"My daughter is at the point of death."
Ignatian Exercises, Part III
Hopefully I’ll be into my Second Week of the exercises when you read this. As I write I’m just at the end of the First Week, which is a meditation on hell. Not what we would think leads to a consolation, but the truth has its way of setting one free, including the reality of hell. Some say it doesn’t exist. An atheistic young man once shared this with St. Padre Pio, that he didn’t believe in hell. The padre replied simply, "You will when you get there."
If you don’t believe in an afterlife of misery, pain and alienation from God, just consider what hell exists on this side of the line. Consider Auschwitz, Juarez, or Baghdad; a life there could be filled with hatred and cruelty . Does God desire brutal slums, violence and injustice? Of course not, they are the fruit of human freedom to sin. It is the same with hell. While as Catholics we believe in God’s universal salvific will, He "… desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4), we don’t believe that God forces people to go to heaven. Hell is simply God respecting people’s freedom to reject His love and mercy. Lord have mercy!
To meditate on hell, its existence and any attachment that might lead there, helps one desire all the graces necessary to avoid it. Some saints had visions and mystical experiences where God revealed the reality of hell to them. They considered it a horrifying, yet singular grace. St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages the retreatant to "…ask for an interior sense of the pain suffered by the damned, so that if through my faults I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of those pains will serve to keep me from falling into sin." He closes the meditation with gratitude that one who is on retreat is still alive and capable of receiving God’s mercy.
After a week of these spiritual exercises I’m grateful as well for such an opportunity. His mercy endures forever. Not only do I get to do the 30 Day retreat, I get to do it in a Trappist monastery, where praising God is their daily bread. Our day begins at 4:15am with Vigils (Office of Readings), which consists of 7 or 8 psalms, two major readings, and some sweet silence, though I have to admit, at that hour, silence is dangerously close to the nap threshold. The day continues with 6:30am Lauds followed by Mass. I usually work for two hours from 9 – 11am, gardening around the guest house.
At 12:30 we have Day Prayer followed by the one required meal of the day. There’s a great reading happening as we make our way through "The Monks of Mount Athos". One monk reads while the rest of us eat. The one exception to this was yesterday, the Feast of John the Baptist, when they played classical music instead. A solemnity in a monastery is quite a treat as special food, wine, beer, and ice cream all come out. I’m probably hitting the wildest two weeks of the monastic year with St. John, Sts. Peter and Paul, and then the Fourth of July when the monks take a picnic on the back 2000 (acres) and play a little baseball besides. I think some even light up a cigar ! How can one pray with so much partying going on?One point from earlier in the week that is well worth repeating is the series of questions:
What have I done for Christ?
What am I doing for Christ?
What ought I to do for Christ?
I love this series because it brings the person asking into the present moment, the only moment we actually need to respond to. If one is asking these questions they are under the influence of grace and there is great hope that something good is about to happen. I encourage you to consider these for a few moments and tell me if they are not helpful.
The monastic day continues with 5:30pm Vespers and 7:30pm Compline. The great silence follows where quiet is more strictly observed until Lauds the following morning. My retreat director warned me to be careful of books for they can easily distract one from the retreat. There are fantastic libraries within the monastery so it is a reader’s paradise, but a temptation none the less. Pray for me as I try to stay moderate in my reading.