I.—THE ADVANTAGE OF A RETREAT MADE IN SOLITUDE AND SILENCE
I have received your last letter in which you tell me you are sill undecided as to the state of life you should choose, and that having communicated to your Pastor the advice I gave you – namely, to go for that purpose to perform the Spiritual Exercises in the house you father owns in the country – the said Pastor answered you it was not necessary to go there to torture your brains for eight days in solitude, but that it was enough for you to attend the Retreat he would soon have for the people in his own church. Now, as on this point of making the Exercises you again ask my advice, it is necessary I should answer you more at length, and show you how much greater the fruit of the Spiritual Exercises is when they are performed in silence, in some retired place, than in public, when one is obliged during the time to live in one’s own house and converse with relatives and friends: and the more so in your case, for, as you write to me, you have in your own home no quiet room to which you can retire.
Besides, I am very much in favour of a Retreat performed in solitude, closed away from the world, as I know it is to such a Retreat I owe my own conversion and my resolution to give up the world. I will later suggest to you the means and precautions to be taken during the Spiritual Exercises in order to reap from them the fruit you desire. I beg of you, when you have read this letter yourself, to give it to your Rev. Parish Priest that he may read it also.
Let us, then, speak first of the great benefit of the Spiritual Exercises when performed in solitude, where one converses with God alone, and let us see the reason for this.
The truths of eternal life, such as the great affair of our salvation, the value of the time God gives us that we may amass merits for a happy Eternity, the obligations under which we are to love God for His infinite goodness and the immense love He has for us,– these and similar things are not seen with the eyes of the flesh, but only with the eyes of the mind. It is, on the contrary, certain that, unless our understanding represents to the will the value of a good or the greatness of an evil, we shall never embrace that good nor reject that evil. And this is the ruin of those who are attached to this world. They live in darkness, and not seeing the greatness of eternal good and eternal evil, and allured by the senses, they give themselves up to forbidden pleasure and thus miserably perish.
Wherefore the Holy Ghost admonishes us that in order to avoid sin we must keep before our eyes the Last Things which are to come upon us; that is, Death, with which all the goods of this earth will come to an end for us, and the Divine Judgment, in which we shall have to give to God an account of our whole life. Remember thy last end and thou shalt never sin (Ecclus. vii. 40). And in another place God says: Oh that they would be wise and would understand and would provide for their last end (Deut. xxxii. 29). By which words He wishes us to understand that if men would consider the things of the next life, they would all certainly take care to sanctify themselves, and would not expose themselves to the danger of an unhappy life in Eternity. But they shut their eyes to the light and thus, remaining blind, precipitate themselves into an abyss of evil. This is why the Saints always prayed the Lord to give them light. Enlighten my eyes, that I never sleep in death (Ps. xii. 4). May God cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us (Ps. lxvi. 2). Make the way known to me wherein I should walk (Ps. cxlii. 8). Give me understanding and I will learn thy commandments (Ps. cxviii. 78).
Now in order to obtain this Divine light we must come close to God. Come ye to him and be enlightened (Ps. xxxiii. 6). For, as St. Augustine tells us, that as we cannot see the sun without the light of the sun itself, so we cannot see the light of God but by the light of God Himself. This light is obtained in the Spiritual Exercises; by them we come close to God, and God enlightens us with His light. The Spiritual Exercises mean nothing else than that we retire for a time from intercourse with the world, and go to converse with God alone, where God speaks to us by His inspirations, and we speak to God in our meditations by acts of love, by repenting of the sins by which we have displeased Him, by offering ourselves to serve Him for the future with all our heart, and by beseeching Him to make known to us His will, and give us strength to accomplish it.
Holy Job says: Now I should have rest in my sleep with kings and consuls of the earth who build themselves solitudes (Job iii. 18). Who are these kings that build themselves solitudes? They are, as St. Gregory says, those who rise above this world, and withdraw from its tumults to render themselves fit to talk alone with God. “they build solitudes, that is, they separate themselves far as possible from the tumult of the world, in order to be alone and to become fit to speak with God.”
One day as St. Arsenius was reflecting on the means that he should take to become a saint, God caused him to hear these words: Fuge! Tace! Quiesce! “Fly! Be silent! And Rest!” Fly from the world, be silent, cease to talk with men, and speak only with Me, and thus rest in peace and solitude. In conformity with this, St. Anselm wrote to one worried by many worldy occupations, who complained that he had not a moment of peace, and gave the following advice: “Leave your occupations for a while; hide yourself for a time to contemplate God and rest in Him: Say to God: Now teach my heart where and how I may seek Thee; where and how I may find Thee.” Words that are applicable, each and all, to yourself. Fly, says he, for a short time from those earthly occupations which render you so unquiet, and rest in solitude with God. Say to Him: O Lord, show me where and how I may find Thee, that I may speak alone with Thee, and at the same time hear Thy words.
God speaks indeed to those who seek Him, but He does not speak in the midst of the tumult of the world. The Lord is not in the commotion of the earthquake, as was said to Elias when God called him to solitude. The voice of God, as it is said in the same place, is as the breath of a gentle air, which is scarcely heard, and then not by the ear of the body, but by that of the heart, without noise and in a sweet retreat. This is exactly what the Lord says through Osee: I will lead her into solitude; far from the embarrassment of the world and intercourse with men, and there speaks to it in words of fire. The word of God is said to it in words of fire, because it melts a soul, as the sacred Spouse says: My soul melted when he (my beloved) spoke (Cant. v. 6). It prepares the soul to submit readily to the direction of God, and to embrace the manner of life which God wishes. The word of God is so exceedingly efficacious that at the very time it is heard it operates in the soul all that God requires.