The New York Times recently published one author’s rather positive experience of a five-day silent retreat at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA: “In Pennsylvania, a Quick Shot of Peace, On a Budget”. I naturally perk up at any sympathetic encounter with Catholicism that makes the Times, especially if it involves a work of the Society of Jesus. Since such pieces are almost invariably written from the perspective of the slightly bemused “seeker,” moreover, they at least suggest what kind of “first impression” we make.
What seems to have struck Susan Thomas (the article’s author) is actually what she would have been hard-pressed to find in the spas or Ashrams or organic farms that also received honorable mention in the “budget spirituality” section: encouragement to discover the living God. As is the case with most distressed people who have sufficient sophistication to write for the Times, unremitting introspection and pop psychology seem to be the very air that Susan breathes. She found, however, a perceptibly different approach recommended at the Jesuit Center. At the first meeting with the nun who directed her, says the author,
I told her about my stress-related illnesses, which had hospitalized me twice earlier that year; about my sparkly-minded children; about watching my Lear-like father die in front of me; about my divorce, subsequent remarriage and unexpected conception of my son; about my dip into poverty; my husband’s unemployment; my darkest fears; of aloneness.
Bracing herself for psychological platitudes, the author is surprised by her director’s reply:
Sister Barbara listened closely and then said, “What I hear you saying, Susan, is that you feel forsaken.”
Not dealing with abandonment issues: forsaken. Sister Barbara did not then press me to process my relationship with, say, my mother or to consider that I should “own” my feelings. Rather, she opened her Bible and turned to Matthew 3:17. This is the verse in which Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, and God opens the heavens and says, “This is my son, the beloved; my favor rests on him.” Sister Barbara read the passage and closed the book. How would it be, she asked, to personalize this passage — to pray with the words, “You are my beloved daughter, Susie; my favor rests on you”? How would it feel to know that God loves you as you love your own children? And then I wept and, finally, cleared my throat. It would feel pretty good. Sister Barbara advised me to go outside, walk, and pray with this. “See you tomorrow at 1:15, and we’ll see what God says,” she said and then chortled.
When the author goes out to pray, she finds that the assigned prayer-material lends itself neither to relaxation exercises nor to Asiatic self-emptying:
I sat on one of these at the top of a hill, closed my eyes and sat. I don’t know how long I was there, not meditating “on the breath” or deliberately clearing my mind, but simply internally rolling over the words of my custom-tailored Matthew 3:17. Slowly, though, I grew to feel still and happy.
Hardly dramatic. Still, Susan instinctively notices the difference between Christian prayer, on the one hand, and, say, Yoga or therapy on the other. Furthermore, she seems to profit from the difference.
I myself have often wondered why so many fail to notice this difference, drifting instead from Christianity toward some gnostic competitor. Or perhaps they do notice the difference after all, and simply prefer the security of technique to the unpredictability of personal encounter. After all, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Whatever the reason, it seems that this hemorrhaging will be best staunched by effectively introducing Christians to a God who sees, hears, and saves.
Good to see that the Jesuit Center is doing its part. Good that the Times considers a Catholic retreat newsworthy. Such encounters are the world’s hidden axis.