When I arrived home from our 30-day retreat, after making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I quickly unpacked my suitcase. I hung up my clothes and put my books in order on the shelf. I put away my toothbrush and my shampoo and I settled back into the routine of regular life.
But the graces of the retreat I am unpacking at a much slower rate. Slower than a snail’s pace. In a sense, it feels like I am not so much unpacking the experiences of the retreat but that the graces, or gifts, that I experienced during the retreat, are making themselves real in my everyday life.
I received the grace of God’s love in many ways during the retreat. Perhaps the most powerful, or foundational, experiences of God’s love, were felt in the first week. As I immersed myself in the various moments of prayer each day, I was slowly able to recognize God’s presence and love in all aspects of my life, from the moment of my birth until the present. I felt, powerfully, that I am God’s child and that I am loved unconditionally. That grace, which continued to build throughout the four weeks, has only strengthened in the time that has passed following the retreat. Each day I wake up in the morning and I know that I am loved. I may not always feel the “warm fuzzies” of love but I know in the core of my being that I am loved. And that knowledge makes each day a joy to be discovered and savoured.
I received the grace of freedom in myriad ways during the retreat: through deeper self-knowledge and self-acceptance, through understanding my sinfulness and relinquishing my sins before God, and through the desire to surrender all of myself and my life to God. Again, it was in the first week that the foundations of the grace of freedom were laid. When I had truly experienced God’s love for me, I was able to look at myself honestly, without the masks I have worn during my life, and to see my sinfulness (and my beautiful potential), and offer it all to God. I made a general confession (a confession that covered all of the sins of my life) which made me quite nervous at first but was my liberation. I felt such a sense of freedom and release from all of the things that had been holding me back from living my life fully and from being fully present to God. The feeling of freedom grew during the retreat and I believe it was crucial to my ability to receive the subsequent graces of the retreat.
Back at home now, the grace of freedom is active in my life. I feel greater freedom in relationships, in experiencing the ups and downs of the novitiate, and in discerning this vocation and whatever the future may hold. It’s a feeling of being open to God working in me, leading me, and guiding me, and of trusting in God.
The most profound grace I experienced during the retreat was the grace of friendship with Jesus. All of the graces felt profound, of course, but when I experienced the gift of friendship, I had the sense that this changes everything.
During the second week, I experienced some significant resistance in prayer and I struggled to stay engaged. At one point, I got so fed up, feeling that the Exercises were contrived and I was being forced to try to experience things that I just couldn’t experience, and I was about to give up. In the middle of my interior fury, Jesus told me to go for a walk. I have rarely experienced what I consider a direct intervention from God, but in that moment, I heard Jesus, through my inner voice, tell me to go for a walk. So I went for a long walk with Jesus all over the retreat grounds. I experienced, almost tangibly, his presence, walking beside me and talking to me. He encouraged me and loved me, and he basically told me to get a grip. It was just what I needed. He made me laugh at myself and he pulled me out of desolation. In that moment, I understood in my heart that Jesus is truly my friend and he is walking through life with me.
Later that week, the knowledge of friendship was confirmed in my scriptural reflections. During one of my contemplations on the mission of the disciples, I had a joyful revelation that to share the gospel, to tell people about Jesus, is to talk about my friend. I felt a strong desire deep within to tell the whole world about my friend and about all of the amazing things he has done for me and how he has loved me.
In the fourth, and final, week of the retreat, I received the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend. Not just that Jesus is my friend but that Jesus is my best friend and he has always been with me. It was in that moment that I knew that this grace changes everything. I can see that my best friend has always been with me and will always be with me. No matter what happens this year in the Philippines, or later in my life, I know that my best friend is with me through it all and is leading me. And because I trust my best friend and believe that he loves me and wants only the best for me, whatever I experience, whether joy or suffering, is a gift from my best friend. Most of all, I know that I want to live my life for my best friend. Since coming home from retreat, this grace has sustained me and given me energy and life each day. It’s exciting to live each day knowing that my best friend is at my side, sharing it all with me, and I don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens.
The grace of discipleship seemed to flow from the graces of freedom and friendship though they are very much intertwined. When I prayed with the mission of the disciples during the second week of the retreat, I felt an outpouring of graces, including the freedom and friendship I’ve already described. Freedom and friendship led me to an intense desire to be a disciple of Jesus (in my retreat journal, I named the grace as being ‘a radical disciple’). I’ve never experienced that kind of desire before. Generally, in the past, I have been hesitant to even use the word disciple to describe myself for fear of being seen as a sort of ‘Jesus freak’ and risk being rejected. But I think all of the retreat graces I have received have given me courage (although courage may be a separate grace altogether!), and through my prayer, I saw that what I truly want is to be a radical disciple of Jesus. I desire to leave everything behind and follow him, to go out into the world with nothing (the disciples went without food or money or an extra tunic!) except the freedom to share the good news with all that I meet.
The grace of discipleship has been made more real since the end of the retreat. For the past few weeks we have been studying our IBVM Constitutions (the rules and guidelines that govern our community), and many of the passages we have studied have resonated with that grace. I can see that my life as a sister in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary is how I can live as a radical disciple of Jesus in total freedom and love.
The final retreat grace I would like to share is the grace of compassion. This particular grace I actually only recognized after the retreat ended. I didn’t notice it specifically during the retreat but I can see that it was a gift that I received. Certainly, over the course of the retreat, I learned to see myself with compassion – to see my faults and failings and my sinfulness, and knowing that I am loved by God, I am able to better love myself. As I prayed with the passion and death of Jesus, I was often moved with compassion for his pain and suffering, and felt greater love for him. In the days after the retreat, however, I can see most clearly the grace active in me. In the last couple of weeks, I have had to confront a couple of challenging situations that I know in the past would have caused me to become defensive and resentful. Instead, I felt a deep compassion that led me to be more loving, open, and understanding. It was proof to me that I am being transformed by God.
What I have experienced so far after the retreat is, I know, just the tip of the iceberg. I experienced much more during the retreat than I am able to understand and process right now. I am grateful to have a journal full of the riches of my prayers that I can look back on, and I believe that God will continue to deepen my understanding and experience of these graces throughout the rest of my life.