A Jesuit Retreat

| March 4, 2012 | 0 Comments

Sunset over the Potomac at Loyola Retreat House

I spent this weekend at a Jesuit retreat in southern Maryland at Loyola Retreat House, a facility on a bluff overlooking a very scenic bend in the Potomac River. It was a very different experience from the 24 hours I spent with the Benedictines a few weeks ago.

This is not a monastery but a retreat house. The accommodations are the same, very spare, but this time I had a lot of company. This is the annual “Men’s Retreat” for my parish, Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC. But it’s a silent retreat, so you don’t really have the opportunity to get to know your fellow retreatants. Lots of smiles and nods, but no real conversation.

Some do reveal themselves, however. One younger man, probably in his 30’s, wore a t shirt that said ” One Nation Under God” with a picture of that non-church going, divorced, social program cutting, ignorer of those “least among us,” president, Ronald Reagan. This guy also had multiple tattoos and some body piercing. Would love to know the back story on him. (Subsequent to writing this, he spoke at the closing ceremony very movingly about how he’d strayed and returned to the Church.  That might explain the piercings.)

You could also get a sense of people by what they shouted out during the prayers of the faithful when congregants are invited to name things to pray for after which the whole group says, “Lord, hear our prayer.” One older man appealed for the end of abortion and euthanasia every time. I wish I had the nerve to shout out “For the end of state sanctioned murder, also known as the death penalty” or “For the closing of Guantanamo prison,” and force them all to say “Lord, hear our prayer” to that.  But I passed on the opportunity.

I have attended this annual retreat three times and, frankly, this was the least satisfying. It may have been the weather which, unlike the previous years, did not allow for wandering the beautiful grounds. It was also less silent. A number of the retreatants violated the rules and were yakking away outside my room.  And maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood.

But mostly, I think it was that there seemed to be much more of what I call “baby talk” about God and religion. I’m afraid I am cursed with a skeptical Enlightenment mind, which means I’m filled with doubt about religion. So, while I’m not really sure what draws me toward religion, I know what drives me away. What drives me away is juvenile certainty, mostly manifest through the anthropomorphism of God, turning God into a human only more so. One look at the night sky should convince any thinking person that, if there is a God that created all that, He, She or It is beyond human comprehension. Of course, that’s where Jesus comes in as a bridge between lowly humans and the unimaginable God. And that has a logic for me, but it takes work. And, while I sympathize with those who need a pretty simple story, it doesn’t work for me.

That is why I spend my quiet time reading people like Luke Timothy Johnson and C.S. Lewis. These are writers who acknowledge doubt and justify their Faith in terms I can respect. Of course, there’s a lot of Scripture reading at retreats and, frankly, Scripture can be hard to accept for a sometimes skeptic. But here’s Lewis on his understanding of Scripture as explained in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, written in 1958:

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïveté, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in every passage, that, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning it’s overall message.

That I can accept. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk who now teaches theology at Emory University addresses the basics and distinguishes between science and religion in his book, The Creed, where he writes:

That anything exists at all is the primordial mystery that points us to God…The theories of the natural and biological sciences address, and can only address, the interconnecting causes of beings that have been or are now already in existence. They cannot count for existence itself. But concerning the sequence of becoming, the theories of natural and biological sciences concerning the expansion of the universe and evolving of the species…are full of important insight that Christians neglect or deny at the cost of intellectual integrity.

So, I read this kind of intellectually honest inquiry and it gets me in a frame of mind that is more open to the very elaborate stories that represent Christian belief.  And, every once in a while, I find peace.

By necessity, these retreats must address the lowest common denominator and that does lead to a lot of baby talk.  So, why to I go?  I go for the moments of profundity and grace.  Sometimes, they happen, sometimes not.  But when they do, it is very special and worth the inconvenience when they do not.  One thing I know, while they occasionally happen in the silence of a retreat, they hardly ever happen in the cacophony of daily life.  That’s why I go.

Category: Catholic Church, Religion

Leave a Reply