INFINITE LONGING: A Retreat for the Toronto Catholic Doctors’ Guild
On Dec 1 2018 a group of 26 attendees gathered for a day of preached retreat and guided reflection at Merciful Redeemer Parish in Mississauga. It turned out to be a day that was more that I had expected. God is never outdone in generosity!
As I do not know Mississauga well, I used my GPS to navigate. “Your destination is on the left!” I completed the left turn and realized that the large suburban parking lot was almost full. But I found a spot and hurried into the church, realizing that I was a few minutes late for Mass. This was the regular 9 am Mass on a Saturday morning, packed and alive! Fr. Eric Mah preached a homily that held everyone’s attention. He sketched a symbolic image of sacramental water and wine that would guide the day’s reflection; each of us is a drop of water, and God is the abundance of wine. We cannot know the final destiny that God is working out through our human efforts, and so meekness and humility are key dispositions.
After Mass we gathered in a meeting room that had already hosted the weekly Men’s Fraternity meeting. As we settled in, Msgr Owen Keenan, pastor of Merciful Redeemer Parish, welcomed us with his wonderful wit and dynamism. Then Fr. Eric introduced himself, sharing a bit of who he had become on his own personal journey into faith. He had been a lawyer and moved to Toronto to make more money, when life took an unexpected turn, and he heard God calling. “But,” he quipped, “I am Chinese!…Who cares? you ask.” This underlining of a cultural heritage that resisted things spiritual spoke to the depth of his commitment. He had embraced not only the sacrament of baptism but also of holy orders, exchanging material wealth for spiritual treasure. This was a highly inspiring moment for me.
Fr. Eric began his presentation with an exhortation to pray not only formally on the outside, but from within, cultivating a transformation of the heart. He encouraged us to recognize that the usual things one values, such as education, culture, family, psychology, science, etc., are human constructs with built-in limitations. These things do not work as short-cuts to a relationship with Christ. One can only find Christ by becoming still and entering into one’s personal interior space, and slowly, little by little, allowing the presence of God to fill our hearts. He particularly advised sitting attentively in a regular holy hour before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Fr. Eric seemed to have any number of Scriptural stories up his sleeve, presenting them as funny little anecdotes to illustrate how God’s wisdom could shape one’s life in the very context of the push and pull of living one’s reality. While there would always be petitions in prayer, it was important to cultivate gratitude. After a short break, Fr Eric unpacked the meaning of discipleship. One does not simply speculate about theological questions; one seeks to become like the model, Jesus. The disciple is one who appropriates the faith so deeply that he/she takes on the life of Christ, “selling out” everything in order to “buy” the pearl of great price.
After a tasty hot lunch we moved into the church and were introduced to the rules of Discernment of Spirits, as laid out by Ignatius of Loyola. This was a dense presentation on a difficult topic, easily misunderstood. Fr. Eric did a great job in teaching us how to move with each decision-making process towards the good, and how to recognize impediments that hinder advance towards the good. He described the Ignatian image of the two banners, in which the pray-er must choose to align with Christ or with the “World.” While the latter promises the pleasures of power, prestige, and sex, it is Christ’s banner that leads us to true happiness. Fr. Eric shared his own journey in which a wise elder priest accompanied him as he probed ever more deeply into this question, “Am I truly happy?” Sometimes the answer to the question was, “No, actually I am not!” And a confusing time of darkness and struggle would ensue, a time some would call spiritual warfare within, where the painful issue underlying the unhappiness was obscure yet unsettling. The nature of such spiritual desolation is difficult to discern. It may be the hindrance to peace caused by fatigue and overwork from an excessive sense of responsibility towards one’s professional duties. Other times the darkness and unrest has no simple cause and one must ride it out until peace prevails again. The temptation is to distract oneself in order to feel better, but the wiser course is to pray one’s way through the distress. With time and patience one becomes aware that the obscure thing causing the desolation is an intrusion from or an attachment to that which is not under Christ’s banner. The last session of the day was on evangelization, or the sharing of one’s faith. Once again, I was struck by Fr. Eric’s personal process of taking on Christ. His own commitment, his own questions, his own struggles became a living model in how one might live the faith so transparently that others are drawn to this banner and the gift of spiritual treasure.
The highlight of the day for me was the time of silent prayer together in the chapel before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, I a drop of water, praying to be dissolved in the plenitude of wine. The Divine Mercy Adoration Chapel in this church is open daily for silent prayer. A sign of hope in these turbulent times, perhaps! We concluded with Benediction and songs of praise. As we gathered in the foyer to end the day, I felt such resonance with Dr. Lucas Vivas’ parting words expressing his belief that gathering together in prayer is the only way that our profession will experience transformation. It is with gratitude to all who attended and especially to Dr. Vivas, Dr. Saldanha and Dr. Bastien, our organizers, that I look forward to our next gathering.
Ann Sirek MD FRCPc PhD