“It was time I withdrew.” – Eugene de Mazenod, Retreat Notes, May 1818 – Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate

“It was time I withdrew.” – Eugene de Mazenod, Retreat Notes, May 1818

As Oblates and Associates, I expect we all have our favorite ‘touchstone’ stories about Eugene. These are the stories which we tell ourselves over and over again as we connect to the Founder and his charism. The Good Friday conversion story, the Lenten sermon at the Madeleine, the Supplica, the death bed exhortation: these are some of the beloved stories which reveal to us something of the heart of Eugene while at the same time speaking to our own hearts.

For me, some of the stories I love best have to do with Eugene’s struggle between being busy while remaining faithful in prayer. Even whilst being passionately in love with Jesus and grounded in an intimate relationship with him, Eugene’s proclivity towards action sometimes took him away from the intense prayer he hungered for. Fortunately, he is attentive to the problem, honestly diagnosing his malady:

“It was time I withdrew from that innumerable mass of occupations of every sort which have been overburdening both body and soul and came into retreat in order to think seriously of the business of my salvation.. . . The need was a pressing one; for my mind is so narrow, my heart so devoid of God, that the external cares of my ministry . . .so preoccupy me that I have reached the point of no longer possessing any of that interior spirit which had previously been my consolation and happiness.. . . My state horrifies me; it seems I no longer love God except in fits and starts. Moreover, I pray poorly, I meditate poorly, I make a poor preparation for saying Mass. I say it poorly.[Retreat notes, May 1818].

It’s interesting to note that at this point, he had only been ordained a few years! Happily, he also knows the remedy: sincere refocusing through spiritual retreats and a re commitment to prayer. But it’s a battle which he fights all his life. In 1831, years later, he again notes what he needs to do to recapture the spiritual nourishment he so desperately needs:

“This is what I have to do in this retreat: isolate myself totally from my ordinary tasks….Then enter a state of absolute mental and physical relaxation without striving to produce anything….Once the torrent has subsided and I begin to be alone with myself, I will ask God for his grace to make a fruitful retreat. I will pray…to the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, my guardian Angel…it is a question this time of a retreat of conversion and not of perfection….” [Retreat Notes, October 1831].

As this season of Lent unfolds, these stories of de Mazenod strike a chord. With its call to desert time, Lent highlights for me my own struggle to balance personal prayer and activity. Like many, I experience things in life that are counter-productive to prayer: over-work, chronic tiredness, restlessness, the constant demands of relationships. I know the temptation when I’m too exhausted to do anything else but fall into bed at night, to mutter, ‘My work is my prayer,” or to echo the little boy who, when his mother remonstrates with him for not saying his bed-time prayers, responds, “Teacher says prayer is talking to God and tonight I’m tired and don’t have anything to say.”

Yet, like Eugene, I know better and I know that when I remain connected and centered in prayer, my life and my spirit are different. While it seems easier on the surface at the end of the day to curl up and watch TV or check my Facebook page, those activities feed my restlessness, dissipate my energy and keep me overstimulated.

Lectio divina, meditation or journaling will, I know, have the opposite effect. Each has the power to centre me, reach inside to my spirit and feed my soul. Each puts me in touch with a peacefulness not found in the ordinary hustle and bustle that surrounds me as I centre myself once more in God.

Eugene teaches us that we need to be aware of the state we are in. When restlessness and overwork keep us distracted, off balance and feeling distant from God, it might be time for us to to re-calibrate and choose activities that bring us back. As Eugene knows, prayer doesn’t just happen; it’s a choice: “It was time I withdrew form that innumerable mass of occupations…”. That’s why Lent is such a gift. The world is too much with us these days and always will be. We can remain constantly connected, always on the move and always turning to the next thing, or we can deliberately and consciously disengage, retreat and make time for the holy through prayer, deep reflection and gentle silence. Thanks, Saint Eugene, for the hard won wisdom!

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God bless you!
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