by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Final Purpose of a Retreat
We’ve covered the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary: you might be wondering, I wonder what’s coming next? Our subject for this evening’s conference is on Resolutions in a Marian Retreat. As we come to the close of our spiritual exercises, we had better say something about what a retreat is all about. As the Church understands it, a retreat is not merely a series of spiritual conferences. It is not a seminar in spiritual theology. It is not even a week, more or less, in listening to explanations of Catholic faith and morals. A retreat will have conferences and must have silence and prayer. But the final purpose of a retreat through now centuries of the Church’s experience is to make – the final purpose of a retreat is to make – a salutary improvement in our lives. And the word salutary means: improvement that conduces to our salus, to our salvation. So we ask ourselves: How is this improvement to be achieved? In the last six days we’ve covered many aspects of our faith and, as far as possible, always against the background of Our Lady. Suppose we approach this concluding and I would say basic subject from three angles by asking three questions while applying these questions to the meditations we’ve been making for the past week on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.
Question one. What virtues of Our Lady have most struck me that I believe that I need to develop in my life? And I have underlined, struck me that I believe that I need to develop in my life. Second, how should I go about developing these Marian virtues that I found out I need? And third – this is an imperative – resolve to cultivate these virtues after the example of Mary.
Pride Can Never Hide
First then, what Marian virtues do I need? We then begin by asking ourselves, each one personally, in the panorama of the virtues that faith tells us the Mother of God practiced. Which of these – as far as I know myself – do I, let’s say, seem especially to need. By the way, God knows and we may say that Our Lady knows. But I’d better know too! Just a few lead questions. Is it humility as seen from my manifestations of pride? By the way, whatever pride does, pride can never hide. The proud person may think that he or she; oh, I know I’m proud. I try not to show it. My dear! My dear! Everyone knows.
Pain and Patience Go Together
Is it patience I specially need in becoming discouraged over the least inconvenience or experience of pain? Pain and patience go together. Now you may have the virtue of patience – that means the ability to be patient. But you don’t really know until you experience some pain! Thank God for the pain in our lives: the indispensable catalyst for growing in that precious virtue of patience.
Other people have interest too!
Is it charity I need in talking, (ah! how universal) in talking about what I like to talk about? You might say, well what else? Some people it never occurs to their minds that other people have interests too! That maybe, just maybe they might perhaps possibly be interested in my talking about what is on their minds; what concerns them! Is it my charity which the lack of the virtue is manifested in my ignoring, I don’t say other people’s needs; am I ignoring people? Is it my failure in charity shown in my moodiness or pre-occupation with the loveliest and dearest creature I know on earth: you know who!
Identify the Virtues I Need to Develop
Is it prudence in not thinking before I speak; or on acting on impulse and allowing my feelings to determine my conduct? We all know enough about our faith and have heard enough during the retreat to compare Mary’s virtues with our own corresponding failures. It is in the best spirit of St. Ignatius, the patron of the Spiritual Exercises, to identify certain Marian virtues that I need. Notice, that I need to develop. Each of those three words is crucial. I – as I see myself before God. Need – as is clearly God’s Will for me. Christ could not have been plainer or more embarrassingly emphatic: We so easily, spontaneously recognize the smallest peccadillos in the lives of other people and the gross sins we will not realize in ourselves. What do I need to develop by improving my life? Let’s assume, as an infallible given, that my spiritual life needs improvement. Then, go on from there.
Second question: How am I to develop the virtues that I need? We might simply observe that there is no secret about how we should grow in the Marian virtues – that our past experience, and not just ten years ago or even yesterday, but may be a half an hour before coming into chapel – what Marian virtues do I need? Consequently, if it is spiritual progress that we are to look for, then we must be convinced that we need to become and I’ve got three, six eight, eleven mores (just thought I should stop somewhere). The first law of spiritual growth is conviction in the mind. My mind must be certain that I need to become and then, more of this and more of that. Notice what we’re saying: Improvement, growth.
I’ve got to be convinced that I need to become more humble. Anytime we get the idea – I’ve been working on this humility, let’s see, it’s seventeen years. Seems to me I should work on some other virtues. Humility, thanks! But I have it under control. We must be convinced. Conviction is in the mind.
That we need to become more patient. Oh! You’d be surprised. Maybe what I need in my life is more pain. Father, this is not a time for humor. Be serious. No! I’m serious!
We will make progress in our spiritual life if we’re convinced we need to become more charitable. Father, you’ve no idea the progress I’ve made in charity. I won’t say I’m a model of charity yet, but I’m getting there. And God may have to shake us to the roots of our being to wake us up to the realization that we need more charity.
I’ve got to be convinced that I need to become more industrious. Meaning what? Less lazy. And one of the problems, sometimes, in living with other people like say in a religious community; a person may not realize how lazy he or she is ‘til they find out that somebody else in the community is a model of industriousness. Never losing a moment of time. Others will tell her, “slow down, sister, slow down!”
More Gentle and Humble of Heart
We shall make progress in the spiritual life if we’re convinced that we need to become more gentle: A rare virtue, much more rare than most people realize. Two virtues go together by divine relationship: They are gentleness and humility. It is not for nothing that Christ in the only mandate He directly gave us of learning from Him and cultivating virtue in imitating Him what to tell us to learn to be ‘gentle and humble of heart’. We will be as gentle in our conduct, externally, as we are humble in our hearts, internally. Only humble people are gentle; nobody else is.
Are we convinced that we need to become more thoughtful? We don’t even have to identify the object of that verb. We’re all constantly, preoccupyingly thoughtful of you know whom!
Convinced that we need to become more self-effacing, more cheerful. For some people, that’s quite a task! The secret of cheerfulness as manifest in our behavior is to be happy, authentically happy, deep down inside of our hearts. You don’t put on cheerfulness. You may be suffering intensely, but if you are sincerely happy within, you’ll be cheerful to everyone whose life you touch. We go on.
More Pleasing to Her Divine Son
If we pray and ask Our Lady to obtain for us the grace we need to become more pleasing to her Divine Son. Notice, we’re answering, how do you develop the virtues you need? First of all, you’ve got to find out which ones do I need? I need them all; don’t be silly. Which ones do you specially need? I tell you, I need them all. Get down to business! There are some people that never really, really look inside their own hearts. I mean it! In other words, what’s wrong with me? If we are to develop the virtues we need, we must pray and ask Our Lady to obtain two graces for us: one for the mind to see ourselves and the other; to see the Will of God.
Third recommendation: We’re on the How? First, if we are convinced that we need to become – then the list: Secondly, if we pray. Third, if we take practical measures. Clearly, these are recommendations. Others could be added. Each of these can be amplified.
Remove Occasions of Sin
If we take practical measures – like what – to remove the occasions of sin or tepidity or moral failure in my life. People just don’t fall into sin like into a deep manhole. There is always what we call an occasion. There are people, there are circumstances, there are all kinds of – they may be trivial things in themselves. Unless I know what needs to be removed – I can make all the retreats I want: There will be no real change. And Ignatius uses the word not remove; he’s more brutal: Get rid of!
Examine Ourselves Regularly
This is if we take practical measures – to what? To examine ourselves regularly on how we have behaved during the day. Just assume, assume as a matter of daily fact that you have misbehaved. Just assume it! Gosh, I’ve been looking; I can’t find anything that I’ve done wrong today. I tell you; Look harder! Oh how blinded we can be by the spirituality that we may be surrounded by whereas, the spiritual life is lived deep, deep, deep down inside. All the lighted candles, all the sacred pictures, all the statues, all the incense; the religious garb – those are only to be a means to an end! Is it possible to be a proud religious? It sure is! Is it possible to be a selfish religious? It sure is! That I examine myself, everyday, with brutal honesty before God.
We’re still on the: if we take practical measures – you may not like this – to penalize ourselves, if it’s just in a small way, when we have failed to live up to what we know we should be doing, if we claim to be followers of Christ and imitators of His Immaculate Mother.
Watch Our Thoughts
Fourth recommendation, on the practical level: If we watch our thoughts! All virtues begin in the mind. That’s why faith – which is the virtue with which we ascent with our minds to God’s revelation – is just not mentioned first among the theological virtues: It is the foundation of everything else!
Patient, Chaste, Prudent Thoughts
We’re going to be only as patient as we think patient thoughts. We’ll be only as kind as we think kindly thoughts: Only as chaste as we think chaste thoughts: Only as prudent as we think prudent thoughts. Many people, I don’t say don’t; they don’t think twice before they speak – I won’t even say they don’t think once – They Don’t Think! Am I making sense?
We’re going to be only as prayerful as we think prayerful thoughts. Either we have God and His Mother on our minds or, or we can be pronouncing words by the hour! Now God in His Mercy knowing us; how well He knows us – will give us some credit. All right, all right – she did pronounce the words.
We’re going to be only as cheerful as we think cheerful thoughts and for some people that can be quite a mortification! You may not believe it, but I can assure you some people take a strange relish in keeping on their minds all kinds of worrisome, anxious, disturbing, sad, gruesome thoughts.
We’ll be only as peaceful as we think peaceful thoughts. And let me tell you, there is nothing, I believe, that is a greater treasure in a religious community than a truly peaceful person, one who is completely at peace with God. Maybe suffering, maybe undergoing grave temptations but if I’m at peace, if I’m at peace within, I will be at peace with everyone who enters my life.
We still have one more area of reflection: On resolutions. Let’s first be sure we know what it means to make a resolution. And I couldn’t be speaking at a better time of the year. Don’t tell me this is a coincidence. What does it mean to make resolutions? It means two things. It means first doing something with my mind and then with my will. First, with my mind: I decide what I should do. I’m afraid many people think that decisions are acts of the will. Oh No! We think, think through, as we’ve been talking so far. Then once I’ve decided, it’s like a mathematical conclusion; you’ve got to rove ditches, you draw a line, you add them up. The figure looks big so I count again to make absolutely sure I’ll count from the top down. I get the same sum. Well that’s the decision, that’s what needs to be done! I may not like it. I may be embarrassed to see it: But that’s it! First, the mind: then the will. My will must choose. Choose what? Choose, first, on what I know God wants me to improve in my life. There must be some goal. Then I must choose the means I need to get there. Suppose I had shown up at the Metro – as we call it in Detroit – airport and said, I want to make a trip over the holidays. Yes Father. And where? I said I want to make a trip over the holidays. But where do you want to go? Does that make sense? Just plain sanity! I must choose where I want to go and then how I’m going to get there. Shrewd logicians, geniuses in mechanics or business or some industry, that when it comes to their own personal, individual lives – they’re like babbling babes. Don’t know where to turn.
Work on One Virtue at a Time
Choose, and Ignatius recommends to us in conducting the Spiritual Exercises: warn the people not to be too ambitious. He mentioned seven virtues; I have all of those and seven more. Maybe you do but remember the phrase, divide and conquer? Remember? One at a time: But I’ve other failings – of course you do. Save that for next week or next month. But it bothers me. That’s a temptation! Work on one virtue at a time. It is recommended at the end of a retreat to briefly, even in a few sentences, to tell Our Lord in writing what I have chosen to do to become more like His Mother with the help of His grace and the intercession of Our Lady. I wouldn’t dare recommend this to you unless this sinner had been doing it over the years himself. My friends, it works! And periodically three weeks after the retreat: Oh no! Gosh Lord, did I promise to do this? Our Lady will answer for Him: Yes, you did. You forgot, but I didn’t.
Have Definite Intentions
One final thought. As you say your rosaries in the months and years to come, have definite intentions for which you say your individual rosary of five decades. These intentions may be for the needs of other people and then you are practicing charity, surely imitating Our Lady. Or the intentions may be for your own personal needs and then you are practicing, you are practicing spiritual humility. And even it is recommended at each Mystery; if only for a moment, think of some grace you wish to obtain from Our Lord through Our Lady for growing in the supernatural life.
I thought I would recommend (there are scores of others) just thought I’d recommend five Marian aspirations. It’s a good idea and I recommend finding, for example, in the lives of the saints, especially the devotees of the Blessed Mother, short, crisp, easy to be remembered, aspirations. Like this one of St. Bridget: “O Lady, by the love you have for Jesus, help me to love Him.” Or this one of St. Bonaventure: “O Mary, may my heart never cease loving you and my tongue never cease praising you.” Or St. Ephrem quoted twice I believe in one day: “O Lady, grant that Jesus may never cast me aside.” Or this one of St. Philip Neri: “O Virgin and Mother see to it that I might always remember you.” And I would end with a Marian aspiration of St. Francis Xavier: “Mother of God, remember me.” Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.