The word retreat, I believe, is not a part of the vocabulary of the average successful American. As a verb, retreat means to withdraw “from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable.” As a noun, it signifies “the process of receding from a position or state attained.” These definitions do not coalesce with the image of a person who keeps advancing in his or her education and career, facing challenges, taking on more work, and accomplishing it all. In fact, in some circumstances, retreating can be perceived as cowardly or a tactic of avoidance.
And yet, on Thursday, December 5, the Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior classes “made their retreats.” The Freshman spent the day at Archmere; Sophomores traveled to Sandy Hill, Maryland; and Juniors retreated at Daylesford Abbey. Before leaving campus, the Sophomores joined Father McLaughlin in celebration at Mass in Saint Norbert Oratory at 8:15 a.m. Father then celebrated a second Mass with the Freshman at 10 a.m. before leaving for Daylesford Abbey to celebrate a third Mass later in the day with the Juniors.
While some music for the celebrations was pre-recorded, I provided music for the responses of the Masses that were held in the Oratory. Though my only particular involvement with the retreat day was at the Mass times, I left the experience somewhat disappointed in the level of student engagement during Mass. Participation at Mass in the Catholic Church in general has diminished over the years, and the passive participation in and understanding of our religious celebrations by our young people is a challenge to us at Archmere. I have heard many theories about the relevancy of our Catholic ritual – the clergy scandals in the Church, the decline of the “nuclear family,” the increased secularization of our culture and social moorings – all contributing to the decline in Church attendance, participation, and interest.
At the same time, however, I see our students volunteering to help others through community service projects, raising funds for a variety of worthy causes, being present to and tolerant of others’ diversity, and continuing to be generous of mind and heart, helping and supporting each other, their teachers and staff members.
Are they not “the Church” in action?
I remember a beloved pastor who said to me many years ago while working on parish project, “Michael, I hope you are offering up your efforts as a special prayer to God. Actions speak louder than words.”
That phrase came to mind as I walked from Saint Norbert Hall back to my office in the Patio after the Freshman and Sophomore class Masses last Thursday. These nearly 250 young 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys and girls who assembled for Mass on their day of retreat had shared so much joy and care with others by their works of charity. They truly are the kind of disciples that Saint James describes in his letter:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
So why is it so difficult then to develop appropriate retreat programs for teenage students? I wonder if it has to do with the nature of retreating and the fact that it is so antithetical to our contemporary, busy 21st century culture of action.
Do we know how to retreat, or to allow ourselves the time and the commitment to retreat?
I would say that, in general, our young people do not know how to retreat well. And yet, spiritual retreats are an integral part of many world religions, including our Catholic, Christian faith, as a means of developing self-awareness and knowing our God more fully.
In Loving and Living, Thomas Merton writes:
There is a silent self with us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent; it can’t be spoken but has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.
Our culture helps us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet completely available. We just float along in general ‘noise,’ the commotion and jamming which drown out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.
With the inner self we have come to terms in silence. That is the reason for choosing silence. In silence we face and admit the gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface, which is untrue to our own reality. We recognize the need to be at home with ourselves so that we may go out to meet others, not just with the mask of affability, but with real commitment and authentic love.
So, how can a one-day class retreat respond to the need for students to remain connected with their “silent selves?”
In reply, I would guess that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop a meaningful one-day retreat experience for each student because each is at a different place in knowing and understanding him or her self and God’s presence in his or her life.
Is it so vital then, that I be sure all of the students sing along with me the words to the Mystery of Faith acclamation during the consecration at Mass – words that have been changed recently in the Catholic Church to three different possible variations? Should I be concerned that our students may not grasp the meaning of Advent as a time of preparation and waiting for the “coming of Emmanuel” – “God-with-us,” meaning that He is already here and so why are we waiting for Him? Should I – we – be focused on the manifestation of the faith, their actions, beliefs, convictions?
I think the answer still, is yes to all of the above. We are, after all, a school challenged with the goal of educating boys and girls in an ecumenical Catholic, Christian tradition that is not exclusive, but rather inclusive in understanding and discussing all beliefs that advance our wisdom and knowledge of our selves and the world. It is important for those of us of older generations to impart the Catholic traditions and logic to these future generations, while simultaneously listening to their reactions and comments in order to create a relevant dialog, through which our Catholic Christian traditions can be understood and embraced.
I believe every excellent teacher knows the feeling of teaching some concept, some axiom, some fact of history for the tenth, twentieth, or thirtieth time to a new group of students and the joyful experience of watching them discuss, dissect, and internalize the material. Each time may be different for a variety of reasons, but it is the act of communicating the idea that generates a connection to the ideas and people of the past with the ideas and people of the future.
This is what I feel when I support the music ministry at Masses with students at Archmere. This is what I feel when I offer a few words at various events throughout the school year to put into context the actions we are doing. To prepare for these times, I often feel as though I have to stop action and step back to contemplate what is about to happen in the context of our Archmere Academy history.
Is this retreating?
I think it is, in a way. It is those bracketed moments we can steal away from the day’s activity that help us to reframe what life is bringing to us.
So, are we asking a lot of students when we challenge them to break away from the daily “noise” of life and retreat, for just one day, expecting the impact to be instantaneous, their engagement in the day to be high, and the results to be profound?
Yes, we are. And the impact of these day-long retreats may be negligent, or it may be realized in the years to come. Our students have been made aware of the “silence to know one’s inner self,” as Merton puts it. Hopefully, they will be able to take this journey at length in future years, and then understand how to access that “silence” in the spaces between active moments in their lives.
We are now in the Second Week of Advent. The season is rushed this year with the lateness of Thanksgiving trimming Advent to just 24 days. Steve Mueller, editor of God with Us, printed by All Saints Press, comments that while Advent is a time of “outward symbols of anticipation and joy and the rituals of Christmas preparation, it is also a time to embark on an inner journey to the center of our faith, to a meeting with the Christ who is mysteriously present within us and around us in our world.”
We dutifully scheduled our traditional annual student retreats for December 5 (Seniors complete a retreat before graduation in the spring). We will hold an annual Rite of Reconciliation Service on Thursday, December 19. These are touchstones to the inner journey – to the important journey of understanding one’s true self in the silence. As a parent of young adults, and as headmaster of a wonderfully special, faith-based, high-achieving school, I pray every day that we impart the very best of our knowledge and experience to our next generation, whom I respect, appreciate, and admire. Let us, as the adults in the lives of these young people, use our longevity and experience to help shape and guide our children, so that the moments of retreat are not relegated to the assigned days on the school calendar, but become instinctive and natural moments in our children’s lives when they need them most.
May God bless you this Advent and Christmas, and throughout the New Year!