Almost There!

I am sitting on a New Jersey Transit train en route to San Alphonso Retreat House in Long Branch NJ. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post I will be on retreat there for the next week.

I smiled when I realized I begin my retreat later today on this feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Among other things it provides a beautiful link between my recent days at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh and these upcoming days.

On the grounds of theOshKosh Retreat House is a Shrine of the Sacred Heart. It is a small round building. When you enter, you face a quarter-circle brick wall to the opening of the shrine area to the statue representing the Sacred Heart.

I am not someone moved by traditional depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Jesus standing there holding a heart in His hand is not an image that touches me. But I remember thinking, the first time I saw this statue: this is truly the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

The statue is of Jesus sitting with a small boy standing at his side. Jesus’ right arm is around the boy, whose eyes are closed and whose head leans in, resting on Jesus. The boy’s right hand is holding Jesus’ left hand resting on Jesus’ knee and the boy’s other hand rests gently on Jesus’ forearm. Jesus’ gazes intently at the boy, as though there is no one else in the world. Total love and compassion pouring out of Jesus. And the child resting in total trust and comfort.

And that, to me, seems a wonderful image with which to begin my retreat: resting on total trust and comfort in the arms of my God. That doesn’t mean the retreat will necessarily be easy; retreats often raise challenges or bring to the surface pains that need healing. But whatever this time will bring, I will not be alone.


Remember to Breathe

Yesterday morning I was participating in the final Mass of the retreat I was a director for at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh. Within an hour after that, I was outside of the house in which Elena lived at college this year packing the car with her belongings. (Considering how much she left in storage there for the summer, I was astounded at the number of boxes and bags we had to fit in the car.)  After an almost five hour drive, we were back in the Twin Cities where I spent several hours doing laundry, dealing with accumulated mail and running other errands as I get ready to leave again for another almost ten days.  This morning I packed and will soon head to the airport for a flight to New York for the opening of my cousin’s sculpture show, followed by a week of my own silent retreat at San Alphonso Retreat House on the New Jersey shore.

I’m exhausted all over again just reading what I’ve written!  It is easy to get overwhelmed when in the midst of crazy scheduling. (And, as though to underscore the scheduling frenzy, when Dave picks me up from the aiport a week from Saturday, we will head straight to the graduation party of the son of some friends.)

In times like this, I return to the beautiful breathing meditation suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ. He suggests watching the breath come in and out, reciting with each breath these lines:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Sometimes I just need the reminder.  Breathe in…breathe out…smile…stay in the present moment.

I’m not taking my computer with me to New York.  My own silent retreat is the one time I ignore e-mails and other internet distractions.  So while I may post an occasional reflection here based on my retreat via my iPhone, you may not hear much from me until after my return on the 20th.  Please keep me in your prayers during the retreat.

A Minute Would Be Good Enough

The tradition at the Jesuit Retreat House is that the director who offers the reflection at Mass is responsible for leading the prayer at the following day’s staff meeting.  Since I offered the reflection at Mass on Monday, I had responsibility for the prayer at our final staff meeting yesterday.  (The retreat ends this morning with Mass and breakfast.)

After the opening song I selected, I read Stuart Kestenbaum’s poem Psalm, which I came across several years ago.  Here is the poem:

The only psalm I had memorized was the 23rd
and now I find myself searching for the order
of the phrases knowing it ends with surely
goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life and I will dwell
in the house of the Lord forever only I remember
seeing a new translation from the original Hebrew
and forever wasn’t forever but a long time
which is different from forever although
even a long time today would be
good enough for me even a minute entering
the House would be good enough for me,
even a hand on the door or dropping today’s
newspaper on the stoop or looking in the windows
that are reflecting this morning’s clouds in the first light.

I then invited the others to reflect on a time when when “a minute” or “a hand on the door” was enough for them, a situation where something small, momentary, was enough to give them deep consolation, to give them exactly what they needed from God.  The sharing was deep and beautiful.

You might consider the same invitation.  Reflect on a time when a minute…a hand on the door was “good enough” for you.

We leave the retreat house this morning, each of us in awe and gratitude for the graces given by God during these days.

Poverty of Spirit

At yesterday’s Mass at the retreat house, I offered the reflection on the readings.  The Gospel was St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and in my talk I focused on the first of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We have a temptation is to treat the Beatitudes as a series of sweet platitudes rather than as a statement of the meaning of discipleship under Christ, that is, a template for the way we should orient our lives. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s, at the folk Mass I sometimes attended we sang a bouncy song based on the Beatitudes, “Happy is the Man who walks in the way of the Lord and God our King, Blessed is he and Happy are they who put their trust in him.” And we’d bop and sway our way through the verses recounting the Beatitudes without the slightest thought that they actually meant anything.

At least part of that temptation comes from the fact that the way of being the Beatitudes describe is so counter to the standards of the world in which we live. And I think there is nothing that better illustrates the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship under Christ than the first of the Beatitudes; hence my focus on poverty of spirit.

Poverty of spirit has little to do with material poverty and everything to do with our recognition of our absolute dependence on God, of our appreciation that all we are and all we have is gift from our loving God. Macrina Weiderkehr paraphrases the first Beatitude by saying: “Blessed are those who are convinced of their basic dependency on God, whose lives are emptied of all that doesn’t matter. The Kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

In my reflection, I spoke on what I think are the three related elements at play in the first Beatitude.  First, poverty of spirit means I acknowledge and embrace my absolute and utter dependence on God. And not just giving lip service, but feeling in the depth of my soul my need for God’s grace.  Second, poverty of spirit also means that, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I choose guidance over self-determination.  Finally, third, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I recognize that nothing else other than God is sufficient to satisfy me.  I talked a little about each of these elements, including talking about how each is so counter-cultural.

Although I think poverty of spirit highlights in the clearest way the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship in Christ, I encouraged the retreatants to sit with each of the other Beatitudes and reflect on its contrast with the way of the world, considering where the challenge is for them in living in the spirit of the Beatitudes.   And they are challenging, precisely because they are so antithetical to the way of the world. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek is not easy in a culture grounded in competition, self-promotion, and intolerance of those who don’t fall in line with the prevailing worldview.

So how can we possibly bear the difficulty of orienting our lives in accordance with the Beatitudes? In that beautiful first reading we heard today, Paul answers that question: Our God of encouragement encourages us in every affliction. “As Christ’s suffering overflows to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” As we share in the sufferings, we also share in the encouragement.” And part of that encouragement is Jesus’ promise: choose my way and yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Visitor

After evening prayer last night, several of us directors went up to the lounge and watched The Visitor, a 2007 film I had never even heard of, let alone seen before.  Although I almost didn’t join them, I’m glad I watched it.

The life of a late middle aged professor (a lonely widow who has been emotionally all but dead for a long time) changes dramatically when he returns to his New York City apartment – a place he has not visited in a number of years – and finds a couple living there: a Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend.  Initially appalled to find them there, he becomes friends with the man, who teaches him to play the drums.  All is fine until the man, an illegal immigrant, is arrested and sent to a deportation center.  Ultimately he is deported.  Along the way the professor develops a friendship with the man’s mother (with the promise of something deeper), who at the end flies to Syria to be with her son, knowing it means she will never return to the United States.

The film powerfully explores issues of immigration and cross-cultural encounter and communication, as well as the struggle of a man to discover a deeper identity and more meaningful life.

I recognize the difficulties of “fixing” the immigration problem in this country and make no claims to any answers.  Neither does the film suggest any solution.  What it does do is put faces and lives on the “illegal immigrant” while also giving a window into the often unfair treatment of them in detention.  And whatever else our policy is, it ought to include decency in how we treat those who are detained.

One of Pope Francis’ two prayer intentions for the month of June is immigrants and refugees: “That immigrants and refugees may find welcome and respect in the countries to which they come.

May it be so!

Everything is Holy Now

At our team meeting yesterday, Kevin, the team member leading the prayer, began with a song by Peter Mayer called Holy Now.  The song begins

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
and everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now.

As the song goes on, over and over we hear: Everything is a miracle….everything is holy now.  (My favorite line in the song was “So the challenging thing becomes not to look for miracles, but finding where there isn’t one.)

After the song, Kevin invited us to share spots at the retreat house that are particularly special places for us.  The first place I shared about was the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, which I blogged about the first time I did a retreat here.  (You can read that post here.)

The other I shared is not actually on the retreat house grounds, but on the road that connects the retreat house to Highway 45.  It is the tree pictured below.  The first time I saw that tree it brought to mind some of the stupas I circumambulated many times during the period I was Buddhist and lived in Nepal.  Some had eyes near the top shaped very much like what looks like an eye on the tree.   Although I never thought about it, I realized that I always look for that tree when I arrive at the retreat house (and indeed, walk past it almost every day when I’m here) and its presence is somehow grounding to me.


Although I didn’t share it at the meeting, here is another place very special to me here – the crucifix immediately to the right of the altar in the Ignatius chapel.  There is something about the corpus without the cross that is very compelling to me.  I sat for quite some time on the floor below it after our Healing Service last night.


Everything is holy, but for each of us there are some places that help us see the holy a little easier.

Summer Reading: The Book of Tobit

All week, the first Mass readings have come from the Book of Tobit.   It is sometimes called a religious novel, although Fr. John Schwantes jokingly characterized it as a soap opera. (Something akin to a TV dramatic series may be more accurate.)  One of Tobit’s kinsmen is strangled in the streets and Tobit risks arrest by burying him. Tobit goes blind when a bird poops in his eyes. Tobit’s wife Anna receives a young goat as a bonus for some weaving she did and he thinks she has stolen it and goes ballistic over it.  Meanwhile, over in Medea, Sarah is being abused by her maids because she has been married seven times and each of her husbands died on the wedding night due to the wicked demon Asmodeus.

But all works out:  Sarah gets married to Tobit’s son Tobiah (and Tobiah does not die, as the wicked demon has been driven from Sarah), Tobit’s eyesight is restored, and everybody is happy.  And in today’s reading the angel Raphael explains how God heard all of their prayers and commissioned him to help heal things.

The USCCB’s introduction to the book says

The Book of Tobit, named after its principal character, combines Jewish piety and morality with folklore in a fascinating story that has enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles. Prayers, psalms, and words of wisdom, as well as the skillfully constructed story itself, provide valuable insights into the faith and the religious milieu of its unknown author…Although the Book of Tobit is usually listed with the historical books, it more correctly stands midway between them and the wisdom literature. It contains numerous maxims like those found in the wisdom books … as well as standard wisdom themes: fidelity to the law, intercessory function of angels, piety toward parents, purity of marriage, reverence for the dead, and the value of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Elizabeth Scalia called the book “instructive and underutilized,” suggesting it is a perfect read for the Year of the Family because of its strong family relationships.  Whatever else it is, it is good read.  And it is not a long book and so you can easily sit down and read it from beginning to end.  You’ll find a lot to reflect on.



Each day during this directed retreat, we directors have a team meeting, and a different person is responsible for leading the prayer and sharing.  Today’s meeting the director with that responsibility shared an excerpt from Joan Chittister’s book In Search of Belief speaking about resurrection and then asked each of us to share an experience of resurrection.

I shared that when I walked past the “lightening tree” on the property, I was reminded of the American Elm on the site of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. It is called the “Survivor Tree” because it withstood the full force of the attack and there is no earthly reason it is not completely dead and gone. Yet it continues to stand and to grow. I felt its life and its power when I stood touching it during my visit to the site.  For me that was an experience of resurrection.

I don’t have a picture of the Survivor Tree, but here is the OshKosh Jesuit Retreat House “lightening tree” – still putting out leaves each year.


As we read in the excerpt from Joan Chittiester before our sharing, “To say ‘I believe in Jesus Christ…who rose from the dead’ is to say I believe that the Resurrection goes on and on and on forever.  Every time Jesus rises in our hearts in new ways, the Resurrection happens again.”



Watching the Pelicans

Several years ago, pelicans began to appear around Lake Winnebago.  Now they nest in spring in a small pond the lake feeds into, with the result that a number can be seen from time to time flying over the lake.

I sat out on one of the bench swings along the edge of the lake yesterday afternoon enjoying the sun glinting off the ripples int he lake, the sounds of the birds and the slight rocking motion of the swing.  As I sat, a pelican appeared over the lake alternating between bursts of energetic flapping of its wings and beautiful long glides.

I love that image and what a great metaphor for us.  It seems to me an important part of discernment is knowing when we need to be energetically flapping our wings and when we need to glide.  If we are constantly engaged in a flurry of activity, we’ll burn out and get nowhere.  But nor can we simply spend all of our time running on past efforts.

When to flap our wings….and when to glide.



(This is not my picture – I couldn’t get a clear enough shot – but it is a good likeness of what I saw.)

Day is Done

Today was a beautiful day at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh.  Sunshine, cool breezes, the sounds of birds, pelicans in flight (more about the pelicans another day).  I even got out for a bicycle ride this afternoon after I was finished today’s sessions with each of the five retreatants I am directing.

This evening, I led the evening prayer, after which I took a final walk outside.  Here is what I stood gazing at, as I stood near the shore of Lake Winnebago.

JRH Sunset

Thank you, dear God, for beautiful days and lovely sunsets.