Monday 8 July 2013

My Eight-Day Retreat: Finding new language for an old experience

By Brother Daniel Leckman, S.J.

A bit over a week ago, I completed my eight-day Ignatian retreat at Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. During the retreat, God opened some doors and I was given new language to help me reflect on the mystery that is our relationship with God. One of my more powerful prayer experiences began with a “simple” contemplation on love: What kind of love does God give me? How does it sustain me, shape me, affect my actions?

I spent most of the week discovering what it means to stand before God as “a beloved”, and that alone was an incredibly uplifting. While sitting before a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary one night, the whole reflection took on a whole new meaning. As I engaged in prayerful conversation with Mary, she invited me to imagine what it felt to be loved by my parents. So, I sat with that for a few minutes and contemplated that love. It was a wonderful experience that brought me deep joy. After a few minutes Mary said to me, “Do you understand now? If you think your parents’ love for you is such an incredible gift, imagine how much more God loves you.”

Therein laid the problem: I couldn’t imagine it. As with many mystics in the history of our Church, I still can’t imagine, or formulate in words what that sensation is like. I could feel it quite strongly, but not describe it. And the memories of those feelings left me on a high that night – if I could do cartwheels, I would have been doing them in the long corridors of Loyola House that night! But the problem is, I could never explain exactly the joy I felt in that moment.

To express this sentiment much more eloquently, I eventually turned to a verse from an old song I remembered during prayer a few hours later. It’s from a classic song from the 1960’s, Along Comes Mary by the Association. As I suggested to someone else, it wasn’t the entire song, but rather one single line that got my attention: “Now, my empty cup is as sweet as the punch.” Out of context, that didn’t mean much to me beforehand. I even had the lyric wrong in my mind. For the 20 odd years I’ve known this song, I thought the lyric was “… sweet as the bunch”. Complete nonsense. But so are the lyrics of many songs from the 60’s to me, so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Still, the imagery intrigued me, so began to seek out some context.

Once I discovered the true lyric, I began to explore the rest of the song. As it turns out, it’s one of those brilliant songs where a dozen different interpretations could be applied to it, and each interpretation can be acceptable. It could be about drugs. It could be a specific girl that flirts with men and leaves them out in the cold. And apparently, according to one commentator, it could also be about the Virgin Mary. In fact, most of the lyrics of the song sort of back up that interpretation, especially when you consider that the Garabandal apparitions of the Virgin, which took place from 1961 to 1965 in Northern Spain, were still fresh in people’s mind when this song came out in 1966.

Four girls: Conchita, Mari Loli, Jacinta and Mari Cruz, aged between 11 and 12 years of age, had many ongoing visions, ecstasies and locutions with the Blessed Virgin Mary (

Now that we have our context, we can ask: what does that have to do with empty cups? The most common interpretation I’ve unearthed is that the empty cup represents the memory of the experience while the punch is the actual experience. In the context of the apparition of the Virgin, those who witnessed it, could speak of it with language and imagery, but nothing could come close to describing the experience itself. This meant that, in the end, their memories of the moment was all they had, and those memories may become for them, even sweeter than the experience itself. It’s a definitely bitter-sweet interpretation, but it’s the best I have for now to share about my own experience of the retreat. I can feel, and understand much better how profound God’s love really is for all of us, but any words I use to describe this would only diminish the experience. So my empty cup really is much sweeter than the punch, though the punch is still clearly at work in me.

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