There are retreats of different kinds. Some take place in community with some kind of teaching taking place each day. Others offer a daily meeting with a director to reflect on issues coming up in the hours of prayer. Within the Christian tradition retreats can last 8 days though the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola are done over 30 days. In the Buddhist tradition some retreats can last 4 years and even more and some Buddhists do more than one. These retreats are an immersion into Buddhist teaching with some periods of silence, regular pujas and meditations. The point is to observe the mind, its intricacies and dark places in an effort to move beyond illusion and face reality.
Within the Catholic Church there are two kinds of religious life – active religious and contemplative. Active religious orders, like my own, were founded as a response to a social problem and members of these orders are committed to education, the care of the sick, the welfare of the poor, care of the environment. refugees etc. There’s hardly an issue of injustice or crisis in the world that doesn’t have a religious order committed to combatting it. These religious do pray and meditate but the focus of their lives is their service to others. Contemplatives live in community though there are those who choose to live a solitary life as a hermit. The focus for all of them is a life of prayer For some people this way of life is difficult to understand. I often find that religious life with its vows of chastity, obedience and poverty is questioned but accepted because of the good work that religious do. Contemplative life is more difficult to understand.
A life focussed on prayer and study, whether as a solitary or a member of a contemplative order, is a very countercultural way of life for a generation that lives in constant communication and finds it hard to be away from their smart phones. It’s also hard to see what relevance such a way of life has for today. For many it seems selfish, opting out of the normal problems of earning a living and running a household. The reality is that contemplatives set aside these concerns to live at the heart of life and take its sufferings and problems to heart, feeling the pain of the world and praying for it. It’s a force for good in the world and when things are hard I often think we should remember the amount of prayer that is happening around us and draw upon its strength. Even for those religions that don’t have a monastic way of life, prayer is part of their daily life. Jews meet three times a day to pray, Muslims meet five times as do Catholic monastics and Buddhist monastics have their regular daily prayer and meditation. One of the focuses of this prayer is praying for others.
No matter what people might believe about God, prayer is a force and energy for good at a very human level. Scientists tell us that we all have an electro-magnetic field around us which generates enough energy to light up a light bulb. Biologists speak of morphogenic fields – fields of energy which store our genetic and inherited memory. We are putting energy out into our environment and it’s up to us whether it’s good or bad, positive or negative. There’s no need to be religious or to believe in God to recognise this human and scientific reality. Buddhists who don’t claim to believe in a personal God, send loving kindness into the world when they pray that all beings may be well, may be happy and free from suffering. People can give and receive good energy from another through kything. We are emitting energy through our thoughts and intentions all the time. And to recognise that this energy is out there and can be directed at me can help me draw on the strength of others when times are hard.
There’s a lot of bad energy about. The daily news shows us what greed, power, domination, abuse and violence can do. We see its results in the way we treat one another and seem to find it impossible to live in respect and harmony with one another. It’s easy to be aware of this negative energy and wonder what the world is coming to or how we as a species are so capable of inflicting cruelty on those who appear, but are not in fact, different from us. How do we treat one another so badly? How we contaminate and abuse this planet on which we all depend for survival?
But there is good energy out there, not just in the form of social justice projects and good just enterprise, but also in the form of prayer and intentional good energy being sent out into the world and the universe. This kind of energy is hidden and not always understood. But it should not be forgotten. Even if we cannot personally get involved in great projects that aim to change the world we can intentionally live our lives well. We can try to live not from the head which analyses, judges, compares, criticises, sets us apart from one another but from the heart or the heart mind as some people talk of it. From this stance we can look with sympathy and love at our world and quite deliberately send out healing energy. Every morning as we face another day we can have the intention to live it well, to spread an energy of kindness and compassion wherever the day takes us. For some this is a religious practice but at heart it is a human practice that can give hope to us and to our world.