Creating a Personal Retreat

Book cover
Wayfaringby By Margaret SilfDoubleday. 256p $21.95. I

The day after I finished reading Margaret Silf’s Wayfaring, I had an encounter with a young woman who helped me experience the value of this magnificent book about journeying. I was riding my bicycle along the Boston side of the Charles River when I saw a woman whose eyes were filled with tears. I felt moved to do something, so I turned my bike around and approached the woman. I called out to her from a safe distance and asked if she was all right. She gasped in relief to find that she was not alone in her troubles. She burst into tears, ran over to me and embraced me tightly. As we parted, I could only think that somehow my actions were inspired by the reflections so eloquently captured in Silf’s book.

Margaret Silf has become one of England’s most popular spiritual writers, and she gained acclaim in the United States with her reflective literature. Her training by the Jesuits is evident in her method and insights as a guide in prayer, especially in her intimate knowledge of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.


Wayfaring begins by calling for the reader to be an active participant in prayer and in daily life. Silf writes that the common Jesuit phrase “finding God in all things” has become far too passive and does not encourage an active relationship with God. Instead, she states that we must “encounter” God in all that we do and actively seek God’s presence.

Silf shows her skill at guiding another in prayer while gently moving through her own experiences. She repeats a simple pattern throughout the book. She begins each meditation with a personal experience or observation that is both memorable and ripe with meaning. Once a personal story is told, Silf illustrates the larger significance of the example and places it before the reader to ponder its meaning. She then provides concrete suggestions for prayer. Often she chooses a Gospel passage to ground the prayer, but allows for the reader to engage fully his or her senses in an exercise of contemplation.

The book closely follows the meditations of the Spiritual Exercises, though Silf does not attempt to use the language that Jesuits and their close colleagues might associate with the exercises. In so doing she makes this book available to a wider audience. A person who is unfamiliar with the exercises might not even recognize that they are following the basic model of the Exercises. And this is good news for some who are intimidated by the daunting commitment demanded of this endeavor.

Silf sets the stage for this prayer journey by uncovering what she calls “God’s preferential option for life,” in which the cosmic forces of life battle the forces of destruction, while assuring us that God has already tilted the universe in favor of choosing life. From then on, we must individually discover and follow the path that leads to life. But we have a guide to help us: soon we encounter the Jesus Christ in the Gospels and in our imagination to help us choose life in our free decisions.

Silf’s prayer journey propels her to face her own sinfulness within the comfortable confines of God’s sustaining love. After gaining a unique acceptance of herself, she is able to turn her gaze toward Jesus, the ultimate guide, who calls her to the path of everlasting life. The bulk of the remaining meditations help the reader discover Jesus as the unique revealer of God and to watch him as he submits to his Passion, death and rising to new life.

Each person is then left to face God and the whole heavenly court, where he or she is innately prompted to make a whole self-offering of life to the God of all creation. At this point, the person stands in the vortex of what Silf calls the “funnel of love,” a point in which a person acts as a channel through which God’s love can pass easily. All that has come down the funnel can be channeled through the person, so that each person can be an instrument of God’s loving action for the world.

The book emphasizes that each of us proceeds at a pace on our individual journey that is comfortable to us. Wayfaring can be a guide to help identify various movements and responses of the head and heart and can help open up prayer to new possibilities.

Sometimes the storytelling is too smooth and idyllic. I have found that prayer is often difficult, and it is not always easy to understand God’s communication with me. Sometimes God does not seem to be present or listening at all. For a person who is struggling with faith or encountering difficulties, this book may fit too neatly into a perfect relationship between God and the person praying.

Still, the tone of the book is very supporting and encouraging for one who is on the journey seeking right relations with God and the universe. Silf acts as a caring, compassionate guide whose goal is to help the person gain an authentic understanding of self in relation to God.

Wayfaring carries a profound message, and the author’s facility with storytelling heightens the reader’s sensitivity to daily events and circumstances. Silf guided me along my own journey, and because of her work, Wayfaring was able to help me be a channel of God’s love to a troubled fellow companion along the banks of the River Charles.

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