Fr. William Dillard
Fr. William Dillard
Mount Angel Seminary’s intensive spirituality program, which kicks off the year for first-year theology students, is a well-known — and sometimes anxiety-producing — part of its program.

“I was really nervous about it,” said Benjamin Cowan, who is studying for the Archdiocese of Portland. Two weeks of silence sounded like a lot.

As its days progressed, however, Cowan discovered that the program’s challenges lay more in the intense prayers and self-examination, focused on helping each man discern his own calling and character.

Father William Dillard, director of spiritual formation at the seminary since 2016, said that is exactly the point. “It’s a fast from technology and an opportunity to walk into the silence of their inner lives and the presence of Christ.”

The program, developed by the late Benedictine Father Pascal Cheline, includes two daily conferences on different aspects of priesthood, presented by faculty members. There’s communal prayer every morning, noon and evening, daily Mass, and the opportunity for confession. Evenings bring devotions, Stations of the Cross, praying the rosary, and the rite of eucharistic exposition and benediction. Each man has a spiritual director he meets with several times.

The retreat usually begins with a few days at the beach, to get to know one another. This year, because of COVID-19, that didn’t happen at the beach but instead on the hilltop campus, with appropriate social distancing and masks in place. Informal gatherings allowed the 13 participants to get to know one another. They come to study theology at Mount Angel from a wide variety of schools and they are studying for a variety of dioceses and archdioceses.

A handful did their philosophy studies, which precede theology, at Mount Angel.

All shared their vocation stories and explored the campus in teams, directed to find historical or spiritual locales on the hill.

Then came the silence.

Edward Burke, who is studying for the Archdiocese of Anchorage –Juneau, Alaska, said that at first, he kept wishing he could use his phone to tell someone about what he was experiencing. “Then I realized, ‘I can tell God about it.’ I didn’t have to be chronicling everything in my mind.”

The conversation with God wasn’t always easy. “You can’t hide from yourself,” Burke said. “I started noticing a lot more about myself that is usually hidden by being busy. You’re under a magnifying glass. God showed me that he’s calling me, but also that I have a lot more growing in love for others to work on.”

Matthew Leung, studying for the Diocese of Orange, California, was looking forward to the program. “I love silence,” he said. “I was OK not talking.”

What turned out to be difficult, he said, was being stuck with himself. “Questioning my motives, all of my past sins and current sins, the uncertainty of the future. You have to learn to surrender. The good part was that in the silence, God speaks. My heart was tethered to his. You have no one to talk with about these problems, so the curse becomes the blessing, leading you to deeper prayer.”

Edgar Lozano, studying for the Diocese of Sacramento, California, was nervous about the program. “I’m so attached to my phone,” he admitted.

The retreat meant he had to open himself to God, “and let God do the work.” Lozano appreciated the space that the retreat provided him to prayerfully take stock of himself: “This is what I was doing wrong, and this was good.”

Looking back, he considers the experience a gift from God. “Allowing God to open your heart is a preparation for theology, the study of God. He speaks softly, so there needs to be silence to hear him.”

For Cowan, the empty place that his missing phone left surprised him. But the program’s nearly three-week duration was a boon. He is, he explained, a slow starter with retreats. By the time he has centered himself in a program’s rhythm it’s usually nearly over. With the intensive spirituality retreat, the bulk of days were yet to come, including its last day of silence at The Grotto, and the culminating day, speaking allowed, at the beach at Seaside.

“I’m grateful that we have it,” said Father Dillard of the program, which draws from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Carmelites, the Benedictines, Lectio Divina and more. “These ancient traditions are the great treasury of our spirituality. They make it relevant to the young people being formed for priesthood.”