Sr Pauline Campbell recounts her experience of the 2013 meeting of Spiritual Directors from throughout Europe.
With three companions I attended the Annual Conference of Spiritual Directors Europe, which was held last year in Malta (17th – 22nd April 2013).
The conference was held at the Jesuit Retreat House – Mount St. Joseph, beautifully situated in Mosta and overlooking the Mediterranean Ocean. The island of Malta has always enchanted the human imagination. Its comparative remoteness, the ever present sea, the distinctive ecologies and human societies exercise a particular magic. Historically, these islands are especially associated with solitude (hermits or monks), refugees, exiles, shipwrecks, hospitality and pilgrimages. These categories describe a person’s internal state or spirit. Malta is the island where the apostle St. Paul and his companions experienced shipwreck.
At the opening session, each country was asked to bring a symbol, emblem or picture of a healing place in their country. Our small contingent (six of us) brought a picture of Croagh Patrick, Marian Knock Shrine, Monastic site Glendalough and Glencree Reconciliation Centre and each of us described one of the places.
Noreen, (St. Louis Sister) and I had our accommodation with the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition Retreat House, which was founded by a French lady – Emile de Vialar in 1832. Their charism is the contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation. Two of their sisters were participating in the conference, so we had no trouble with daily travel. They were most hospitable and kind to us and showed us many places of interest in their locality in our spare time.
The following morning, Edward Warrington – a Maltese – Lectured in Politics, and a spiritual companion introduced us to a presentation on Angels. His opening question to us: ‘Do we see ourselves as angels to others?’ From the history of the Bible, angels were the bearer of Good News e.g. the three visitors to Abraham. They offer or invite us into their lives. They greet others with reverence. In the Annunciation Mary expresses her doubts and fears, the angel answers her with honesty and hope, inviting her to trust God and accept the power of the Good News. When Mary accepts the angel withdraws – no longer a need to be there. The angel comforted Jesus in His Passion. The all night struggle/wrestling between the angel and Jacob was in the ‘letting go’. Angels go their way, spiritual companions go their way. Do we allow the life of the person to go away. Do we ‘let go’ easily to/of our directees?
We shared in Triads the questions:
What can I learn from angels who appear in Scripture about being a spiritual companion?
Do I see myself as an angel or another role?
Following on, we had workshops to choose from. I chose to participate in Spiritual Direction – Permanent Formation. We were asked by Fr Eddy for just one word to sum up ourselves as spiritual guides. The participants shared how their ongoing education/development occurs in their countries. From that conversation we experienced how fortunate we are here in Ireland in the support and education we receive as spiritual guides. That evening, we celebrated the Breaking and Sharing of the Bread and Wine led by the Netherlands Group in the Drama of Creation, Incarnation and Celebration.
Next day, the presentation was again led by Edward Warrington with the familiar words of W.B. Yeats poem ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’. An encounter with God may occur in isolated or lonely places. It can be a forest, island, pilgrimage route, ashram or Camino. It seemed that Yeats portrayed his special need for God in an isolated place. The theme for the day was “Humanity’s Yearning for the Transcendent and the Divine”.
We traveled by coach to the Hager Qim/Mnajdra Temples. This Neolithic Temple is thought to date from the Ggantija phase which is about 3600 – 3200 B.C. These Temples of the Maltese Islands are on the World Heritage Sites. They are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. These two beautiful temples emerge from a sea of poppies on a cliff-top overlooking the sea. The ever-green fields and tumbling limestone walls stretch in every direction. The temples are made of soft limestone which wind and time have eroded. Renovations in 2009 endeavoured to preserve the soft stone and huge canopies have been erected over them. We saw the “Goddess” statuettes – some stones seem to have been designed to act as a stone calendar. Research into its history is ongoing.
In the afternoon we set out by Cruise boat to the islands of St. Paul and Camino. We anchored opposite St. Paul’s Island where he was shipwrecked (people are not allowed on this small island). Eddy, our leader, read the text on St. Paul – model of the spiritual companion – from the Acts of the Apostles 27:1 – 28:10. It was a windy day and he asked us to imagine ourselves as Paul’s companion, living with his fears, hardships and hopes. Paul is “in chains” and is less a captive of his persecutors and much more the prize of the God whom he loves and who loves him with a surpassing love. The paradox of Christian love may be summed up by ‘we journey in chains forged by human sinfulness but transfigured by Christ’s redeeming love’. Heb.12: 2, 3.
At another point in this meditation on this stricken ship, Eddie reminded us that Paul becomes a prophet of hope, springing from his intimacy with God. God saves “all those who are sailing with him”.
The last point in this meditation is where Paul arrives in Malta, after storm and shipwreck. He experiences ‘salvation’. It begins with a welcome into a community that shows kindness. Salvation completes the ‘messianic banquet’ that begins during the storm. Salvation brings liberation from superstitious fear and sickness. It is a ‘sacred exchange of hospitality and healing’.
The questions we asked ourselves were:
Which of Paul’s qualities as a spiritual companion most impress me?
Which of these will I ask him to share with me as a gift?
Legend tells us that in 60 A.D., when shipwrecked in St. Paul’s Bay, Paul was attacked by a poisonous viper but to the astonishment of the local people survived completely unhurt.
It was a glorious afternoon when we arrived at the island of Camino. This is the smallest Maltese island, irregularly inhabited during the past five millennia. It is an austere landscape, difficult to cultivate and exposed to elements. It is an island of contrasts: silent, neglected, dry, harsh, fearsome, mysterious but also eloquent, sought after, life giving, tender, a refuge easily known. All of these qualities are attributed to God in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. It has sheltered those living on the margins of human existence: hermits, exiles, prisoners, fugitives, pirates, castaways – possibly a spiritual desert.
We were brought to a tiny chapel ‘holy ground’, an oasis for the marginalized who seek God’s protection. All seventy three of us fitted in tightly into this ‘holy ground’ and prayed for the many graces we felt in need of for our journeying with others. The questions we were to ask ourselves were:
What is it that attracts me to the island, to God?
Do I recognize myself as a spiritual companion as is this chapel?
Am I ‘holy ground’?
Which parts of me need repair?
After a short period of prayer, those of us who felt fit and had sturdy shoes were invited by Eddie to visit a hermit’s cave, a three-quarter of an hour’s trek over stony ground. We climbed two stone walls of about four feet but should I say with great help from the men accompanying us! The cave had a very small opening and was a bit fearsome as we had to climb into it. We entered in groups of ten but it was quite big inside and we prayed for those who had lived there and ourselves. On return to the Jesuit Centre, the Finland Group led our Eucharistic Sharing in: “Taking the richness of the day” into the silent day. Next day was Retreat Day with the possibility of an Emmaus walk in twos or where ever the Spirit led us.
Next day Sr. Cecilia, Sister of Joseph of the Apparition, took Noreen and me to visit Our Lady of the Grotto at the Church of St. Dominic in Rabat. In 1400 A.D. Our Lady appeared to a hunter in a cave, a mile from the city of Mdina. People began to visit the cave and pray before a painted image of Our Lady of the Grotto. In 1450 three Dominican Friars came to Malta and chose the crypt of Our Lady to establish the Order of Preachers and they built this church. The crypt or sanctuary was entirely covered with marble, embellished with seven medallions made of inlaid marble like mosaic and adorned with two artistic statuary marble angels. In 1924 the icon of Our Lady was solemnly crowned. In 1999, the replica wept blood from her right eye and on the following day wept blood stained tears from her left eye. Scientific examinations of the red liquid showed that it was human blood, which was later confirmed by repetitive analyses. We prayed for all our friends before this beautiful marble icon which is widely venerated. We also saw the Cliffs of Dingli – giving us a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape.
Later that morning, we met our companions at the Retreat House and decided to visit some of their beautiful churches – the first being The Rotunda modeled on the Pantheon of Rome in 1833. This church hosted the Eucharistic Congress in April 1913. In 1942 four German bombs hit the church. Three of these did not explode but one penetrated the dome and landed in the middle of the church. It did not explode and no one was injured. The Mostin people felt it was Divine intervention as damage was not too extensive. We saw a replica of the bomb in the nearby sacristy.
Our second choice of visitation of churches was The Metropolitan Cathedral of Malta, Mdina. It was a Norman cathedral built in medieval times but badly damaged during the 1693 earthquake which destroyed most of the city of Mdina. It is the Mother church of all churches within the Maltese Archdiocese and is dedicated to the Conversion of St. Paul. There is invaluable artistry in this church. The statues of St. Peter and St. Paul are carved in Irish bog oak, much to our surprise. Beautiful paintings of Bruschi (1886) and Preti (1613) were all around, nearly all of them of St. Paul.
We ended the day with a festive Eucharist by the Maltese Group, followed by a festive Maltese dinner which included octopus and many other dishes, strange to our taste.
On the morning of our last day, we met in Triads to share as director, directee and observer for two hours. In my group was a Lutheran Pastor and an ex-provincial of a religious order. It was a meaningful experience of openness, vulnerability, trust and love as we shared our personal experience of our spiritual journey. In the afternoon we had the annual general meeting with the election of some new officers. There was great gratitude expressed to the Irish Religious for their contribution towards the finances and bursaries for their next Conference which will be held in Ireland in 2014. Our Eucharistic Celebration was a joint liturgy from the Maltese and the Irish contingent. The emblem we carried home with us was a ship in full sail. The following morning we met the committee and shared briefly an outline of the plan for next conference.
Later we traveled to the East side of the island where we visited the capital, Valletta. We visited St. John’s Cathedral. St John the Baptist is the patron saint of The Order of the Knights of St, John. The Knights having been expelled from the island of Rhodes, they were given the island of Malta by King Charles V of Spain in 1530. The most renowned depiction of the martyrdom of John the Baptist by Caravaggio painted in 1607 is in this beautiful church with many other paintings.
We traveled by ferry to the island of Gozo where we visited Gozo Cathedral. Like other early Christian churches, it was built on the remains of a first century B.C. Roman temple dedicated to Juno and has been extended and rebuilt several times. It has come through some stormy passages, being ransacked by the Turks in 1551, the structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. Today it is called the Mother church because of its antiquity. We managed a visit on the West side of the island to see one of their landmarks called The Azure Window – indeed a breath-taking scene as we managed to climb down right in front for the view.
What I experienced from this Conference was the openness and respect of those who do not belong to the Catholic Faith – all searching for God, a God who loves each created being. We are all one, journeying, supporting and listening to the other with dignity and respect. With St. Paul as a model of spiritual guides, we ask with him to be liberated from fear, to persevere in hope and in companionship, that by sharing in hardship and suffering, we may share in Christ’s glory.
Pauline Campbell RSC