When our rural, three-parish cluster began promoting Christ Renews His Parish retreats a few years ago, it was little surprise that recruiting men was no easy task. A weekend of listening to other men give emotional witness talks was a hard sell, especially when it competed with deer hunting, local or televised football games and, of course, the never-ending responsibilities of farms, jobs and household projects. Having gone through such a renewal weekend myself last year as a way to belong more deeply to my parish (and, I admit, to appease my wife), I became part of a team that planned the next. Somehow, by much begging, pleading, prodding and cajoling from team members (and the men’s wives, of course), at long last enough men signed up for the retreat, whose anagram has the unfortunate and somewhat unmasculine-sounding pronunciation, Chirp.
The participants were machinists, mechanics, farmers, night-watchmen, tree-trimmers and truck drivers, along with one or two white-collar professionals. Most came from large German-Catholic families with deep roots and long histories in the area. Like their immigrant forebears, they were hard-working, pragmatic and taciturn. As we welcomed them to the retreat, I tried to remain sanguine about how they would receive the experience.
As a newcomer to this area (I grew up two counties west and I have lived here only a decade), I have often experienced a struggle between the desire to fit in and feel part of the community, and the desire to be my true and somewhat strange self, without pretense or apology. This weekend offered me a rare opportunity to swap roles: as a team member, I reveled in the chance to welcome the participants into what was, for them, the alien territory of the retreat.
You talk a lot on C.R.H.P. retreats. Team members delivered their witnesses, some with eloquence, some with simple words and halting delivery, one pronouncing “Lord” as “Lard” in strong local dialect and another apologetically repeating over and over: “Ah ain’t one with words.” Some were brief and to the point; others rambled on and included a half-century’s worth of local history. Some confessed struggles with substance abuse; others admitted to criminal acts of vengeance. With tears and sincerity more than sophistication and nuance, we shared our unvarnished stories. We spoke of wounds given and received, of healing and reconciliation, of the deep imprints of loved ones and mentors, and of our rural area and parish communities. In various ways we witnessed to the simple but powerful truth of the Gospel: God loves us sinners. I, too often a detached observer, realized how much I had come to love my fellow team members and to feel a deep if unlikely sense of belonging with them.
I have often thought that most men—myself included—are tough nuts to crack, and I considered it no small miracle that we could open up in this way. It was the fruit of our own powerful retreat experience the previous year, but even more, of the ensuing regular meetings in which we prayed and studied Scripture together, slowly and awkwardly let down our guard and began to share our inner lives.
Or was it no miracle at all, perhaps, but simply the way of things? Nuts and seeds are not made to be cracked open from the outside. In the Creator’s good time and given fertile soil and the right conditions, it is in their nature to open of their own accord—or they will die, barren. Like-wise, I would like to believe that all of us—even reticent, workaholic, spade-is-a-spade men—are created for revelation, which is the seed of real belonging.
I did see participants obviously moved by the weekend, but I make no claim that their walls came tumbling down and that the retreat was awash in their catharsis. Conversion is a lifelong, Spirit-led process, and no one can manipulate or even predict how it unfolds in the great mystery of any individual’s interior life—especially in the hearts of men whose emotional muscles might not get frequent exercise. Time will tell. But I can report, happily, that cracks can appear even in what might seem the toughest and thickest of shells. And through the cracks comes a light that shines like the sun: a lovely, true, image-of-God self, hungry for connection.