I have been blessed over the years to visit the Trappist community at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y. - to take time to enjoy the counsel, peace, quiet and solitude they offer. I have shared some of the spiritual insight I have been blessed to receive during my retreats there. Here is one example.
But I have not been able to get there as often as I would like. In between visits, I have treasured a homily given by Father Justin Sheehan, OCSO in 2008. I received his permission to share it with you. May God use it to stir your hearts and souls.
By the way, the next best thing to visiting this special place in person is to do so online. Missing their Monks' Bread and other delights? Fear not! You can have them sent directly to your home with a click of a button or two. Check them out. They would appreciate your support.Now for Father's Homily:
Silence and Solitude – Homily by Father Justin Sheehan, OCSO, Abbey at Genesee: August 10, 2008
Every human life has a religious dimension, something in us that responds to the overwhelming presence of God. The context is different for everyone, but also there is something in common. We heard Elijah spent the night alone on Horeb, the mountain of God, and that Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray. They seem to have felt a call to meet God, and knew that God can only be met in solitude.
It might seem that this solitude can’t be experienced by ordinary people living outside the monastery. Somehow we think that we precede God in solitude, but actually it is God who waits for us as he waits for Elijah to reach the mountain of God, he waits for Jesus to go up into the hills, and Jesus waits for Peter to come to him across the water. In finding God, each of these people found solitude, because true solitude is Spirit, like “the sound of a gentle breeze”. True solitude lies not in the absence of other people but in the presence of God.
When we place our lives face to face with God, and surrender our lives to him, all at once we find ourselves in the land of solitude and at home in it. Solitude is wherever our soul encounters God, as Elijah did on Horeb, and Jesus in the hills. A sure sign that it is God whom we encounter in solitude is that the experience leaves us calm and steady. Elijah simply went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Jesus calmly walked across the waters. The experience of God in solitude is an individual experience, but it is not an isolating one. It leaves us radically at one with the entire human family, our own flesh and blood, descended from Adam and Eve, and each of whom is an image of Christ, the human face of God.
There is no solitude without silence. Silence sometimes means keeping quiet; but always it means listening. As the psalm this morning puts it, “I will hear what the Lord God has to say”. There can be an absence of noise, but if there is no listening to what the Lord God has to say, then it does not count as silence. And a day full of noise and people’s voices can be a day of silence if the noise becomes for us an echo of the presence of God, “a voice that speaks of peace”.
When we speak just about ourselves and on our own initiative, we leave the land of silence behind us. But when we repeat with our lips what the Lord God has to say to us in the depths of our hearts, then silence is not broken. St. Paul did not break silence when speaking about the Jewish people, because he spoke from the solitude of his soul where God dwelt and his words were charged with life. St. Peter did not break silence because his words were a prayer: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water”. Silence is not like a deer that disappears at the least little sound. It’s like an eagle soaring in the air, flying high above earthquakes and fire and storms on the lake.
The way to reach the mountain of God, the land of solitude and silence, is Jesus Christ, who is himself in the presence of God. He says to us what he said to Peter, “Come.” Let us hear what the Lord has to say, and come to eat his Body and drink his Blood. This is the only food that can make us more sensitive to the presence of God, and able to hear his voice among all the noises of the earth. And when our ears no longer hear any earthly noise, may we recognize the voice of the eternal Word, saying to us, “Courage! It is I!”