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Issue 02

On Retreat:
Journey to God

Monique Winn

Monique Winn, who lives in Pretoria, RSA, trained as a Spiritual Director with the Jesuit Institute. She is currently studying the mystics through the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School in Albuquerque, NM.

Teilhard de Chardin says: “Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within.”

I was a busy and inquisitive child (still am …). Much in life captures my attention.

Creation became a comforting and soothing Presence. Nature drew me in, inviting me to encounter Itself. Many hours were spent, lying on my back in long teff ― cattle-fodder grass ― dreaming and watching clouds drift by. In tumultuous preadolescence, standing calf-deep for hours on end, in the surging South Coast waves, I experienced Joy.

Be still and know that I am God.

This longing to meet with God/Love became the driving force in my first experiences of directed Silent Morning Retreats. A few hours, with a piece of Scripture or a question, exposed my soul to the Divine Dance during which my busy, monkey brain would settle and meet with stillness. 

An invitation to attend a weekend of silence at the foothills of the Lesotho mountains presented itself. On the journey to the Wyndford Holiday Farm, anxious questions kept popping into my mind. What if there is nothing when I get into the silence or what if that going deeper into myself might trigger all sorts of traumas that I had absolutely no desire to confront. Doubts kept rising about my ability to keep the silence, to resist the temptation to read books or divert my restlessness into one activity or another. I sensed a gentle nudging …Come away with Me. Trust Me.

Thomas Merton says: “Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which is nothing like you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

I went for a walk on that first morning, smiling at the memory of the twittering noises at the dinner table the previous evening, as everyone got out as many of their words as possible “vir oulaas” (for the last time).

The beauty of my surroundings drew my focus. It was wind-still; the clean mountain air, crystal clear sky and winter-gold grass, like a gift spread out around me. Crossing a small stream with cypresses on either side, the question came: Where are you Lord? 

In that moment a breeze rustled the leaves of the conifers. 

Answer moved the air: I AM here.

The sense of developing a spaciousness in which to Be, to allow sensations and thoughts to bubble up and follow them to their natural conclusion or end, was a discovery that thrilled me.

The invitation to keep looking for ways to connect and encounter God brought me to Ignatian Spirituality and I found my home. God Is In Everything! I found Love! To be reminded that I was made in love, by love and for love. It is relational. He pursues me. He desires that I find Him even more than I do. It all started with Him. I am just responding.

Photo: Monique Winn

I was enthralled… until Doubt arrived and awareness grew of the many distractions, addictive habits and stinking thinking. How do I find ways/ open up ways/ follow the trail that would continue to lead me in encountering God. How do I help myself stay open and generous within, to not put any obstacles in my path to God?

The retreat practices were one way to find spaces to rest my brain and relax my inner being. To embrace the distractions and find God there too. The enneagram was a wonderful revelation in the journey of self-understanding.

Doing the Ignatian Exercises was a logical next step. Doing the Exercises as a retreat in daily life, rather than a 30-day retreat, for the next twelve months, meant a more focused approach. Intentionally demarcating time in reflection every day meant explaining to those I love and live with, that I would not be available to them during those sixty minutes.

The Exercises exposed me to a variety of contemplative spiritual practices and these Ignatian gifts helped me to develop habits that continue to hold me. It allows me to remain in a sustained receptivity for an encounter with Love.

Lectio Divina or Divine Reading

An ancient practice that reveals God’s treasures in the field. Meditating on a piece of Scripture and allowing the beauty of a word or a phrase to drop straight into my heart. To sit with it and trust God to slowly reveal its message and speak into my life. How is it meaningful right where I find myself now? What would you like me to do with it? Where can I use it to illuminate your love for me and others?

Imaginative Contemplation

Using a gospel story to enter into as a participant and imaginatively discover more about myself and my relationship with Jesus. I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Jesus leaning against a warm rock at a body of water. Using all my senses to fully enter the scene of my choice, to marvel at the way I can smell dust, hear sounds, “see” people and events unfold, while sitting in my armchair on my balcony. This is the gift of imagination, which Jesus used so abundantly in his gospel stories. The Imaginative Prayer can and does lead to a conversation (colloquy) with Jesus.

The Prayer of Review

At the end of a day, just before I close my eyes, like a hunting dog sniffing down a trail, I scroll through the events of the day and notice: Where did I feel an increase of love, a sense of God at work in me and the others. The graced moments. Where did I not have this sense? What felt heavy, hard, sad…? What do I desire for the next day? Holding this all up to the One who loves me, my life and my being, I drift off..

During one of the required weekend retreats I found myself in a faith crisis. A sense of darkness, loneliness, an absence from Love. Frightening. What was this all about? Why? No comforting answer came back. St Ignatius’ advice for moments like these, is to keep going. Keep showing up to the point of extending your quiet time by five minutes, despite the urge not to have one at all.

Isaiah 30:15: In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.

The biggie was an 8-day retreat. If quiet weekend retreats were dipping a toe to test the ocean of silence, this was like flinging myself fully clothed into the deep end.

The retreat location on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. A sea view and the sound of the waves. Tempting, desirable … irresistible. The first few days were spent dealing with the monkey mind rebelling, baulking at the monotony, casting around for anything that would help the sense of being stuck.

An experienced, sensitive spiritual director meets with you once a day and together you listen for signs of God in the daily rhythm, noticing life-giving moments, consoling, inviting, gentle… Like falling into a warm embrace. A gift that continues to give.

In community, moving past each other, coming together for meals and end-of-day services, our beings communicate wordlessly. I hold moments of Glorious Encounter in those eight days like treasures in a field.

Sitting on a wet beach, just before sunrise, my eyes closed, sensing movement, I saw hundreds of the shy, elusive sand crabs all looking in the same direction as me, motionless. For several minutes the crabs and I sat, revelling in the Moment. The sun disappeared, behind the clouds, and so did the crabs.

In the spaciousness of silence God pours Himself out all day long, singing His presence out to All things, revealing His love to all His beloveds. In my willingness to hear His song my capacity for love and service increases moment by moment.

“There is more prayer in the scrapyards of our hearts than we imagine. The pearl of great price lies hidden in the cracks of the paving stones we walk” (Margaret Silf: Taste and See). Adventuring into Prayer.

(Photo supplied by Wyndford Holiday Farm, see