“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 13:44–52:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
“Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
I spent last weekend on a silent retreat, which I described in part in my column at The Week when I returned. That focused more on the process of becoming silent and recollected and its salutary effects on me in a non-spiritual sense, in how it helps with focus and priorities in an age of digital addiction. The humility of realizing that the world spins on without you is one important lesson that these retreats give us, but it’s not the most important. One could spend a long weekend drinking in Aruba without a cellphone and laptop and make that same realization, although it would cost a lot more money and would probably produce a lot more temptation than an Ignatian retreat. One does not need to worry about hangovers at a Jesuit center, after all.
The key to a successful Ignatian retreat is commitment. The discipline of silence helps in this in a couple of ways. First, it gives an outward sign of that commitment, because it isn’t easy to accomplish. Our cultural training leans heavily on polite communication as a means of socialization, and it’s difficult to resist the urge to say “thank you” when someone holds a door or to say a friendly “hello” on seeing people. And it’s not uncommon, despite all best efforts, to occasionally hear someone slip.
The most important commitment of silence in the retreat is between yourself and God, and in some ways it’s not just about keeping your mouth shut. In fact, physical silence the easiest part of the pact of silence. There are other levels of silence where the effort becomes much more difficult — mental silence and spiritual silence. And these do not come easily.
The idea of the retreat — any retreat, silent or not — is to withdraw from the busy-ness of life to focus on prayer and the Lord in a manner than cannot be accomplished otherwise. The Carmelites have a convent adjacent to the Jesuit center where our retreat took place; they made a commitment to give their whole lives for that kind of contemplation and prayer. (Needless to say, that gives us three-days-plus pretenders another dimension of humility.) In order to succeed, we have to clear our minds of outside attachments, plans, and concerns. We could stay silent all weekend contemplating the business deal we have to make on our return, and all that accomplishes is a weekend at Aruba without, y’know, Aruba. We’d have been better off at home leaving the phone off the hook and not answering the door.
Mental silence has another dimension, one which took me three retreats to learn. On my first two retreats, I brought faith-related reading material to fill the time, such as commentaries on the Gospel and books on Revelation and the Mass, and so on. The center itself has a small but respectable library of excellent reading material to peruse and study. There is a place for that kind of reading when one has fully immersed in prayer, but that’s not what I was doing on the first two retreats. I was using the reading as a way to avoid the deep contemplation that the retreat provided; in essence, procrastinating away a golden opportunity. Only when I put down the readings did I get a sense of that connection, and on this retreat I rarely opened a book at all — and when I did, it was much more rewarding.
Spiritual silence is even more difficult. Once I set down the outside cares of the world, the impulse to replace those with my own spiritual agenda becomes even more irresistible. When I began doing these retreats three years ago, I did so for a particular purpose of discernment, and that goal filled my thoughts and prayers. From God’s perspective, it must seem like having a child in the backseat on a long car trip who keeps wanting to know, “When will we get there?” At least part of the point in a retreat is the drive itself, and the failure of spiritual silence of this kind is sticking with our own agenda rather than allowing God to be in the driver’s seat. The lack of immediate and direct answers might be God’s way of saying, “We’ll get there when we get there!” A failure to connect at the spiritual level can be caused by the impulse to fill silences, whether they be physical, mental, or spiritual.
The only way to make a good retreat is through an all-in commitment. We have to sell ourselves completely into the experience in order to succeed at connecting with the Lord, and we have to put our absolute trust in His will, and His agenda over our own. After all, we get so few opportunities to spend that kind of alone time with Jesus Christ in the busyness of our world that failing to make that commitment is, in a very real sense, reburying the treasure to go count our own money instead and letting someone else buy the field.
Today’s Gospel makes it clear that the faith requires that level of buy-in, and of trust. What happens when the man finds that field with the buried treasure, or when the merchant finds that pearl of great price? They sell all they have to acquire them. Today’s responsorial in Psalm 119 tells us that “The law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Our first reading from 1 Kings 3 today tells of Solomon’s dream of God telling the new king that he can ask whatever he wants, and instead of riches and power, Solomon asks for God’s wisdom in his heart so that he can be a truly good and faithful leader of God’s people. These two passages show that faith means trust in God, and in His will for us over our own agendas. When we come to Him in that sense of trust and put him in the driver’s seat, then we open ourselves to Him in a manner which allows true communication and communion.
All we need to do is quiet ourselves and allow God to speak to us, and He’s waiting for the opportunity to do so. How much are we willing to give up to buy that pearl of great price? Putting my own agenda aside for a few short days in the country every July seems like a low price indeed.