For many years St. Joseph’s Abbey, the Trappist Monastery at Spencer, M.A., was the site of my annual retreat. Like the monks’ day — early to bed, early to rise — these hours on retreat were sober and serious, sometimes even solemn. About a dozen men would experience the Divine Liturgy alongside the monks in the body of the monastic chapel. The other liturgical hours were shared from the side chapels which were open to the general public. A small chapel for private reflection and a small library with appropriate texts were handily situated near the participants’ rooms. Meals were taken in silence while an appropriate text, sometimes sacred, sometimes secular, was quietly read for spiritual nourishment. Although only one daily talk was offered by the retreat master, retreatants were free to speak among themselves, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes lightheartedly, during the day. A walk about the monastery’s extensive property, perhaps to the gift shop or to the Holy Rood tailor shop, was a permitted diversion.
A monastic retreat, perhaps with the monks at Spencer or maybe with the Benedictines at Still River, can be a religiously invigorating experience. But Monday through Friday of a single week is not the wilderness or the desert experience that has been the focus of The Quiet Corner these Lenten weeks. A wise retreat master once warned his listeners that it would take a day or two or three for the “movie reel of one’s mind to wind down.” Catholic laity and religious and clergy all lead busy lives in the world and in the parish. Business to be conducted, ministries to be organized, meetings to be chaired — these responsibilities are not dismissed the moment the latch clicks shut on the monastic enclosure. The valid concerns of family, community and parish life can understandably but regretfully preoccupy even the sincerest retreatant. A genuine wilderness or desert experience (which this author has never experienced) would demand at least a month, if not a lifetime, of prayer and fasting. Some monastic and religious communities provide a cabin or mobile home on a remote area of their property for their members and friends to avail themselves of some prolonged “quite time.”
St. James opens his brief epistle with words that might indicate the mood one might expect when venturing into a wilderness or desert experience. The Apostle writes, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind.” The key words here are “trials…testing… perseverance… lacks wisdom…in faith, not doubting.” These are long-range words, not phrases to be fathomed on a day of recollection. “What can the desert do for us?” one writer asks, “It can make us rugged, tough, and strong in faith. It can cause us to develop perseverance and to acquire maturity.”
A believer fortunate enough to undertake a wilderness or desert experience should, first of all, not bring a good book. The wilderness is a place for prayer, not study. The desert experience is an occasion for prayer and fasting exclusively — as Moses, Elias, Christ himself, as well as the saints Anthony of the desert, Mary of Egypt, Romauld and Bruno well testify. Thirty days of meditative prayer nourished exclusively by the Bible, especially the reading and praying of the Psalms, observing the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, and, yes, the Rosary and personal devotions and maybe litanies and centering prayer should fill these secluded hours on the edges of society. Fasting, too, both bodily and intellectually, is a certain demand of the desert experience. Both the body and the mind must avoid any distractions. Refusing the tasty morsel and quieting the fanciful thought are integral to the discipline which a desert or wilderness experience requires.
While participation at a community Mass and daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament, if available, might intrude somewhat into the soul’s solitude, it is a measure of the believer’s maturity to integrate the communal liturgy with the spiritual life. The gardener in one of Jesus’ parables begs the land owner to spare the fruitless tree in the hope that more cultivation and more fertilizer will make the plant more productive. Even in the wilderness or in the desert, the pious believer will take advantage of more grace, every grace, sacramental as well as actual, coming generously from the hand of God.