Sr Inigo Joachim SSA, Dwarka, New Delhi, India
Inigo is the former superior General of St.Anne’s sisters of Madhavaram, near
Chennai. She is now resident in
is a faith experience and hence it defies expression. Preaching a retreat is a
Ministry; it is participating in the preaching and teaching mission of Jesus. I
deem it as a special vocation. It is uniquely designed to provide refreshment
for the body, mind and soul of the participants. While there are many things
that a religious is called to do, the preaching and proclamation of the Word
strikes not only at the heart of our mission, but at the heart of the faith.
Though I have been invited to give seminars, to facilitate pre-chapter
assemblies and to moderate the General and provincial Chapters, the call to
preaching retreat is a unique experience and a joyful and loving task.
retreat is not a seminar.
seminar is a rational and intellectual work, mostly using our brain and
sharing knowledge about facts and events while a retreat is linked to the heart
and is based on faith experience. We pass on information in seminars whereas the
focus of retreat is the formation and transformation of a whole person. It
passes from the ‘word’ to ‘stillness’. It is a call for self analysis
and introspection. In the words of Aristotle, an unexamined life is not worth
living. Retreat is a time to examine one’s inner life and to make an
evaluation of one’s relationship with God and with others. It calls the
retreatants to enter into it not just analytically and verbally but emotionally
and with passion.
have had the privilege of preaching retreats to nearly 40 to 50 congregations
– religious women, religious brothers, priests and the laity – both in
many ask me whether people have changed because of my retreats. I am not cynical
Change is a process; growth takes time. We may not see the results
quickly like after a school exam. But I believe that change is happening!
Changing the hearts is not my task. It is the Lord who does it and I do not want
to interfere in the work of the Lord. None of us are finished products of God.
We are all works in progress. I have grown to what I am today due to my own
retreats and I am sure that the same thing must be happening with others too
though I do not see it visibly. I
remember once I was about to start my annual retreat, but I was in no mood for a
retreat at that moment. But it was a common retreat arranged by the Congregation
and my name was on the list. I remember someone telling me: “God has taken an
appointment with you. You will see that God is waiting for you. Go by all
Prime Minister has taken an appointment with me, would I easily cancel it? How I
would be waiting for that day! I cannot sleep for a week. How great I feel about
myself! I start my retreats with the same idea that God has taken an appointment
with them and God has such a lot to share with them especially about those dark
areas of life which they do not see themselves.
doubt, many do have good will and all take good resolutions at the end of every
retreat. But again and again we fail in our life; we go far away from the love
of God and of our neighbours. We realize that our spirit is willing but the
flesh is weak. That is why we need a good retreat to come back to God and to
start our life afresh. God has not yet been disappointed with us.
I was preaching retreat to the laity in
is being quiet
retreat time is away from the crowd once
in a way like Jesus and entering into the cave of our own hearts. In the name of
active ministry and busy schedules we have lost this cave experience. Our
retreats too have become seminars and input sessions. We often experience
restlessness and simply keep ourselves occupied with non-essentials. I normally
encourage the members initially to spend time alone. On the first day of the
retreat our concentration power is low. In quietness we can even hear ourselves
breathing. We can hear our heart-beat. Hours of silence make one look inward. We
should be able to create our own caves during the retreat days and connect to
inner selves. This also helps in self- management. I request, therefore, the
group not to use verbal prayers or books just at least during the retreat days
but start with silent meditation, guided or on their own, or sit in silence and
solitude, sometimes using breathing techniques to clam oneself and to empty
the retreat we get a chance to sit in meditation for many hours and making an
inward journey. Meditation is not contemplation. It is not concentration. It is
not about doing something. It is being in a state of awareness. So, in a way we
can say that living mindfully is being in meditation. Meditation removes the
poisonous toxins from our body and mind and keeps us healthy and happy!
have attended a few sessions of Vipassana by the Goenka group and art of living
sessions by the disciples of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for prisoners at Tihar Jail.
The inmates normally go through endless problems and mental agony. But I have
seen hundreds of them voluntarily attending these sessions in sitting in
stillness for more than 10 hours a day for 10 days and experience inner peace
and tranquility. They have learnt from these sessions how silent meditation has
led them to a transformation in their lives. Some have even shed tears for the
harm they had done to their victims outside. They continuously utter the
seductive promise that has a mesmerizing effect. The Guruji tells the group: 'you
can begin again, you can change; it is not all hopeless; you can start again.' The
past cannot be erased, it cannot be made to disappear, but it can be
refashioned, it can be healed. Damaged beauty can receive a new design.
Religious, to whom I normally preach, do not go through the real struggles of
life. Therefore the issue is always that of the human person with its baggage,
undue needs and also the ‘taking for granted’ attitude. Most of our problems
are community problems; relationship issues; ‘I am always right’ attitude.
We have not been trained or motivated about ‘power’ in the Gospel
sense. Hence the misuse of power, rather than accepting it with humility or
taking it as a responsibility! Sometimes many feel that power is in the wrong
hands. Religious life should be joyful and loving – but many of us are very
unhappy and shedding tears. Carrying the past wounds inflicted upon them by the
leaders; arrogance in their own dealings with others rather than being gentle,
tender, available and helping others grow. Many lay people are questioning us
saying: Why are religious rude and harsh? Why don’t they understand us?
Word of God in the Retreat
the retreatants settle down in themselves, I begin the second day with the Word
of God: “The Lord has visited His people to set us free” (Lk: 1:68). The
Lord is visiting each of us during these days to heal us, to console us, to
strengthen us, to encourage us and to help us to start our lives afresh. At the
same time the Lord will not just go away during his visitation without
challenging our lethargic life. He would wish to see fire burning in us (Lk:
) and he may even make a complaint about how we have lost our original zeal and
missionary commitment (Rev: 2:4). We will not be the same when the Lord visits
us (Lk: 3: 4-5). We read in Mt:
, that the Jews requested Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. If we listen to
the Lord in silence we will also be disturbed in our hearts. I
usually ask the members whether we too will be asking the Lord to go away.
The Word of God continues to challenge us saying: “You will listen and listen but not understand; you will look and look, but not see, because this peoples’ minds are dull and closed their eyes……..therefore it will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will listen” (Acts: 28: 26-27).
through the living Word of God the members are made to reflect on every area of
their life and mission. My style of preaching is thus to link the Word of God
with the day- to-day realities of religious life, giving practical examples and
sharing my own personal experiences including my failures and challenges (Heb:
). I don’t think the Bible was written years ago for someone else. “All
scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking
error, correcting faults and giving instruction for right living” (II Tim:
is no event in our life today which cannot be challenged by the Word of God if I
am serious about reading and reflecting on it and allowing it to question my
life today. “If today
you would hear His voice, do not stubborn your hearts” (Ps. 95:8).
God is not speaking for our yesterday or for our tomorrow; it is for today! “Today
salvation has come to this house” (Lk:
). “I promise you that today
you will be in
I sincerely feel that we all need guidance to understand the living message and allow it to enlighten and strengthen us. This is the role of the preacher: to make the Word of God come alive. When Ethiopian Eunuch was reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah, he tells the questioning Philip: “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts: ). I quote thus a few apt and relevant passages from the Scripture and help the members to reflect in relation to their life and mission. They then certainly realize that they have not taken any such interest in reading the Bible in this way. I have seen the participants start reading and referring the Word of God with attention and interest.
Come to Their Senses
the end of the retreat I point to what Luke says in the parable of the Prodigal
son: “At last he came to his senses” (Lk:
). When the members come back to their senses through meditation and reflection
of the Word of God, they will transform their lives. The Acts of the Apostles
speak about Peter: “Now I understand” (Acts:
). I strongly believe that they do come to their senses and realize the need to
transform their life on their own.
I ask them what they would like to say about the retreat in one word, in
general, the following is what the members give me in their evaluation:
This retreat for me is an eye opener, a challenge, Very concrete from life experiences; so exciting and challenging; a
new start, a way to transformation, a call for an inward journey, a gift, very
enriching one, a “revolution”, an awakening to commit my life seriously, a
treasure, an invitation to change and renew my heart and mind, “I have
found the Messiah”, a right key to conversion, a strengthening and awakening
to give Jesus to
a paradigm shift, excellent, listening to God, a Divine revelation, an
inspiration, a blessing, a breakthrough etc.
: From my experience I firmly believe that making the retreat an annual event has to go. Since many times the retreat has become an annual ritual for religious, there is a danger of retreat turned out to be a routine event. Sometimes retreat is a paid holiday or escaping from one’s duties. Some use retreat time to meet one’s friends and companions. They just attend the talks like attending some seminar and receiving inputs as they lose nothing to go for this retreat. Some consider it as a time to be entertained by an interesting speaker with no demands on oneself. Time has come now to make an honest evaluation of such rubrics. Such people or even such superiors get the satisfaction that they have finished some ritual and have arranged some religious exercise but it may not bear the needed results.
: Instead of preparing the list and compelling people to make a retreat, we should train our members to become mature enough to feel the need for it and to volunteer for such a sacred event. Genuineness could be tested only in freedom. Anything we do with free will and interest will bring fruits in life.
Group retreats with big numbers make the event a seminar. Making introspection
is a personal matter. We need a quiet place to meet God and to make an inward
journey with a sincere desire to become God-centered persons. According to the
need of the person retreats in smaller groups or inviting God-experienced
persons to share their God experience and their struggles in their search for
God will make the retreat effective in today’s context. If the group is big, I
divide them into smaller groups of 6 or 8 members. I find big groups sitting in
adoration and a few sharing rather artificial. These small groups can have
either the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament or of the Bible, and after a long
silence, share any insight or
reflection the Lord has given to the individual person that day.
Sometimes I give them the following questions to reflect individually before sharing with others: What Word of God / insight – touched me today? What is disturbing me or calling me for a personal transformation? The advantage is that the reflections we draw from the Bible come not only from our individual faith but from the faith of others and we are often challenged and enriched by the meanings others discover in the Bible, just as our own discoveries strengthen and inspire others. Sometimes it is good to keep a diary when they reflect individually. They are motivated to write down in the diary their inspirations and insights and go through it before going to bed. I start the next day asking them to feel free to share their previous day’s experiences: how the Lord has visited them and spoken to them, in a word or two. Voluntarily the retreatants meet me during the break sharing their inner struggles, sometimes their unique way of seeking God, their way of experiencing Him and the challenges they face in the area of forgiveness, reconciliation etc. Some will leave with a sense of repentance and a desire to change their past behaviour.
I would conclude with the following Word of God
from the Book of Exodus: “This is what you are to say to the people of
If only each one of us could say at the end of our retreat that whatever the Lord has spoken during the retreat, I WILL DO IT! Into that freedom, may we all awake!