MICHAEL Duff looked down at his phone for the last time and watched the light dim to black.
It was off, and for the next five days, would remain off to commit to strict and absolute silence. For Michael, a silent retreat was “one of the best holidays” of his life.
In 2015, two Benedictine monks from the St Joseph-Clairval Abbey in Flavigny, France, travelled to Australia offering silent retreats and recollections for men and separate others for women in various cities, including Brisbane.
At the heart of the retreats were the meditations and prayers found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
Mr Duff, a father of three and business development manager for BMD Group’s Brisbane office, was “exceptionally glad” to be among the blokes who signed up for the retreat, even if he never spoke to any of them.
“There’s no pressure on you to be friendly to all the people there and that is because it was a silent retreat,” he said.
“And to this day there are people there that I know nothing about because they were just part of the group and you might bump into them afterwards.”
One of those was a former football player who Michael recognised from watching games on television, but to his surprise, walked out on the last day wearing a (clerical) collar.
Others he knew better, like his brother-in-law.
“I said one of the best bits was not having to talk to him for five days,” Michael laughed.
The French Benedictine monks are known for their contemplative lifestyle.
Based in Dijon, France, the community has organised retreats for the laity since its establishment in the early 1970s.
The retreat in Brisbane followed the same formats as those held in France and the United Kingdom – formative talks, spiritual direction and confession, Latin Mass, praying the Rosary and Divine Office, and time for personal reflections.
Brisbane woman Martine Watkinson has been co-ordinating the retreats in Brisbane, and said the primary feature was silence, the necessary sound to hear God.
“For a truly intimate encounter with God there needs to be silence and the Ignatian retreats provided by the monks gives us a great opportunity to do this, and many attendees have attested to very transformative and life-changing effects they have experienced as a result of taking the opportunity to attend the silent Ignatian retreats with the monks,” Mrs Watkinson said.
“All of the great spiritual writers and leaders of the Church over the centuries unanimously teach that God cannot be truly found in noise and agitation.
“St Teresa of Calcutta, for example, once said, ‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence … We need silence to be able to touch souls’.”
Mr Duff quickly realised the Benedictine monks were just as serious about silence as Mother Teresa, as was their notions of sin.
“There was a focus on sin and what sin is and hell and how we are creatures and we’re not perfect, we do lots of stuff that’s wrong,” he said.
“So on the first day, you’re destroyed.
“You think, ‘I’m absolutely rotten. I’m the lowest of the low. And they’re right’.
“And then the next day they build you up with the ideas of forgiveness, mercy, and the love of God, and if you keep those things in your mind during married life, it has to help you.”
The various traditions and devotions he experienced in five days have now become family staples.
“We (the Duff family) do morning prayers now, which we didn’t do before,” Mr Duff said.
“I wear the scapula, and we’ve got to make sure that I say the two decades of the Rosary every day otherwise I’m stuffed.”
His worries about providing for his children have also shifted in focus – the goal is now to get them and his wife Angela to heaven.
This mission is not a solo one.
Angela too is “on the same page” about their holy call on Earth.
As a woman who had previously visited the Benedictine monks at their French monastery, the idea of a retreat seemed like heaven.
“I must admit, to be able to be on a spiritual retreat and be told in the afternoon, ‘Go for a lie-down, go for a walk, do what you need’, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fantastic. I can go for a lie down? Without interruptions and kids?” Angela said.
“It’s so refreshing; it’s like diving into a pool on a really hot day, into a pool of crystal water.”
Amidst the rest was also theological conjuring about the nature of God and humanity, explored in the retreats for both the men and the women.
“There are common themes which you would focus on – that God owes us nothing but has given us everything, and that our life is very short and we don’t know when we’re going to die, and just to be prepared, totally prepared for that moment and that judgement we will receive,” Mrs Duff said.
“And it was really drummed into us, couldn’t be emphasised enough, not to be rattling off prayers but to really meditate on the life of Christ, which I probably haven’t been so good at.
“And the thing is the contemplation is very difficult to achieve in our culture, and you just realise how much you are a part of your culture, so to be able to take time out for a retreat is actually very counter-cultural.”
Mrs Duff also believes it has helped in strengthening their marriage, especially in learning detachment.
“Because it’s very easy as a couple, because you’re obviously providing materially for your family, for that provision of material goods to be, and the culture, to then overtake the goal in marriage,” Angela said.
“You’ve always got to go back to, ‘Is this necessary?’
“When you take your vows, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, the marriage covenant will always have to remain true and faithful to your vows.” This week marks one year since the Benedictine monks landed in Brisbane to lead the Duffs’ silent retreat groups.
In February, the monks will return for another round of prayer and contemplation inspired by the Spiritual Exercises.
Following these retreats, the monks will establish their first Australian community in Hobart, Tasmania.
Bookings are still open for the men’s five-day silent Ignatian retreats from February 14 to 19 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The women’s three-day retreat from February 9 to 12 is fully booked but there is a waiting list.
Both retreats will be held at Mercy Place, Bardon.