On Retreat with the Passionists
One constant in my ever evolving spiritual life is a yearly retreat at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat Center in Detroit. For fifteen of the last 18 years I have spent a weekend with men from my former parish and from other parishes in the Detroit area. No stranger to different kinds of retreats—I have attended confirmation, young adult, discernment, pre-Cana, and silent retreats—the value of a yearly men’s retreat directed by the Passionists is incalculable.
I cannot point to one weekend, one conversation, or one experience that keeps me coming back year after year. Rather, individual retreats merge in memory and coalesce as spiritual experience. I am not alone in this. Almost all repeat retreatants say the same thing. Some men have logged nearly 60 retreats. The Passionists award pins for number of retreats attended, a source of pride for more than a few, but at some point, it seems, a man stops counting.
And while no particular retreat stands out, these retreats have the strange effect of acting as markers of individual events in my life. Deaths, diagnoses, and major life changes mark the retreats I carried a heavy burden with me, or mark the strength the retreat that year gave me. The sum experience of annual retreating simply forms a spiritual well that I draw from repeatedly. A Catholic is blessed indeed to have such wells to draw from for surely there are many and myriad others. My silent sojourns with the Trappists have been singularly rich and a pilgrimage to Denver twenty-three years ago to celebrate World Youth Day with Pope John Paul II still yields fruit. But it is the Passionist retreats I return to every year. When asked by someone why I go back I usually say the food is pretty good, sleep is easy, and the conferences shock me out of a spiritual indolence that I seem to settle into between Christmas and Lent. But it’s much more than all that. I just find it hard to describe this yearly pouring of spiritual cement into a foundation that acts as bedrock against the buffets of life.
I sometimes fall back on describing the unique brand of Passionist humor that seems to be a prerequisite even for lay members of the retreat team. Obviously the retreat center is not a comedy club, but humor is an integral part of the joie de vivre of Passionist spirituality. Once when the late Fr. Rene was asked how he ended up in Detroit of all places, he said his career in Rome was interrupted by the newly elected Pope John Paul II. When asked how this was so, he responded matter of factly that the Holy Father called him and told him Rome was not big enough for the both of them. Fr. Rene carried himself in such a way that not a man present voiced any disbelief.
Another time, newly arrived Korean Passionist Fr. Tu Jin told us that he had poor English but the lot of us had poor Korean. So he needed to teach us how to say his name correctly. “Tu Jin,” he said, “sounds like Two Chin.” He smiled broadly when a few of us chuckled. But then he looked at us sternly and said, “You never call me Father Double Chin. Not the right way to say it.” The whole room erupted. Naturally, this served as an invitation for retreatants to call him Fr. Double Chin ever after. And he never failed to laugh at the salutation.
I suppose describing the humor, or the food, or the accommodations is just my way of getting men to see past the starkness of the black habits Passionists wear or the scary notion of spending a weekend with God. As a retreat captain, I have seen the horrified look on the faces of some pretty burly guys when I told them about a weekend retreat. It usually goes something like this:
“What do you do on retreat?”
“We go deep into God with our brothers in faith.”
“Yeah, but what do you actually do?”
I go down the list. Mass, confession, conferences, communal prayer, fellowship.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t be into all that. The wife has a list of stuff for me to do and my kid has hockey practice.”
I suppose also it is my experience that God uses any means necessary to get to us to come to Him. Some men are persuaded when I tell them there is an agenda but it is entirely optional. Others come and do nothing but sleep and eat. This is not frowned upon. I have learned that even if someone does not get into God, God gets into them. And a retreat is often where it happens.
But I sometimes wonder why it can be so difficult to get Catholic men to spend a weekend with God and their brothers in faith. In recent years I have seen more Protestant and non-denominational Christians joining us on retreat. There seems to be less of a barrier with them when talking about spending a weekend in prayer with other men. One year I invited a man who was unchurched altogether. He was not an atheist but a spiritual seeker who had not found his home. He made a meaningful retreat.
The key has always been to get a man to the retreat. God takes care of the rest. Once there, I have seen men transformed by the experience. One man, after his first retreat, came to me some time later and said it was the very thing he needed but never knew he needed it. Men are often moved to tearful emotion as time and space dissolve in the eternal present of the Eucharist, or following confession, or in the fellowship of unburdening and unpacking tough stuff with other men of faith. The change, as should be expected, isn’t always immediate. Some men go on retreat and never return, at least not with us anyway. It doesn’t matter. The seed was planted and will, if watered even by other means, bear fruit. Returning every year has taught me that each retreat is really an advance in the heavenly reward of the Spirit.