I’ve recently returned from my annual weeklong silent retreat. Often it is the highlight of my year, a place to reconnect more deeply with God and to get my priorities straight for the next year. This year, I arrived at retreat with the intent to grieve. I was grieving the recent death of my stepdad. I was grieving the loss of a friend who had dropped out of my life without explanation, then briefly reappeared and disappeared in a way that felt cruel and confusing. My husband and I are about to become empty-nesters, and while there is much pride and joy in the kids, there is loss in letting go of a certain phase of motherhood. And then, on the first full day of retreat, I came down with a bad cold. Bodily desolation may not be the same as spiritual desolation, but it seems to add to it. Instead of enjoying beautiful sunrises over the ocean, I spent most of the first days of retreat weeping, sneezing, and feeling awfully sorry for myself.
God always comes through, though, and over the course of days, my sense of Jesus’ tenderness with me grew. He gave me permission to hurt and grieve as much as I needed to, for as long as I needed, and not to rush through it. Slowly, cloudy days at the retreat center gave rise to sunlight and signs of life everywhere: golden buttercups, blooming peonies, the flight of red-winged blackbirds, sparkles on the ocean waves, and the coziness of the nook in the rocks where I sit and pray with the Lord, year in and year out.
One afternoon, I felt Jesus call me to forgive my former friend where I had been hurt. I went to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and felt a capacity to forgive with ease, a grace that could only have come from God. Prayer also led me to focus my energy on relationships at home, work, and in community in the next year. Still, at this point in the retreat, I was not yet feeling the degree of consolation that I had experienced in past retreats, experiences where I had felt deeply interconnected with Jesus. I half complained and half pleaded with Jesus for a more unitive experience. But then I heard Jesus say to me, “The greatest union is a union in love.” And he pointed me toward the act of forgiveness.
Consolations in prayer, however deeply felt, may strengthen, encourage, and even heal, but it’s in acts of love that we are in the greatest union with God, who is Love itself. Over the next several days, many wonderful consolations did follow, and eventually even my cold improved. But one takeaway from the retreat will be, in the words of my retreat director, not to confuse consolation with the God of consolation. I know my grief is not over, and the ebb and flow of its tides will continue. But I will always remember what Jesus said about union: that it’s in love that we are in greatest union with God and with one another.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.