An advent retreat is a time of spiritual attentiveness so as to be more ready for the arrival of Christ into our lives
- Welcome to this year’s Advent retreat. The word “retreat”, as we are using it here, is not what everyone would immediately understand. Its origin is military, a withdrawal from battle. But its religious meaning could be described as a withdrawal for battle. Or if that's too strong, then a withdrawal for a time of prayerfulness, even going to a special place of seclusion. For most of you listening to these reflections, the seclusion won't be an outer place, like a retreat house, but an inner space of attentiveness, and we will be offering some suggestions about how to create a quality of listening and of presence, so that the Spirit of God can work in us.
- This is called an advent retreat. Again we have an ordinary and a religious meaning. We talk, for instance, about the advent of the computer, as an important novelty that changes our world. The religious term, as we know, points to the period leading up to Christmas, in other words a very different and important arrival that changes our world. Shakespeare through the mouth of Hamlet said “the readiness is all”. An advent retreat is a time of spiritual attentiveness so as to be more ready for the arrival of Christ into our lives this year. If you don’t like the word “retreat”, then we can call this whole journey, with a little play on words, an advent adventure of readiness.
- To enter this adventure we will reflect on some moments in the famous Christmas story of the Magi or Wise Men from St. Matthew’s gospel'. It is of course very well known, and much loved by children because it lends itself so easily to dramatisation. But in fact it's a drama of adult faith - as we shall see. Various moments in this narrative will offer us starting points for reflection and for personal prayer.
We need to retreat from the daily bustle and create some silence and stillness
- How are we to approach this adventure of meditation and prayer? Perhaps the first and most fundamental invitation of a retreat is simply to slow down. We live such scattered lives. “The world is too much with us” said Wordsworth, and there has never been so much world! So we need to escape the fragmentation and find something of simplicity. We need to retreat from the daily bustle and create some silence and stillness.
- Notice those four qualities beginning with S: slowness, simplicity, silence, stillness. And we could add “self-patience”, because it takes time to slow down. Most people need some skills of stillness in order to reach gradually a certain receptivity for God.
- What do we mean by skills of stillness? Some of them may be familiar to you. Simply listening to all the sounds around and letting that gather you. Or paying attention to the coming and going of your breath. Or repeating some word or expression such as “Come, Lord Jesus”. Or watching the flame of a candle, letting it focus your attention and banish other thoughts or sensations. See what helps you. Remember: it is not a question of technique but of readiness. Readiness for God.
Express within yourself a prayer of desire to discover what God wants you to discover in this meditation
- We start with some practical suggestions that might help you if you haven’t made a retreat like this before, or act as reminders if you have. As you begin each session of the retreat use the Stillness Exercise provided to prepare yourself for this time of encounter with God. In order to deepen your inner silence, close your eyes, and express within yourself a prayer of desire to discover what God wants you to discover in this meditation. Allow that prayer of petition to lead you into reverence and hope. Stay gently there for as long as you can.
- Then follow the passage of Scripture slowly and see if one particular word or line strikes you more than the others. The Scripture is intended to help you to enter into the story of the Magi more personally. It can help to repeat a phrase from scripture several times, slowly and reverently. Gradually you may find yourself able to rest quietly in the words or in some aspect of the Magi story that seems important for you.
- After the scripture stage there are a series of reflection points on the Magi, each offering a different perspective on the story of the Magi, a different entry into prayer. As always, ponder these reflections carefully but with the idea of finding one or two points that cause you to pause and pray. You can always come back to other aspects another time. By way of summary, firstly enter into the Stillness Exercise, then ponder the passage from Scripture, and read the points of reflection; remaining quiet in yourself, and noticing which aspect of what you have just reflected on speaks to you more strongly or personally.