Keep the joy!

Keep the joy!

“Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. . . .” —Deuteronomy 8:2 (nab)

As I was about to begin a silent eight-day retreat, I texted some of my colleagues at Jesuit schools and asked for their prayers. One of them started a pool—When Will Hickey Crack?— and chose Day 1 for his entry.

That looked to be the winning pick when the retreat director described what silence would require on this retreat: no talking (in words, glances, or gestures), no electronic devices, no reading, no writing, no praying, and . . . no thinking. The director, a German Jesuit named Fr. Anton, told us, “It is simple, but it is hard.” He was right.

The hardest part was not thinking because, as Fr. Anton explained, “If you are not thinking, you are dead.” Awareness. That was it and all of it. But the problem with awareness is that it leads to thinking, which then leads to planning, etc. Vigilance was required, remaining aware only of sounds, sights, and smells without drifting into thinking. A constant battle for me.

I used bird sounds to snap back to awareness whenever I drifted into thinking. Since there were a lot of birds around, this worked well, a kind of conditioned response. Over time I started to understand what was happening inside. As I created wider space through awareness, I found myself with more room to become present to another presence.

When the Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt, it was only 200 miles to the Promised Land (Canaan), a three-week journey by foot. That three-week journey took the Israelites 40 years. “40” in the Bible, however, is never about clock time. It is about enough time. For the Israelites, 40 years was enough time for the spiritual transformation of a people from one that didn’t know God to one that did . Jesus also had a 40 time, though his was days and nights. Jesus’s 40 was enough time to prepare for public ministry after his baptism by John.

In both of those examples, the place was just as essential as the time. The Israelites wandered in the desert (the Sinai Peninsula); Jesus remained in a desert to pray and fast. Deserts provide enough deserted space to quiet distractions, to flush the disruptions inside into the surrounding silence. As we are emptied within, room is carved out for what really sustains us. For the Israelites, that was a law written into their hearts instead of one in stone. For Jesus, it was the certain knowledge of who he was, an identity so strong that Jesus could withstand the attempts of the evil one to tempt him into being who he was not.

On the silent retreat, my 40 was eight days in clock time. My desert was a quiet chapel. Both were enough time and space to hollow out room for what I really needed. It came with a single word.


Throughout most days of the retreat, we would sit with a word that Fr. Anton gave to us. One day, the word was “yes,” which I imagined in the palms of my hands, slowly breathing it in and out. As the day went along, I noticed that I saw “joy” instead of “yes” in my palms. I tried to put that out of mind—that wasn’t the focal word for the day. “Joy,” however, kept coming back, until I finally surrendered to it and prayed “joy” with each breath. After a while—I don’t know how long—I began to tremble as tears of joy streamed down my face. I was overwhelmed by the awareness of how much God loves me.

While the retreat was hard, in some ways the time after the retreat was harder. Where could I find my desert and 40 in the space and time I normally occupy? I’ve been disappointed by how poorly I’ve carried that retreat into everyday life. I feel reassured, however, whenever I become mindful of what Fr. Anton told me at the end of the retreat: “Jesus will tell you what you need to know; your desire to be with Him is enough.” And even better is when I recall his final words: “Keep the joy.”

{Where is there a desert to visit each day? When is there enough time in the day to visit it?

-Kent Hickey, 40 Days with God: Time Out to Journey Through the Bible

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