From Jan. 4-11, 2022, the Bishops of Episcopal Region IX, that is the Bishops of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri gathered at Prince of Peace Abbey, in California, for our annual retreat. Our retreat director was The Most Rev. Peter Sartain, Bishop Emeritus of Seattle.
It is always good to gather with brother bishops but the beautiful thing about this retreat is that for the most part, it is a silent retreat. Can you imagine a gathering of bishops with no talking? It is a dream come true! We take our meals in silence, avoid any public conversations and the only time set aside for conversation is half an hour before the evening meal when we have a drink of our favorite soda. We are free to pray with the monks if we wish or we can make our own schedule. The daily schedule includes two conferences and the celebration of Holy Mass with the monks and those who attend from the neighborhood.
As I have mentioned many times before, of all the things that I read regarding the role of a Bishop, there is a common theme. The most important “thing” a bishop can do for his people is to be a man of prayer. I am certainly not perfect at it but I try to make prayer the focus of my life. So what did I learn? I don’t know if I learned anything new. Overall, the conferences were a reaffirmation of things I had heard many times before. It was good to hear them again.
We are all blind in some way or another, but God can use our blindness for his purpose. In the Scriptures, blindness was an opportunity for the Lord to manifest his healing powers. In the ways of faith, in the midst of our blindness, we are invited to move forward, hold his hand, and trust God as we move forward. It is then that miracles can happen, we can move mountains, things get accomplished that on our own would never have occurred.
The Archbishop assumed that each one of us has a disciplined and well-grounded prayer life but he cautioned us! A life of prayer based on discipline and structure will guarantee that we are saying our prayers but maybe our prayers can remain on the surface with no depth. When we go to pray we are invited to “rest in God.” He recounted the story of St. Bernard of Clairvaux who gave advice to Pope Eugene III, his former student. St. Bernard told the pope that in order to avoid a hardened heart he needed to “rest in God.” Such an approach to prayer requires detachment from one’s self and keeps us free of bitterness and narcissism. He offered a beautiful little verse, “Jesus who rests in the Father, rest in me.”
Is our preaching rooted in a sense of awe and wonder at the Sacred Scriptures? Is our homily preparation an experience of awe and delight in the Scriptures or is it simply based on a methodology? In my preaching, do I give to the people what they are aching to hear? Does my preaching move them to conversion? Is my preaching all about me in a weekly litany of my issues? Do I proclaim Jesus in my preaching and in the programs offered through the diocese? Quoting St. Ephraim, the Archbishop reminded us: “In the name of Jesus, God has nothing more to say.” Our preaching must be rooted in our experience of Jesus and then share that with the people of God.
Using the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, the Archbishop reminded us that God is with us when we have been “thrown in the cistern.” Referring to Thomas Merton, “God goes all the way down with us” into the mud and muck of life—we are never beyond his reach. And if we feel that we are beyond His reach it is because we have closed the door to Him. We are invited at these moments to look up to Christ on the cross as he looks down upon us, and standing there at the foot of the cross, do our eyes meet? The devil wants us to think that we have disappointed God and like Adam and Eve in the garden, we must hide from him. No, we are called to gaze at the face of God, be at peace, and look into the eyes of Jesus. And it is there, at the foot of the cross, looking up at His face that we take His breath away! In the next edition of The Mirror, I’ll share Part 2 of what I learned on retreat. God bless you!