By the time that this post appears, the entire community at the Dominican House of Studies will have begun our annual house retreat. This time, in which we meditate on the word of God and pray more intensely, is a period of refreshment and revitalization of our religious vocations. While all members of religious orders and institutes make a retreat every year by canon law (CIC, c. 663, §5), retreats are highly recommended for the laity as well. Having attended several retreats, from the lively kind in high school youth group to a silent weekend in my mid-twenties, I (along with my fourteen classmates) will be making my first canonical retreat since simple profession a year ago. Yet as the retreat approaches, and after having spent the summer in hospice ministry, I have often wondered: how would you make a retreat if you knew that it would be your last?
This situation is exactly the one in which Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a cloistered Carmelite nun at the turn of last century, found herself. At 26 years of age, the French sister was dying of a kidney ailment called Addison’s disease, and she knew that she would not live to the end of the year. Although she had lived in the Carmel for five years, she was confined to the infirmary with her illness, and thus she could not join the community for their annual silent retreat of sixteen days (ours is only six!). Instead, she had to pray the Divine Office alone, and her silence was punctuated by the sisters and doctors who visited and cared for her. Yet, through all the distractions, Elizabeth was able to spend several hours each day in intimate prayer, and she wrote down her reflections each evening throughout late August, 1906. These writings have been collected under the title The Last Retreat.
What was on her mind as she made her retreat, parallel to that of her community, for the last time before her entrance into eternal life? “Nescivi—I knew not,” said the young bride of Christ at the beginning of her retreat, along with the bride of the Canticle of Canticles (6:12); that is, she desired to know nothing but Jesus Christ, to Whom she had professed her love, and to Whom she would go a few months later. In the days that followed, Elizabeth would focus on other Scriptural passages relating to the joys of heaven to which she looked forward, saying that she will be known as the “Praise of Glory” (cf. Eph. 1:12) on earth.
In order to attain this glory, however, one must become detached from the things of this world, and even oneself, and order them all to the love of God, as Elizabeth writes, ever aware of what lies soon before her:
To walk in Jesus Christ seems to me to want to leave self, lose sight of self, give up self in order to enter more deeply into Him with every passing moment, so deeply that one is rooted there, and to every event, to every circumstance we can fling this beautiful challenge: “Who will separate me from the love of Jesus Christ?’”
This act of pressing on to the goal of union with Christ resonated within the nun about to leave her earthly life behind, just as it resonates within the religious who has sacrificed many goods of the world in order to follow our Lord more closely, and within the layman on retreat who has taken the time to focus on prayer and putting his life in the perspective of eternity. No matter our state in life, no matter if it is our first retreat ever, our first in new circumstances, or our very last one, a retreat is always an opportunity to reorder our lives towards the ultimate goal of the human race: eternal happiness in the presence of God in heaven.
Image: Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, Christ in the Wilderness