Recently I took a couple of days off to make my annual retreat, something that is required of all Deacons and Priests in our Archdiocese. To call it “required” doesn’t sound appropriate, as most clergy look forward to their retreat days as joyful and refreshing, but we are also human and often find it difficult to take the time away from all our other responsibilities. Fortunately, our Archbishop, just like a good doctor, knows that a retreat is a necessary time for our spiritual health, just as an annual medical check-up is essential to our physical health.
This year my retreat was a little out of the ordinary as there were no scheduled retreats available when my schedule was open. A Deacon friend of mine has encountered this same problem at times and talked about a “Self- Directed Retreat” as an option. After some prayerful consideration and a little research, I decided to give it a try. After all, my main intent was to take a little time alone for prayer and reflection. All I needed was to decide on a Place, a Time, and a Focus. My thanks to Father Hampe, who just recently completed a Self-Directed Retreat, for giving me a lead on places and topics. Since we have been focusing on the Gospel according to John and would be reading the Passion from this Gospel on Good Friday, a beautiful set of reflections on the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel provided the perfect focus for my retreat. I could spend many pages recounting the subject matter of the recorded talks but it was something else that made this retreat special that I want to share today.
The word “retreat” has several meanings ranging from “a place of solitude” to “running away from something.” In the context of a Spiritual Retreat, I prefer to look at it not so much as running away from something but rather as escaping to something. In the quiet solitude of a secluded space it is much easier to focus on our relationship with God and even listen to his word. Most of the two days I spent there I saw no one except the Priest who celebrated Mass each morning. My quarters consisted of a simple, one room cottage, a hermitage as it is called, in the remotest part of what seemed like at least a hundred acres.
Some of the greatest moments of my retreat were spent wandering through the wooded area of the Il Ritiro Retreat center in Dittmer. As I started out to hike in the woods, it seemed like just any other wooded area that I have encountered many times on previous camping excursions. But then, in the quiet solitude, it suddenly seemed like my surroundings were speaking to me; rather that God was speaking to me through my surroundings. Being early spring, the trees were still very barren. Perhaps they were pointing out just how my spiritual life, in fact, all of our spiritual lives goes through periods when we appear spiritually dead. There were trees of all ages and sizes standing all around me perhaps representing people at all stages of life or me at the various stages of my life. I then noticed several Pine Trees interspersed throughout the area. There they stood, still laden with living, fresh, green needles, having survived the winter elements when all the hard woods had surrendered their leaves. Perhaps they represent those folks we all come across in our lives who never seem to lose their Faith, those “Steady Eddies” who we always see at Sunday Mass, always in a strong relationship with Jesus. The Pine Trees were in a variety of ages and sizes so as to point to those who keep their faith from a very young age right through their senior years. They were certainly out-numbered but they were there! How Refreshing! There were other thoughts that came to mind as well. The small tender brush that was just beginning to come back to life, pointing out that this season of Lent and Easter is a time of new beginnings for all of us.
Perhaps the thought that will stick with me the longest was the ease with which I could stroll through this simple path, a path created by God alone, hilly and rugged as it was. I noticed this most as I exited the woods and began the long trek up the paved road that led back to my cottage. We often look at the world with all its man-made improvements as being so much easier to navigate, offering us so much more comfort. As I looked into the woods and felt the hard, unyielding pavement beneath my feet, I suddenly realized that the path God has laid out for me, even with its struggles, has to be the better choice!
Deacon John Schiffer
Parish Life Coordinator
St. Robert Bellarmine Parish