Reflection from My Retreat in Greccio Last Week

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ez 36:26-27

“I do not reprove you for your sacrifices;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will accept no bull from your house,
nor he-goat from your folds.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you;
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High;
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. Ps 50:8-9,12,14-15

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor 13:3, 7-8, 13

This past week my class was on a silent retreat in Greccio, the place where St. Francis created the nativity scene. The retreat house is set on a beautiful mountain side with many hiking trails all along the mountain. I though, didn’t get to see many of them because, I was sick most of the retreat. This though turned out to be a grace. For spiritual reading on the retreat, I brought the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the Rule of St. Benedict.

After I had finished reading both and was meditating upon the lives of the Desert Fathers, it struck me why they did the penance that they did and why they lived such ascetic lives. It was because they loved. Ok, so that might seem obvious, however, to me I saw their acts as what helped them to grow in holiness and love. That is to say, their practices caused their love to some degree first. Instead it struck me that it was the exact opposite. What made them such holy men and women, was not what they did, as much as who they were. They were people who loved God so much that they forsook all other things in the pursuit of that love.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. Rev 3:20

This door is the opening to our souls. If we could but let Love within that we might be purified. The one who loves Christ says, “my beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me.” Song 5:4. Their soul rises with the longing expectation for the Lord when He knocks. The expectation of the knock and the great love of the Desert Fathers though is what lead them to penance for: “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the unfaithful.” Lk 12:46 for not properly setting in order their soul so as to receive the Beloved.

And so, inflamed with the love of the Holy Spirit, they set forth to cleanse their souls. Inspired by their great love, they took on acts of penance, seeing just how dirty their soul was before the spotless bridegroom. The more their soul was cleansed in the blood of the Lamb, the more readily they could open the door to receive Him when He knocked. Further, when they answered the door and to invite Him in, their soul was set in order so that it was a fitting dwelling place for the bridegroom to join His bride and share in the weeding feast. They weren’t ascetics because they enjoyed pain or because they thought their works in themselves sanctified them. No, instead it was because of the great love which they had for the Lord, that they sought to remove all things from their lives that might impede their ability to respond in love to God. So that ultimately they might respond fully and freely to their Beloved.

This is where my great take away from the retreat came from. The Lord, as the Psalmist speaks of in so many places, brought me low and hemmed me in through my infirmity, that I might not be able to do, but instead could only love. He spoke to me, “be still and know that I am God Ps 46:10, I don’t seek for you do anything for Me, but to first love and be love by Me. Then, and only once you have let Me love you, act as My Love inspires you to act.”