We just got back from our 8-day silent retreat in the Netherlands (with all the deacons who will be ordained as priests TOMORROW!! Awesome. Please pray for Br. Ignas, Elroy, Patrick, and Hans as they are ordained!)—and let me tell you, it was phenomenal, powerful, and exactly what I needed. That being said, look for lots of blogs coming up about different things God revealed to my heart on retreat and that I’ll be praying about for some time to come (I mean, 8 days of silence are a LOT for me, and I have a lot to process!). This particular blog, however, will focus on something a little more…“ordinary.”
Let me just start by saying this: I don’t know what it is about silent retreats, 8-day silent retreats in particular, but meals are always hilarious. Maybe it’s because it’s really the only time of the day we’re all together. Maybe it’s because we know we’re supposed to be silent, or because it’s incredibly awkward to watch someone trying to eat an orange with a spoon, or because there’s a very stern-looking portrait of Sister What’s-Her-Name staring down at us from above the table. Or maybe because (unlike Br. John’s retreat where everyone looked at a different wall during mealtimes—which is almost as awkward but not quite) we’re all staring silently at one another while someone sniffs the soup. In any case, mealtimes were a challenge. I think Purgatory might be rather like a mealtime on a silent retreat, where you just want to laugh and joke and be everyone’s friend and talk about how delicious the meatballs are, but instead everyone is listening to everyone else chew and trying not to laugh.
And, one other observation: you really do not know how culturally different you are until it comes to food. When you legitimately have to ask (to yourself of course; remember, you’re silent…) “How do I eat this?” you know you’re a foreigner. What kind of meat is that? What do I do with this fork? What side of the plate do teacup handles go on? (The right…) What is that brown stuff? Oh…I’m supposed to use this napkin all 8 days?…whoops…
Now, don’t get me wrong—Europeans can EAT. In fact, I think they’ve definitely got the one-up on the U.S. in that category. What was my life like before soup every day? How could I not have known the deliciousness of Gouda with apricot jam? Coffee four times a day? Why, yes, thanks. AND, if you ever have the luck to eat with European nuns…well then, get ready for lots of new culinary deliciousness (I mean, they make lima beans taste good. Not just good…good. I think that might be one of those unnamed gifts of the Holy Spirit).
Here’s my favorite thing about the way nuns eat: it’s liturgical. It’s like praying (“so whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” –1 Corinthians 10:31). We celebrated Pentecost during our 8-day which, as you may or may not know, is a Solemnity. It’s like the Church’s way of saying, “Pay attention to this! This is a BIG DEAL!” And we celebrate, because God is so good to us (and because everyone remembers parties the best)! Now, if we were back home, we’d probably go to Mass (maybe, if it’s not combined with the Sunday Mass that week…) and sing some Holy Spirit songs. And those are good. But the nuns CELEBRATE—from the special church bells they ring throughout the day, to the special incense and monstrance they use (we stayed with Perpetual Adoration Sisters), to the Latin they chant during Mass, right down to the food. Special rolls at breakfast and raisin bread at dinner, instead of regular bread. Giant cakes instead of cookies at coffee time. Meatballs and noodles in the soup. Soda. Just about double the number of dishes at lunch (with asparagus, so you know it’s really special) and ICE CREAM instead of pudding. What a beautiful way to make us aware—every moment, in everything—of the importance of the day, the joy of God’s gifts to us. Every bite of asparagus was “declaring the glory of God” (Ps 19). Every little raisin was “shining with joy for its maker” (Bar 3:35). Carbonation and chocolate chips, bless the Lord!
In and of themselves, all those things are rather ordinary—in our everyday lives, we hardly give a second thought to raisins, because, let’s face it; they don’t seem that special (especially when your mom is trying to get you to eat raisins instead of cookies). But because they were reserved, set apart—consecrated, in a way—they spoke of a truth much greater than themselves. They pointed us back to the reality that God gifts us with good things; not just with delicious food, but more importantly, with his presence, his Spirit (which lasts far longer than ice cream, no matter how delicious it may be). In a beautiful way, the most ordinary, everyday things became proclamations of the Gospel; the most unassuming and completely joyful missionaries. I can only pray that my life is the same.
Thank you all for your continued prayers—Heaven knows how much I depend on them! And keep an eye out for those upcoming blogs (I’m trying to be better about posting them, I promise!).