January 10, 2010
I have just returned from a three-day retreat at White House. White House is located 25 miles south of Saint Louis. It sits on the bluffs of the Mississippi river. The grounds are beautiful, with wooded acreage, walking paths for the Stations of the Cross, Grotto’s of Mary, a large white statue of Jesus, the typical setting one would expect for a retreat house run by the Jesuit order. This was my 28th retreat. I think the first one was in October of 1978.
Thursday night I arrived at 5:00pm, checked into my room, adjusted the heat up on account of the 20 degree outside temperature, picked out my seat location in the Chapel and then headed back to my room to unpack and get settled. Dinner is served at 7:00pm followed by Benediction and then the first Conference. By 10:00pm, I’m in bed and tired. I already know this will be an unusual retreat. There will be few outdoor walks since the temperature is predicted to be in the teens for the next three days. Snow is on the ground and ice is on the paths.
The entire retreat from Thursday evening through Sunday is practiced in silence. There’s no talking, not even at meals. That may sound austere but actually the “silence” is one of my favorite parts of each White House retreat. The meals are good, the accommodations are comfortable, the conference directors (all Jesuit priests) are usually interesting. But, the “silence” is really wonderful. No radios, no television, no email messages, no cell phone calls, nothing to distract me and the other seventy-two retreatants from our effort to converse with the Divine.
Each day we rise at 7:00am, morning prayer and scripture service follow at 7:30am and breakfast thereafter at 8:ooam. The first conference commences at 9:15am, another at 10:45am, and lunch at noon. The afternoon continues with Rosary at 2:30pm followed by Mass at 4:45pm. Dinner begins at 6:00pm preceeding fellowship where talking, though optional, is permitted. We close with Benediction and a final conference. Saturday is similar with a few modifications. Sunday is a shorter day with departure after lunch around 2:00pm.
Our retreat Director this year is Fr. Frank Real, a Jesuit in charge of the St. Louis University campus in Madrid Spain. The last retreat that he gave was at White House 19 years ago. As he introduced himself, he explained that he grew up in All Souls parish in Overland. He is 58 years old. He has two younger brothers, Jim and Tom. Now, those facts are of particular interest to me because I grew up in All Souls parish. And even though I’m older than Fr. Frank, I’m sure my brothers may have gone to grade school with Frank or one of his younger brothers. St. Louis is a city noted for such connections. In actuality, it’s a big city with good small town qualities and characteristics.
The first day of retreat I read a book, With Open Hands, written many years ago by Henri J.M.Nouwen S.J. who died of a massive heart attack in 1996. Henri writes, “Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave untouched. Why would you really want to do that?”
And so the retreat begins…
The retreat process is loosely based upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). They were written perhaps 450 years ago, yet they are relevant today. The retreat Director has a lot of flexibility since these Excercises were originally intended to last thirty consecutive days. We get the rapid fire version however, with most of the tough stuff left for more serious students. Therefore, every retreat is different even though the regiment is very much the same from year to year.
This year I brought three of my favorite books with the intent to re-read all three. Two books are written by a delightful new author on spirituality, Fr. Paul Coutinho, a Jesuit priest who was born in India and received his doctorate in historical theology from Saint Louis University. His first book, How Big is Your God, is outstanding. The second book, Just as You Are, is worthwhile as well. His writings are on the edge, challenging us with questions and traps. For example, he writes, “I may say I’m not a racist but cannot even think of one of my children marrying someone from another ethnic group. Or I say I believe in an all-loving God but pray for the conversion of all those who do not practice my religion.” When you read Fr. Coutinho’s books or listen to him lecture, as I have on several occasions, you leave energized and refreshed by his Eastern/Western influenced theology and his enlightened view of Divinity. God is his everyday companion and Fr. Paul invites us to learn how to have a similar relationship with God.
The third book, I read several years ago, is the The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser O.M.I. I wound up skimming through it, highlighted some more passages, and then brought it home to return to the shelf.
The highlight of this year’s retreat did not come until Sunday. By that time, the three days of silence was beginning to take affect. When I read something of interest it stayed with me, when Fr. Frank spoke I now heard him more clearly.
Sunday morning, I was up early to watch the fog lift off the Mississippi river at sunrise. As the day progressed I watched the ice melt off pine trees, snow melt into the straw grass below, a bird leave its nest and return several times, a tug boat pushes its cargo southward through the ice chunks accumulating in the muddy river below. I felt the warm sun on my face and hands. I noticed that it was so quiet God could finally get through. And, so we talked awhile.
My recommendation– find three days or more every year dedicated to “silence.” Listen closely to “silence.” God is surely there.
St. Ignatius axiom- “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depends on you.”
Serenity Prayer: “Lord give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Special note: Seven days after this retreat, January 17, 2010, my mother, Gloria Elizabeth Shasserre, passed away. She was 84 and had been married to my father, Ted, for 64 years. They have six children, five of which are now married, eighteen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Mom is now at peace with her Lord and Savior. May she rest in peace. Amen.
By the way…Fr. Reale was the director of my first retreat at Whit House in 1990. We have traded a few emails now and then. I recall him putting on a White House baseball cap at the end of the retreat and saying something like now we are getting ready to “Play ball with reality.”
In addition he referred me to Loyola in Morristown, NJ where my current spiritual director was Fr. reale’s director when he was in training at Loyola!
I miss our post dinner walks in silence with a cohiba . That experience confirmed that one does not need words to communicate with you companion.