Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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Why Make a Retreat?
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
For the opening conference I thought I would do two things. First, remind ourselves as to why we are making a retreat or, in plainer English, what a retreat is all about. And the more retreats we make, the more I think we've got to motivate ourselves to make another one. The novelty by now has quite worn off. Yet, in spite of the lack of newness, a retreat is the single most important period of the year for us religious. Why? Secondly, in this conference I will do what I have not been doing for some years, and that is to open the retreat with the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. I can tell you why it is a good place to start a retreat and, before the retreat is over, I will share with you some of Pope Paul VI's animadversions regarding the Society of Jesus, the Spiritual Exercises, and religious life as the members of the Society are to promote it in the lives of others. We are reminded to present the Spiritual Exercises pure and unadulterated; this is what I am going to give you, Sisters.
First, what is a retreat all about? The answer is very simple. A retreat is all about "me". It is all about each one of us as we look back at what we planned in our last retreat and see how that future, which is now our past, was lived up to, so that this time we might do better.
There are essentially four things that God expects us to do during a retreat. I am speaking to those who have given themselves to following Christ in the practice of the Counsels.
Our first responsibility during a retreat is to clarify our minds regarding the basic truths of faith, to be sure we know what the truths are, no matter who says what. By now we all know that these mysteries are being mightily challenged in many parts of the world. And when I speak of "many parts of the world", I don't mean just geographic parts; I mean parts of the Church where the faith is being questioned, doubted, and not infrequently denied, even in circles where we should least expect it.
A lay Catholic leader of New York gave me a Xeroxed copy of an article I hadn't seen, from the latest volume of the new Catholic Encyclopedia. It is but another example of the contradictions raised by some supposedly well-informed Catholics today. It is an article on "Dissent in the Church" written by a Professor at the Catholic University of America, a two page article stating in the plainest English that you can be a Catholic while disagreeing with the teaching of the Church.
The second purpose during a retreat is that I am to identify my own personal spiritual needs. Now identification is still in the order of the mind, of thinking. We should do a lot of thinking during a retreat, first to reaffirm in our minds what we as Catholics are supposed to believe; then what we as religious spiritually need or, from another viewpoint, "What does God want me to do?" with the stress on "what God WANTS" and "me to DO".
My stress either in giving conferences or retreats is on the mind, not because I believe that there is any necessary relationship between a person's theological education and his sanctity. Quite the contrary. Very simple, unlettered people can be holy, and very complicated, educated people can be unholy. But, because our fundamental virtue is the virtue of faith, which is in the mind, the basis of our spiritual life is in the mind. And therefore, whatever other faculty I use to please God, which means to do His will, the first is my faculty of thinking.
As important as it is to believe in the truths of faith, to which I alluded, it is also and correspondingly important for me to know what God wants me to do. We identify our personal spiritual needs. I keep telling others what I've been telling myself: that the longer we live with ourselves the surer we become that our biggest problem is ourselves. We are our biggest cross and consequently we must ask ourselves, "What needs to be done by me in order that I might serve God the way He wants to be served?"
A third purpose of a retreat is to obtain light from God to know better than I know now what these needs are. Let's not be deceived; our needs are by and large hidden from our own eyes. They can be seen only with the eyes of faith; hence the need for grace: "Lord, that I may see".
During a retreat we should obtain strength to look carefully at these needs and solve these problems. Here the motto ought to be, "Lord, make me free. Lord, that I may see Your will and then, make me free to do it." As we well know and have been often told, yet we must remind ourselves, we can be behind prison bars without being in jail; we can be enslaved by our own unruly, uncontrolled fears and passions. I know one man who has been working on both for years and I can assure you it's a lifetime job. Indeed I know, because I am not yet finished.
Finally, a retreat is not a retreat as Saint Ignatius taught it, unless it is based on the Spiritual Exercises. The only kind of a retreat you will get is the kind that I've been trained to give. Now there is the added accent and insistence by the Vicar of Christ that Jesuits are not to tamper at all with those Spiritual Exercises.
A good retreat is a retreat that ends with the determination of what we are to do with Gods grace. Consequently, a retreat is a time of decision. It may be a new decision; in most cases it is not. Or it may be a reaffirmation, a reconfirmation of a decision formerly made. Fine. But an act of the will must be made by which I recommit myself to the Christ who called me. I decide on what God wants me to do, what He wants me to give up and, let's include it, on what God wants me to endure. That's the sacred triad of all who have walked the path of sanctity.
What does God want me to do? He wants me to realign my own wants with His. What does God want me to give up? He wants me to realign my own dislikes with His. That isn't new.. You know there are things God doesn't like. We should cultivate our tastes so that we too dislike what He dislikes. And He wants me to endure; here in effect He tells me, as only God can, "Take it!"
The second part of this conference will be just the beginning of the Principle of Saint Ignatius. The Spiritual Exercises which this great master of the spiritual life bequeathed to the world have, in effect, opened up the prospects of holiness in a way that had not been available before. These Spiritual Exercises have been given for over 400 years, on an average to one million persons a year; and that is a lot of people.
In the opening declaration of the Spiritual Exercises, we are told why man was created and why the rest of the world was made; then we are told what should be the first conclusion from these two facts. We'll see the second conclusion in the next conference.
Man as we believe was created to praise, reverence and serve God his Creator so that by this means he might save his soul. That's all there is to life, that one sentence. We were created for no other purpose except in this life that we might praise, reverence, and serve God. Put briefly, that means to do His will and thereby save our souls, meaning of course that if we don't, we won't.
We are told further that all the rest of creation was made for the benefit of man. That's a large statement. Everything in life has a purpose and the purpose is for our benefit, so that whatever (and this is the Divine universal), whatever in the world in any way enters or affects my life or touches me, no matter how momentarily or how apparently casually, everything is planned by God that I might use it to please Him and thereby save my soul. By now you must have heard 50 times, there is no such thing as chance.
One morning at LaGuardia Airport, the employee must have been rushed in selling me my tickets. I had a string of tickets to buy, going hither and yon. I had told her I wanted an aisle seat in the non-smoking section of the plane. She got the non-smoking part right, but she put me at the window. There it was, "A" - that means window. For just a split second I was thinking of having it changed because I had the right to go back and tell her, "Either you or the computer made a mistake"; but I figured, "I don't know why You want me next to the window, Lord; but I'll take the window seat. Besides, I'd embarrass her and maybe embarrass the computer!" By the way, you don't correct computers, because if you do, you don't know what's likely to happen! So, I took my window seat. The middle seat was empty. As it happened, a girl got on and sure enough, the entire plane was filled; there was no other seat empty, so she took "B". I couldn't have gotten the aisle seat in that row because it had already been sold before I got there. This girl's name was Anne. Say a prayer for her. I had other plans between New York and Chicago, but after exchanging a few words I realized what God wanted me to do. She was from Chicago; she had many needs. Before we broke up I said, "Anne, you do believe of course that nothing happens by chance?" "Well," she said, "I've never believed it before, but seeing what happened this morning maybe I could believe it now!" Nothing just happens. Everything is planned. Everything, everything!
Consequently, our purpose and the first major conclusion to be drawn from these two fundamental truths of faith is that, since we were made for no other purpose than to serve God faithfully here and thereby be saved; and since everything in the world has been given to us to help us reach that destiny; consequently (and this is the motto of the retreat), even to save my soul let alone become holy, I must use creatures insofar as they help me and I must rid myself of them insofar as they hinder my path to God. That is hard, because creatures can be sweet, they can be so pleasant, they can be so nice!
By now, I've dealt with too many souls that have opened their hearts to me, not to know that the hardest thing in life is to say "No" to a creature that appeals to us when our whole nature cries out for it and to be rid of it because we don't want it. But God tells us, "I am God, not you. You are a creature. I have the right to tell you what are the conditions, even of your salvation not to speak of your sanctification, not you. All you've got to do is your duty: to find out what I want and to act accordingly." Being human, we're all scared.
The smarter we are, the more we can rationalize, which means we can find reasons for the untruth. We rationalize not doing what down deep in our heart we know God wants us to do; or we find reasons for still doing what we perfectly well know God does not want us to do. Some people can become literally drunk with their own words. They've read so much; they've been thinking so much, that they can actually convince themselves of what is contrary to the known will of God.
That is what a retreat is all about. Please God, with His grace, we shall not only make a good retreat but the best, at least because we've made so many already. This should be the best. But also, we want it to be the best because never in the history of the Church has the Church needed more authentic religious, religious who are such in reality and not only in name.
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