“You need to go on a retreat. You need to get away.”
“You mean…Kermit and I? Or just me…”
“No. Just you.”
“You mean..a guided retreat? Or just me doing my own thing?”
“Whatever you like.”
Father H. spoke. It had been quite a hefty conversation, covering many topics, but I knew Father was right, and frankly it was simply a relief for a priest to give me permission to get away for a few days, on my own. I think the last time I was truly by myself for any appreciable amount of time was college. I decided to simply go away alone, and to follow wherever the Lord led me.
So I called up a little spiritual center in West Virginia, about twenty-five minutes from us, called Priest Field. Sometimes we have trouble appreciating what is right on our doorstep, and honestly I had no idea this little slice of Heaven was so near us! I told them I wanted one of their hermitages for four days, three nights. I knew that I needed two full days, and I was right. Thursday night was going to be simply spent trying to unwind and let my mind go quiet, and part of Sunday would be lost packing up, and mentally wrapping up with regards what I would “take home” from my few days.
They placed me in the St. Antony hermitage, and it was beautiful! It had a bedroom, bathroom, den and kitchenette. I’d brought all my food, as the meals there were a bit expensive. The stay itself was gifted to me by my generous parents as my birthday present. These are hermitage pictures from Priest Field’s Facebook page. The pictures don’t do it justice.
On Thursday afternoon, I got things as under control at home as they were going to get, loaded up the car, and picking myself up a delicious mint/Oreo custard cone, headed out of town towards West Virginia. The St. Antony hermitage was already unlocked and waiting for me. Admittedly, I was listening to the Kavanaugh hearings that day; I can’t say I’d been following the news too closely but I did want to hear both of their testimonies.
The cabin was even sweeter than it appeared in pictures, and for four days it was all mine. The weather was rainy and cold, and I was chilled to the bone; I made some turmeric tea, as it is my warming go-to drink, and set up the cabin. Chocolates and caramels on one table, with lotions and hand salve. On the other table, my relics of Blessed Seelos, Blessed Alberione, a special crucifix, and my Saint Charbel candle (which I was not allowed to light). I loaded up the refrigerator, arranged all my foodie goodness around the counter, and finally settled in to relax. I suppose I could have taken some pictures, but I guess this means I’ll just have to do it again next year!
Now, I come from a household of 11 people. E-le-ven. Spread over 2200 square feet I suppose that isn’t so bad, but our home is no Buckingham Palace either. It’s a bustling household! There was no way I could go from chaos to silence in one fell swoop. I needed some wind-down time, so I did let the Kavanaugh hearings play for a few minutes, but turned them off after watching Lindsey Graham in all his glory. I turned on a little jazz music and started reading a little. It’s so hard for me to settle down…so I hopped across the driveway to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours evening prayer, brought a bunch of petitions to Jesus, and had some nice quiet time kneeling about a foot from the tabernacle. When I returned to the cabin, it was time for Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy, which I enjoyed while fixing and eating my dinner (an awesome salad and reheated chicken tom kha soup.) Then I turned off the TV, (which was set to autotune to the season premier of “The Good Place,”) and I started reading Ralph Martin’s Called to Holiness.
I put it away and picked up my knitting when “The Good Place” came on, but sadly, between trying to figure out wickedly vague knitting pattern instructions and being hit with “revenge of the mint/Oreo custard cone,” I was barely able to follow the show, and passed a bit of time just waiting to feel well enough to climb into the bed. I was grateful for the ending of Custard Cone’s Last Stand, and figured that it was a good sign that the retreat would bear fruit. A little bit of preliminary suffering–I could do that! Overall it was a nice, relaxing evening, and it allowed me to wind down enough to be able to make the next day one of hard-core prayer, reading and reflection.
I was up at 5:45 in the morning, determined to get to 7 a.m. Mass at my home parish (about 20 minutes away) and I did get there. Sadly, the husband and son I’d hoped to surprise at that Mass…were not there…but Jesus was! I would not have been able to attend a Mass that day at Priest Field as there are no priests in residence there, and the retreat groups (with their priests) were not set to arrive until Friday evening, so really it was fine that I drove out to go to Mass. I got back, had breakfast, and spent time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, again with the Divine Office. The weather was beginning to warm up and the sun was finally reappearing, after a long absence. This day was going to be dedicated to finishing Called to Holiness.
The book was very good. I had seen it mentioned weeks ago by a priest who was himself going on retreat and said that he was bringing his copy along to read again. I figured that if the book was good enough for a priest to read repeatedly and bring on retreat (not to mention that I highly respect Ralph Martin) then it was good enough for me to give it a try. I highlighted it heavily, and need to go back and study it more closely, but there were areas I had a bit of trouble with, most notably the sections which spoke heavily of the Holy Spirit and grace.
In the way that some converts struggle with Mary (as in they respect Mary but figure they can get along pretty well enough and pursue holiness without the Marian devotions, etc.), I struggle with the Holy Spirit. Case in point: I brought three of my four Fr. Jacques Philippe books on retreat with me, not knowing which one to read. The one I left home? The one about the Holy Spirit. He’s just way too abstract for me to “get.” I can get the Father. I can get the Son. I get Mary (who isn’t divine, obviously, but I referenced her as something of a stumbling block to certain Catholics). But the Holy Spirit? Way too abstract for me.
Grace? I can follow along with grace to an extent, but sometimes it seems when I’m reading, or listening to some program, everything becomes “grace” and so therefore in my head if grace is everything...then grace is nothing. So in any case I did finish the book at about 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning, and aside from the Holy Spirit and grace chat, which went over my head, I got a lot out of it.
So Friday was beautiful. The weather was lovely.
I did the outdoor Stations of the Cross.
I walked the longest trail (which after all these rains was quite the adventure!)
I prayed multiple installments of the Divine Office kneeling in front of Jesus, and I also spent copious, copious amounts of time in the Saint Sharbel shrine, bringing him my intercessions and petitions, and essentially wrangling him into taking me under his wing.
Funny thing–there is a beeswax candle in his chapel that can be lit, but it refused to light for me without the utmost persistence on my part. I then realized that I was having the same problem with my St. Charbel candle at home, and have come to the conclusion that he’s playing games with me (weeks later we’re still having candle issues 😂). I prayed the rosary with St. Charbel after a good heart-to-heart with him, and all in all was so happy to be able to park myself in that little chapel for a time. Other highlights of Friday were the discovery of the deliciousness that is the (free) coffee in the main hall at Priest Field. If you ever get the chance to enjoy coffee from a Folgers instant coffee machine, consider yourself blessed!
All three retreat groups arrived Friday afternoon. They were: The St. Joseph’s Men’s group, from I-don’t-know-where; the Baltimore Diaconate Candidates (and Wives) retreat, and the Mountaineer Catholics. I had to pick one group to ask permission of to attend Mass with them on Saturday and Sunday. I thought the Men’s group definitely wouldn’t want me, and the Diaconate couples would probably be uncomfortable as well, but who on earth were these “Mountaineer Catholics”? As it turns out, they are college students from the University of West Virginia, and boy were they one inspiring little group! I attended Mass with them on Saturday and Sunday. They were enthusiastic, reverent, did not engage in liturgical aberrations, and knew their Greek and Latin prayers as well as their English prayers. The priest was very young, and was quite able to reach the youth and lift them up with his challenges to live the Gospel. As much as I’ve heard about WVU being a party school, at least I now know the university Catholic parish, St. John’s, is alive and kicking.
I kept Friday meatless, as I typically do, and made canned salmon salad for lunch, and heated up (and added vegetables to) a Thai seafood soup I had picked up the day before for dinner. It’s a good thing I did–that dinner that they served in the main building smelled delightfully of bacon! I spent much of the evening with St. Charbel (after Divine Office with Jesus), and at about 10:30 made the slightly creepy walk back to my cabin in the dark, there to read the book for the next three hours (amid copious mini “pass-outs”), at which time I thought I’d attempt to do a “Miracle Hour” prayer session (attempt being the operative word here.) At 2-something I climbed myself into bed, unable to take anymore for that day. It had been a good day, and I had a new book to read for Saturday: Fr. Jacques Philippe’s Searching For and Maintaining Peace.
Again I was up early on Saturday, around 7 or so, and after showering and getting dressed, I assembled the chicken and sausage gumbo that I would enjoy later that day with my friend C, who herself needed a getaway.
I finished everything up in time to get to the All Souls Chapel a few minutes before Mass. I asked Father Justin Blanc for permission to attend Mass with the group, and he was happy to oblige. Mass was beautiful. I honestly did not know what to expect with a group of college students from a known party school. but I was very pleasantly surprised.
After Mass I got some coffee and went to spend a nice chunk of time with St. Sharbel. I had so many petitions/intentions to bring to him to pray for for us and those we know. I prayed a rosary for my family, and made sure at some point that day that I took photos of the St. Charbel Novena prayerbook so I could bring it home with me, at least digitally.
In the latter part of the morning, I chatted with my mom, swung on the swing next to my cabin in the cool air, and read my book. Bliss. Pure bliss. Then C showed up with ice, sock yarn, and chocolate bread pudding. This woman knows the way to my heart! The rest of the day was spent with me trying to stay awake and read my book (can someone please remind me I am not 19 anymore?), C peacefully knitting, and later in some trail exploring, and enjoying delicious food. Around 4pm I started a 9 hour novena using the St. Sharbel prayerbook, praying a new “day” sometime during each hour from 4 until midnight. This novena was for all the intentions I laid forth to him that morning. I was disappointed that I only got through half of Searching for and Maintaining Peace, but I’m sure there’s a reason for that. Goodness knows the book was small enough to wipe out in a day, but I was exhausted! Interestingly, the book was bringing up questions in my mind, which I would bring to Jesus the next morning, and He would answer me most profoundly. C left the cabin around midnight, and I probably read for another hour or so before throwing in my hat.
Although I had initially been told that checkout would be at 2, I thought it’d be a good idea to pack up and load what I could early. After Mass at 9:30 I spent about an hour packing, dealing with checkout protocol in the cabin, and getting all but the very bare bones of my belongings into the car. It’s a good thing, because when I popped into the main center at 10:30, the sweet lady said that checkout is at noon! I wrapped up what I needed to do, therefore, and spent the next few hours on the property between St. Sharbel, trails, and the Blessed Sacrament chapel. I admit, when I went into the chapel I was feeling slight disappointment because I had asked the Lord for some graces and felt that I had been met with much silence. I was also feeling pressure over the fact that I had not finished the second book that I had aimed to finish while gone. What I needed to do was to have something to take away, to bring back home with me to help keep me focused in whatever direction the Lord wished me to proceed. I thought I would get this “take away” experience by reviewing my highlights in my two books and trying to put together what struck me into a cohesive “something.” Jesus laughed.
I knelt before the tabernacle, my heart heavily burdened with questions, feeling my time running out before going “back to the grind,” and I started writing furiously in my notebook. I finished it, stood up, firmly placed my hand upon the now-covered page (to put it nicely…I really smacked it) and said, “THIS. I need an answer to THIS.” And at that point I basically gave up on receiving anything I asked for. I looked at my backpack, figured I’d may as well do Daytime Prayer from the Divine Office, and my answer started to come, first in the hymn I chose (I recited the first one I laid eyes on, randomly)…to the psalms that were in that particular prayer set, to the reading… it was like WHAM….WHAM…WHAM…. Over and over I kept seeing it: “HOLY SPIRIT.” And what it was, I knew deep down in my gut, was Jesus saying, “The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is your answer. Without the Holy Spirit, you will never find what you’re looking for.” I will likely expound upon this experience in another post, but suffice it to say, for me, this was huge, and slightly unsettling, but I’m okay with an uncomfortable answer, as long as I have an answer.
The ONE part of the spiritual life I thought I could perhaps “gloss over” in my spiritual life without repercussion (in much the same way as some “get by” without Marian devotions) I was being told was not only non-negotiable, but the source of the answers I was looking for. And so I left with an answer of sorts, a focus, and a mission.
The other thing I left with, which surprised me, was more of an appreciation of the prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Perhaps it’s because of the intense goings-on in our home and family over the last year, but as I stood in front of the St. Francis Shrine on the St. Francis trail, and read the prayer, I “got it” in a way I never had before. For the first time it really seemed…relevant to my life. I can say that in this last year, I have felt and witnessed that hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness at levels never before experienced. I have sought consolation. I have sought to be understood. Have struggled to pardon…and gave until it hurt. And I am learning well the continual dying to self that will be asked of me until the Good Lord calls me into eternal life. It will take much of this same dying to self to sow in my life that same love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy to which Saint Francis exhorts us.
I wrapped up my retreat on the trails, praying a rosary to Our Lady, and begging the Holy Spirit to come into my heart and my life. I have since been slowly working on cultivating this Holy Spirit relationship in small ways (not really knowing what I’m doing in the first place, and therefore not being ashamed to admit that I feel pretty dumb in this regard), and attempting to keep up with my renewed devotion to the Divine Office. It was one of the first devotions we picked up when we came back to the Church in early 2000, and we were faithful to it for quite some time before it became too much of a struggle to keep up with it.
Upon leaving Priest Field, I met my Sweetheart for a lovely one-on-one lunch at the ever-so-romantic Golden Corral, and then was very happy and excited to get back to the little–and big– minions at home. I cannot wait to bring the family up the Priest Field, just to let them walk the trails and experience the peace and beauty of the property. I’d love to bring the older ones there for quiet retreats someday. What I do know is that what I did that last weekend in September needs to be a regular occurrence, and by regular I mean once every one to two years at least, and if I’m really lucky I’ll be able to convince my Better Half (and he is the better half!) to do one of these weekends himself, by himself!
God Bless You, and God Love You!