Abundant Blessings

My eight-day retreat ends this morning with Mass and a closing breakfast, after which I will drive back to the Twin Cities.

We broke our silence last evening with a session of Spiritual Sharing. All of the directors and the retreatants met together to share some of the fruits of the retreat experience.

One of the things that came up in the course of my own retreat was the the abundance of God’s love and blessing. It came up in so many ways, as I prayed with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the wedding feast at Cana, and in my walks around the retreat center grounds.

Not surprisingly, the abundance of God’s blessings was revealed powerfully last night. It was beautiful to hear how God had been working with others during these days.

This time has been truly blessed and I am enormously grateful to God, to my director, to the retreat house staff, and to Dave and Elena who take care of things on the home front while I am gone.

My hope in continuing to write a post each day while I’m on retreat is that it might encourage some of you who do not make an annual retreat part of your practice…and maybe have never even been on a retreat…to consider doing so. Eight-days away is a luxury many cannot afford, I recognize, but if so, consider a weekend retreat in your area. You won’t be sorry.

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Healing Touch

I don’t know about other retreat houses, but Jesuit retreat houses often offer the opportunity for massage during a retreat. Many women religious as well as lay women involved in ministry are massage therapists and one can sign up for a massage during the retreat.

I had my first massage on a retreat about six years ago and I’ve had one on several retreats after that, including this one. And I’ve recently started to get a monthly massage at a place near where I live.

I had to get over an initial reluctance to spend money treating myself to a massage – it struck me as self-indulgent and I had a guilt about spending money that could be used for better (more charitable) purposes. But I’ve come to realize that my ability to serve God requires that I take some care of my body and massage makes an enormous difference in the lower back and shoulder pain I often suffer from.

Massage during retreat is a very different experience from my monthly massages. When I go to Drew at LaVida Massage, I really need him to work out the knots from sitting for long periods in front of the computer and work hard on the areas that contribute to the lower back pain.

Massage on retreat is about being anointed and blessed with Christ’s hands and Christ’s touch. It is an experience of the sacredness of the body. It is about feeling God’s healing presence. It is a union of the body, the mind and the spirit.

My hope when I leave here is that I can bring back some of the sacredness of retreat house massage to the massages I get at LaVida. To feel them not only as a form of physical therapy, but as the same gift of God’s healing touch.

Fruit of the Earth

As I wrote on Saturday, every morning after breakfast at the retreat house, I take a bike ride. Nothing long or strenuous, maybe 20-25 minutes or so.

I discovered not far from the retreat house grounds a large field that is a community planting ground. I have no idea into how many plots the field is divided; the first day I saw it there were 8-10 cars parked at different parts of the field and scattered groups of people weeding, watering (from containers they have carried in) and otherwise working the land. They covered only a fraction of the available land. Every day since, I’ve ridden past the field, watching the people as I go by.

There is something compelling to me about seeing people work the land every morning. What I hear in my mind as I ride by are the words we hear prayed by the celebrant in every Mass: “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for it is through your goodness that we have this bread to offer, fruit of the earth, work of human hands.”

There is a holiness, a sacredness of the land that God has given us that I think is easy to lose touch with when people buy all of their food from the grocery store (especially food that has been processed). This is not just about the evils of our industrial agriculture system (about which I am known to talk about now and then), which is bad enough in its own right, but about a lack of contact with the source of our nourishment.

Now we are not all going to grow all of our own food, but I do think there is something good about anything that gets us closer to the source of what we eat. It might be a CSA farm that delivers only what is grown locally in that season increasing our cognizance of where our food comes from. It might be maintaining a small vegetable or herb garden, even if it is only a small supplement to one’s total diet. Something, anything, to help us remember that what we eat is the “fruit of the earth” that we have through not only the “work of human hands” but through God’s goodness.

It’s Not About the Puzzle

Almost all retreat houses I’ve been to have jigsaw puzzles available for retreatants. Invariably, around the third day of an eight-day retreat, the pieces of one will appear on one of the big tables in the lounge and people will come and go at various times working on it. (On this retreat the second puzzle was complete sometime during the night.)

I’m not particularly good at jigsaw puzzles and I never have been. Still, I find they can be an amusing pastime if I get downstairs five or ten minutes before the meal bell rings. If no one else is at the puzzle table, I’ll wander over, stare at the board for an inordinately long period of time before managing to connect two or three border pieces together. Sometimes even four.

I’m fine so long as I’m standing there alone. But the minute someone else approaches the table, I feel the disquiet start to arise in me. It is bad enough if it is someone even worse than I am at doing puzzles. But if it is someone with the skill of my sister Maryanne (and there is one of those here on this retreat) – one of those people who can look down at a table with 500 or 1000 pieces for barely a minute before they start putting pieces together (including the non-border ones) with no hesitation, I walk away almost immediately. I’m embarrassed to display my lack of skill before the other person.

The puzzle is not the important thing; it matters not a bit that I can’t do puzzles well. The puzzle is simply representative of my general discomfort with showing my weaknesses to others. I’ve seen it arise in other settings as well. My reluctance to play the accordion in front of others and have them see how not good I am is only one example. (A reluctance usually overcome only after a couple of glasses of wine, which is the worst time I could play.)

As I was thinking about that reluctance, I saw an image of Jesus standing there mocked and beaten – his vulnerability plain for all to see. And I recognize my need to grow in my ability to say: This is who I am. I’ve got strengths in some areas and weaknesses. And the weaknesses are as much a part of who I am as the strengths.

So perhaps I’ll try to stay at the puzzle table the next time I’m there and the puzzle whiz approaches.

Bicycles and Birds

One of the things I love about the Jesuit retreat house in Oshkosh is the availability of bicycles for the use of retreatants. Nothing fancy – just old-fashioned pedal-break bicycles; there is a stand of about 10 of them outside the main entrance of the retreat house to be used at will. I’ve taken one of them for a ride each morning I’ve been here thus far.

Although I have a bicycle at home, the area in the immediate vicinity of my house is pretty hilly, meaning my rides are more exercise than pure enjoyment, and there is a reasonably amount of vehicular traffic making it hard to relax into the ride.

Here, the roads surrounding the road outside the retreat house grounds is reasonably flat (i.e., a gentle incline) and there is very little traffic – most times I can do the length of the road out to a more “main” highway without seeing a car. That means that the ride is pure enjoyment and exhiliration – I love the feel of the wind on my face and the sound it makes as I whoosh by, and I can’t help but smile as God and I tear down the road together. It is nothing but pure fun. It feels a bit like flying.

Speaking of flying, the birds in this area are spectacular. I don’t know anything about birdwatching and beyond my ability to pick a NYC pigeon out of any lineup, I can identify very few birds. But that doesn’t matter. The variety and colors on these birds is amazing. Reds and blues the likes I’ve never seen. Yellows and more blacks than I thought existed. I look and simply marvel.

When I see birds of that beauty and variety, I have the same reaction I do when I see the beauty of different kinds of trees with their variety of color, leaves and so forth – it is impossible for me to not see the hand of God here. No impersonal principle of natuural selection could explain this array of beauty.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God!”

Joy In Heaven Over The Sinner Who Repents

Last night, as is typical for many retreats I’ve participated in or led, we had a Reconciliation Service, which included the opportunity to individually confess and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As I’ve written before, although I know this is a sacrament that has gone our of favor with many people, it is one I always find powerful.

The reading for the service was one of the three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15 – the parable of the lost coin. As with the parable of the lost sheep that precedes it, Jesus tells a story that makes little sense from a practical standpoint. No shepherd having 100 sheep would leave 99 of them to search for the lost sheep. And it is equally unlikely that a woman would call all her neighbors to rejoice and celebrate with her after finding a single coin, even if she has searched high and low for it. (The celebration probably cost more than the value of the coin.)

But Jesus overemphasizes the joy of the finder in both parables to make a point about God’s reaction to our repentence: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance….In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That joy was the focus of Fr. John Schwantes’ reflection on the reading. And I think it is a good focus.

I feel great after hearing the words of absolution, and it is easy to keep the focus on how I feel, what the sacrament means to me. But there is something very powerful and, at the same time, touching about the reminder that this experience is something special for God also, a source of great joy for God.

Romans 8

Based on our discussion during our morning meeting yesterdy, my director suggested that I spend some time during the day praying with the final part of Chapter 8 of Romans. When he suggested it, he said “verses 31-39…or you could start with verse 26.”

When I first got back to my room after my meeting with him, I opened the Bible. I quickly read the familiar passage beginning with verse 31 (“If God is for us, who can be against us.”) I then looked back at verse 26 and thought to myself, “yeah I see why he said I could start there.” I then looked a few verses back and had the same reaction. I finally decided to pray with the entirety of Chapter 8, dividing it into three prayer segments. (Given that, I thought it was perfect that the reading for last night’s Compline was from the early part of Romans 8.)

It is a powerful chapter of scripture. I’m not going to say anything about the content of my prayer with these verses yesterday. I’m only going to suggest this: if you are having any trust issues with God (which probably is a good number of you), this is good material to pray with. Any uncertainties about who you are to and with God, this is good material to pray with.

It is way too much for a single session of prayer. So for what it is worth, what I did yesterday was pray with verses 1-17 in one session, 18-27 in a second, and then 28-39.

Gratitude and Trust

In suggesting that I begin my retreat by looking back over the last year in gratitude, articulating and giving thanks for the gifts I received during that period, my retreat director observed that gratitude is based on trust in God.

I had not before consciously linked gratitude and trust and so spent some time yesterday morning reflecting on his observation.

My first thougth was that there is a link between gratitude and faith. Gratitude implies a recognition that I am not alone the originator of my gifts and blessings. Feeling gratitude means I recognize that there is one – God – who is the source of my gifts. But that is faith in the sense of belief in God, and while I think that link is a real one, I don’t think is the same as trust in the way I took my director to be speaking.

As I reflected further, my thought was that he was correct in saying that gratitude and trust are linked. Gratitude lays us bare before the one to whom we are grateful. I think that gratitude creates an openness that leaves us vulnerable before the other. Not vulnerable in the sense of “owing,” of having to payback (although gratitude I think creates a natural desire to give something in return). But being able to feel and express gratitude implies a trust – a willingness to open myself before God…to reveal my needs, to acknowledge my poverty.

As I reflected on this yesterday, the difference between faith and trust in the previous two paragraphs seemed clear to me. But as I write it, they seem, although somewhat different, to be closely related. Anyway, such were my thoughts on gratitude and trust.

Cure the Sick, Raise the Dead, Cleanse Lepers, Drive Out Demons

I arrived at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh last yeserday afternoon for my 8-day retreat. The drive from the Twin Cities was anything but relaxing – the combination of traffic from road construction early on and a wrong turn near the tail end of the trip added considerably to the normal driving time. But as I drove onto the retreat house grounds, I could feel all of the tension and fatigue of the drive fade away. It is good to be here.

At our opening Mass last evening, the Gospel was the commissioning of the apostles in Chapter 10 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus instructs the twelve to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand and further to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.”

During his homily, Fr. Tom Schloemer (who will be my director during this retreat) talked about what those insructions might look like for us. He interpreted the command to cleanse lepers as addressing our call to ministrer to those who are the outcast and the marginalized. The command to drive out demons as inviting us to try to help people with the various addictions they face. The command to raise the dead as a call to encourage those who cannot see the good in themselves. The command to heal the sick to bring courage to those who are weak.

Fr. Tom’s particular interpretations are not the only ones and may not be the ones that resonate with you. More important than the specific examples he gave is the reminder to us to focus on what the Gospel passages we read are saying to us in our lives. It would be easy to read this passage as simply an instruction to the twelve to whom Jesus spoke that day – after all, most of us don’t have the ability to lay hands on people and heal them and we dont’ tend to see a lot of lepers as we go about our daily tasks.

The invitation is to sit with each of these instructions and discern how we are each being asked to carry out that command. What does it look like for us to heal the sick…to drive out demons…to cleanse lepers…..to raise the dead? How are we meant to fulfill our commission to proclaim the kingdom?

“If God Really Is…”

Reading through some comments on a blog post the other day, I came across one that described an exercise someone did in connection with her adult entrance into the Catholic Church. It seemed to me a good exercise for all of us to thinking about what our faith means to us, and it also seemed a perfect follow-up to the feast of Corpus Christi we celebrated yesterday.

The exercise involves a simple question with a blank in it and a number of words that fill in that blank.

The question is: “If God really is _______________ what should I do?”

The words with which to fill in the blank are as follows:

Jesus Christ
In the Eucharist
Right in front of you
The author of the Ten Commandments, written with the finger of God
My best friend
My Father
Love
Lord

It would be worth spending some time thinking about how you answer the question in its various forms.

I leave this morning for the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for my annual 8-day silent retreat. I would be especially grateful for your prayers during my retreat time. (I will try to write posts daily…or almost daily…to share some retreat reflections.)