Franciscan retreat: Experiencing God’s overflowing goodness through the Incarnation, a prayer dance and silence

Teresa Lo

The month-long lockdown in August did bring us constriction in the body as well as a distant physical relationship with the Church. Thanks to FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) Provincial Sr. Judith Yuen, we were given a three-day retreat on Franciscan spirituality right after the city resumed normal functioning. Unlike the one in May of last year, she has put in more elements of Franciscan spirituality like the Incarnation, solitude, silence and the Trinitarian God.

Together with the retreatants, I felt so grateful for that time to be in union with the Trinitarian God with the blessing of St. Francis of Assisi. The saint’s deep relationship with God, as Sr. Judith described, always pointed to God’s overflowing goodness.

My first time visiting Assisi was during the World Youth Day in 2011 with the Hong Kong Franciscan Youth. The first place, that we arrived at, was Greccio where St. Francis met the infant Christ at Christmas Mass. St. Francis was so in love with God that the baby of Bethlehem appeared to him alive at the moment of consecration. He took the baby into his arms like Simeon of old. This sweet memory of the miracle of Greccio touched my heart instantly as Sr. Judith introduced the theme of the Incarnation. “Francis was so struck with God becoming flesh and coming to us as a baby. An infant we could approach without fear. Francis emphasizes the Incarnation instead of redemption,” she said. For Franciscans, Christmas is already Easter because God already shows that it is good to be human.

A deep gratitude welled up in me when I recalled how I had moved from the days of infancy to childhood, from adolescence to adulthood, along with the change in my stature. Now that I am stepping into midlife, I experience another gradual downward shift in the body, which at the first glance I do not feel like accepting. Yet, the second gaze at the infant Christ with St. Francis offers room for me to appreciate the way God has been forming me. “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). Thanks to my parents, they brought me to this world, giving me a beautiful body and “growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Thanks to the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation, I truly believe the Incarnate Jesus shows me that my actual form is human-divine like Him. “For the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Cor 3:17).

At the close of the morning session, Sr. Judith opened up an entirely different field in which one could experience God’s love through a prayer dance. Following the overflowing divine love of the Trinity, we held each other’s hands, swaying side to side, moving up and down, and finally coming back to the center at a delicate pace.

At the end of the seven-minute prayer dance, Sr. Judith allowed an extension of time for contemplation. I returned to my seat, closed my eyes and recalled each subtle step, being led by the Holy Spirit. The physical distance in the group was greatly reduced with the holding of hands. The warm transfer of energy in the autonomous nervous system was felt like a communal connection with Jesus as He held each of our hands with kindness and appreciation. With the mind’s eye, I noticed the faces of the retreatants turning mellow and spiritually vibrant. What a beautiful piece! God was a part of the dance!

The prayer dance was like God’s circle of love, inviting me to hold each other in pain and in joy, physically and spiritually. I witnessed an interior widening of the heart and a refreshing in the body, which were signs of God’s presence.

God spoke in this circling around, as in the words of Brother Elias Marchal, a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Georgia: “An infinite current of love streams without ceasing, to and fro, to and fro, to and fro: gliding from the Father to the Son and back to the Father, in one timeless happening. This circular current of trinitarian love continues night and day…”

God’s overflowing goodness, like His love, streamed continually in us as we went deeper with our personal prayers in silence and in adoration. I remember joining Sr. Judith in 2013 in the Assisi pilgrimage. Our revered spiritual director and guide then, Fr. Ha, shared how St. Francis spent a lot of time in silence in a cave with God. Now that I reflect upon the saint’s way of retreat, I realize that I echoed much the same, as silence in God took a major role in this Franciscan retreat. Silence engenders space, and space creates room for new perspectives.

The three-day Franciscan retreat brought me into St. Francis’ life in a very personal way from the inside out. With the gifts of the Incarnated Jesus, the prayer dance and silence, I was much strengthened internally and outwardly, “like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season” (Psalm 1:3).