It was during my discernment year. I promised God if He helped me get my English degree, that I would set aside one whole year to see what my vocation was.
So at the end of the discernment year, in May 2011, I went on an eight-day Silent Retreat. I remember the morning of May 15th: thunderstorming. I woke up and was immediately tempted: “Evan, you don’t have to go to this retreat. You’re holy enough. You make your holy hours regularly, you pray often, you do so much good… just stay home and keep doing those things. You don’t need to go into this storm…”
But I sat up in bed and remembered, “But I told so many people I would be going… I told the priest, my parents, my siblings and friends… I’ll just go. For them.”
So I set out and drove two hours through downpour. It would end up raining for five out of the eight days.
When I arrived, the staff gave me orientation: the retreat house was in the woods, away from the main road, surrounded by trees, gardens and a pond. Inside the house, the bedrooms were each dedicated to a saint. One was for St. Anthony, another for St. Therese de Lisieux, one for St. Joseph. and the last one for St. Mary. I was given St. Joseph’s room and altogether, there were enough bedrooms for six other retreatants. That’s when the lady told me: “But you’re the only one who signed up for this week. You’ll have the whole house to yourself!”
Wow. All to myself. And here’s the routine:
- 8:00am: Wake up, wash up, exercise.
- 9:00am: Meet with the spiritual director, Father Dennis Brown, a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. He would guide me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for about 30-45 minutes, asking about my thoughts, concerns, hopes, etc. Very good priest he was, I will never forget him and will be indebted to him for a long time.
- 10:00am: Mass. And it was just me and the priest. You can say that I really learned the responses of the Mass after that, and picked up some Latin too!
- And after Mass, I was on my own. I wouldn’t see Fr. Dennis or anyone else until the next morning. It was up to me to keep up with the prayers and spiritual exercises.
But I constantly felt exhausted, constantly tempted to sleep away the entire retreat. The rainy weather made it worse. Every day was overcast, grey, and dark.
On my first whole day, I kept feeling paranoid. The silence made me start wondering about my thoughts… yes – I started thinking about my thoughts. I also had a strange experience: to help remind me of how much I need God, I would hold my breath while silently praying the Our Father. The prayer isn’t long, so this wasn’t difficult to do. The point: I rely on God for everything, including my next breath of air. If I finish this prayer and there’s no air, well… then God took it away.
So I started this prayer habit. I’ve never had breathing problems, and the first few times I did this was easy. But during the middle of the day on Tuesday – I blacked out. While kneeling before the tabernacle in prayer, I saw the ground rush up at me, over and over, but I never collapsed. It felt like my head was being jerked around, then I saw nothing. When I opened my eyes, I was perfectly fine and kneeling where I had been. Very strange…
Then came Wednesday, the 18th of May. I was wrapping up my morning spiritual exercises (and they ARE exercises… very tough and rigorous). The rain had finally let up outside, and I decided to go for a walk in the garden. I pulled out the Divine Mercy Chaplet and prayed. Around 4:00pm, I felt very tired again and decided to finish the prayer and take a nap. As I was going to my bedroom, I passed by the room dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I thought, “Well fine, I’ll pay the Queen a visit. Why not?”
When I entered her room, I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to. Our Lady’s picture on the wall, I first saw it during orientation on Sunday, but it was not the same anymore. It was much more beautiful. The picture did not physically change, but my response to it changed… I felt her presence: a warm embrace, very peaceful, tender and gentle. I heard her voice touch my heart:
“Evan, my child… I love you. Why are you so anxious? So worried? Am I not yours? I will take care of you. I am your mother.” (Like St. Juan Diego’s encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe!)
And my worries disappeared. I felt safe. I felt guided. I stood there gazing at Mary for fifteen minutes, and I didn’t want to leave the room. I wanted to stay with her. But I knew I couldn’t just stay in the room forever, so I took the picture off the wall, embraced it and carried her into the chapel. I rearranged the furniture so that I could kneel at Mary’s feet while praying to Jesus in the Tabernacle.
That’s when the retreat changed. It became easy, sweet, and so productive. I read Scripture, but Our Queen was reading it to me! She helped me see myself in the stories: especially the Wedding at Cana (Not only do whatever He tells you, but also when He tells you…). She helped me examine my deepest conscience, and she dug up the secrets I buried so long ago that I even forgot them. But she didn’t embarrass me! She was so tender. It was so easy to talk with her, so easy to love her, so easy to let her love me.
I found out later that the day this happened was also Pope John Paul II’s birthday. I realized he must’ve asked Our Lady to pay her poor child a visit.
But since then, my devotion to Mary began. Before I met her, I didn’t really know her, and really didn’t think about her (I went into this retreat without anything Marian on my mind!). I was sometimes even annoyed by how much attention she got from others. But now I know… now I get why she’s so beloved. She is so beautiful. Now I’m a believer too. And now I’m convinced that she’s real. How can you deny someone exists if you’ve met them? And if Mary is real and alive, then so are the other saints, and if they are real, then the Church is real. It is true! Then God is real. This is all for real.
And every time I share this experience, I know the Queen is listening, making sure I don’t skip any details I should share. There are some personal things I leave out, but if you want to know, just ask me. I’ll be glad to share it in a more private way.
conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to thee.”