubling in your life, be it stresses at work, difficulties in relationships, finances, or for whatever you need God’s help to confront and resolve. Let it all be “told to God” as you would with the most trusted friend in the world. You will not find anyone more receptive and compassionate than God!
You can repeat this process as often as you feel that it is helpful. But you can also tell God that you are open for Him to enter more fully into your life and see where that leads you. For the retreat to be of great help to you, trust with all your heart that God is with you, sustaining you, guiding you in His love.
Such occasions of quiet prayer will guide your retreat. At times you may feel that nothing is happening but it is. This is the great mystery of prayer when you are centered on God by your intention, your listening, and your desire to be open and receptive to where God wants to lead you. Simply taking the time to be still and turning fully to God’s compassionate and forgiving love will heal your wounded heart, nourish your soul, and direct you to where you ought to be and what you ought to do.
Guided by God’s light in you, you may also be directed to a certain book in the guesthouse library or gift shop, or to writing down your thoughts and feelings, or even speaking with a friend who came with you or whom you met here. You may also ask the guestmaster to speak to a monk for confession. Do not overlook just walking in the Canyon or along the road, or even just taking a much-needed nap. Whatever it is that you feel drawn to, know that it is God who is directing you. Above all remember these words from scripture:
Be still and know that I am God.
Monastic life is a life of prayer. At Christ in the Desert, the Rule of Saint Benedict is followed and it is centered on three disciplines: Liturgical Prayer, Lectio Divina and Manual Labor. All three are of equal importance and essential for maintaining the life of the community in the worship of God and service to the world.
The central focus of liturgical prayer at Christ in the Desert is the Psalms. The book of Psalms is a hymnbook comprised of hymns of praise and worship; prayers for guidance and protection; pleas for forgiveness; petitions for life’s needs; and songs of thanksgiving for God’s blessings. The Psalms were the prayers of Jesus and they also “contain” in the depths of their meanings, the entirety of Sacred Scripture, even including the New Testament. These are the daily prayers of the monks at this Monastery and they are typically chanted in English but still in a Gregorian modality. Additionally, the Eucharist (Holy Mass) is offered daily and all guests are invited to attend and experience the “real presence” of the Lord which takes place at Mass. For non-Catholics and Catholics alike, the Mass is a wonderful “Prayer” for forgiveness, conversion to God, and a profound expression of hope that God will be with you on your journey through life. See here for the complete daily and Sunday schedule for the Eucharist and all of the prayer services throughout the day. All guests are invited to attend and join the monks in prayer during any or all of these services.
The second Benedictine monastic disciple is Lectio Divina that literally means “divine reading.” A more accurate understanding of this practice, however, is listening to “the word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is a flexible rhythm of prayer, a loving communion with God through a text that a person hears or reads. At Christ in the Desert, every monk is expected to participate in this exercise every day, even if it is only for a short time; and so guests are encouraged to do so as well as part of their self-directed and God-directed retreat.
This practice begins with seeking out a quiet place where one is free from all distractions, taking a few moments to be still, calming the restlessness that comes from worries and the day’s activities, and finally, raising the heart and mind to God in prayer. This prayer is not so much one of praying that God becomes present because God is present to all people at all times, but rather it is a prayer seeking the grace to become fully present to God.
Once centered in God, a reading from sacred scripture is chosen, perhaps from that day’s liturgy, or even by a random selection from one of the Gospels, or perhaps some other reading of a spiritual nature. The reading is approached more from the heart than the head and is generally limited to a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence.
What follows is meditatio, or inner listening. It has also been described as “chewing” on the text and letting the savor of its meaning and implications sink into the soul and heart of the one meditating. It is a time for being rather than so much a time for analytical reflection. The reader simply invites God’s word to manifest itself in her or his own heart at that given moment in their life.
Often this manifestation of the sacred in your heart will lead you to make special petitions (oratio) to God for others and their needs, as well as for yourself. Articulate those to God in silence, knowing that these humble requests are heard and will be answered in love.
Next, while remaining centered in God, the reader is often drawn into a deeper union with God, a state of contemplatio or contemplation, a state without thought or word, a state of being united with God’s presence within.
The final monastic discipline is manual labor. This discipline has both a practical and spiritual dimension. From a practical vantage point, a community can only function efficiently when every member is contributing to its daily needs and demands. Like every household there are a great many tasks that need attention. The guests at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert may, if they wish, participate in a variety of types of labor to assist the community, including outside work such as on the grounds or in a garden or elsewhere, or inside work such as in the guesthouse, the gift shop, or the offices, to name but a few.
Spiritually there is in such work an opportunity to become aware of the different dimensions of God’s presence and love in your life that helps make holy the day and the labor itself. Each task, difficult or easy, should become a labor of love and be viewed as the work of God and the opportunity to serve others as well.
A Final Word
Each guest should be aware that the monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert know that God is palpably present here. Therefore, a self-directed retreat in conjunction with our monastic life as outlined above will provide the guest a rewarding experience. Always remember, “to seek God means that one has already been found by God.”
If you wish to come to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert to make your own private – God directed – retreat, click here for guesthouse reservations.