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John DoughertyJuly 24, 2018
President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport, in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, July 22, 2018, en route to Washington after staying at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport, in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, July 22, 2018, en route to Washington after staying at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I started feeling guilty even before I reached the retreat house. I was on my way to spend a weekend of prayer and silence at a Jesuit center in rural Pennsylvania. This was a chance to withdraw from the hectic pace of daily life and enter into the peaceful quiet to hear God’s voice more clearly.

Meanwhile, I left behind a world in chaos.

Earlier that week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence did not qualify for asylum in the United States. As we reeled from this decision, journalists toured a detention facility for children in Texas and emerged with disturbing images and stories.

I was relieved to step away from the news cycle for a couple of days. Like many others, I struggle with what some call “Trump fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from the relentless cycle of crises, the need to remain constantly alert and engaged in social action, the creeping sense that nothing I do makes any difference.

Like many others, I struggle with what some call “Trump fatigue.”

That exhaustion leads to Trump fatigue’s greatest danger: It can make you numb, a privilege that many do not have.

And so, as I drove deeper into the countryside, my guilt intensified. Was I taking care of myself or just burying my head in the sand? With the world on fire, what good could a weekend of prayer and silence do?

As a disclaimer, I have some professional bias in favor of retreats: I run them for a living. But one of the ironies of being a high school campus minister is that I am often so busy helping others deepen their faith lives that I cannot find time to nourish my own. So when I arrived at Wernersville, my primary goal was to settle in, quiet down and focus on God.

With the world on fire, what good could a weekend of prayer and silence do?

But shutting out the world was more difficult than I thought. At one point, I found a copy of The New York Times in a breakroom, featuring the now famous photo of a 2-year-old girl screaming on the side of the road as her mother is frisked against a border patrol vehicle. She reminded me of my own 2-year-old daughter. I left the room, shaken and feeling guilty.

What was I doing here? What did any of this matter, when children were being terrorized and detained, torn from their parents’ arms? How could I be so selfish as to step away?

Early the next morning, I met with my spiritual director, a Jesuit who did not have his head in the sand. Like many priests I have known, he was passionate about his faith and caring for Christ’s poor. Still, when I spoke to him about my exhaustion, he did not try to rally me with a speech about fighting injustice. Instead, he encouraged me to spend the weekend surrendering to God and recognizing who was really in charge.

“You don’t have to save the world,” he said. “That’s someone else’s job.”

If Jesus was not too busy to take a break, then neither are we.

I was amazed by how much trouble I had with this. I want to believe I have some power to change things in this country and in the world. Maybe I do—but probably far less than I would like to think. That fear drove my action, made me believe that if I did not sign a petition or read a news story or make a call to Congress, then everything would fall apart. That fear prevented me from taking breaks, even to spend time with God.

And now I was exhausted. What had it really helped?

I thought about the person whose job was saving the world. Christ knew the value of stepping away. Yes, he was active, frequenting towns and cities, and working directly with the poor. But he also found time to be alone with God: “The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (Lk 5:15-16).

Thinking about Christ gave me some much-needed perspective and humility. Instead of nursing my guilt, I took up my spiritual director’s challenge to surrender my will and worries to God. In return, God led me through that weekend, offering me rest, peace and a chance to learn a little more about God’s limitless love for the world. When I left on Sunday afternoon, I found that my strength and faith were renewed. I was ready to return to the chaotic world outside and to meet its challenges with love and courage.

Perhaps, in the age of Trump, Merton is the sort of model that Catholics need.

All of this from a few days away. It made me wonder if maybe one of the most important things that people of faith can realize in these days of struggle and outrage is that if Jesus was not too busy to take a break, then neither are we. Even if it is just a few minutes of prayer each day, we—like Christ—need to withdraw to the wilderness every now and then.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says that retreating into solitude should not be used as an escape from the world but as a means to live more fully in it. “Go into the desert,” he wrote, “not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.”

Merton spent the better part of three decades in a Trappist monastery and still managed to be active in the tumultuous world of his day. He was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., opposed the Vietnam War and spoke out against many other injustices. Perhaps, in the age of Trump, Merton is the sort of model that Catholics need: a holy man committed to living his faith through activism and solidarity, who nevertheless knew the importance of retreating to a quiet place and surrendering to God in silence. Like me, you may find this difficult. But if done with the right intentions, stepping away can be a truly radical and powerful act.

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JR Cosgrove
4 years 10 months ago

It's not Trump. Take a retreat from Trump bashing Fake Media sources. You seem susceptible to Fake News. Each week they create a new outrage. Trump is the salvation of the media. People flock to their negative Trump stories. The media depend on Trump hate for click bait and the ad revenues it brings.

The world is getting much better. Read Hans Rosling's Factfulness. It will help you adjust to the real world and not the fake world the media inhabits.

JR Cosgrove
4 years 10 months ago

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think


Rose Tait
4 years 10 months ago

J Cosgrove says it all.....fake news.....
I believe Donald Trump was sent by God to save our country and others.
The anti Trump rhetoric is a show of mob mentality in my opinion.

Sue Harvey
4 years 10 months ago

What I see, hear from Mr Trump directly causes my fatigue.maybe it's because I can't understand how critical matters can ricochet from yes to no In a day's time. Chaos seems to reign. Media isn't my guide to thinking this way.
I consider how would my personal relationships survive if I conducted myself in such a scattershot manner? Trust, belief in a person's word is very important to me.

Cynthia Suprenant
4 years 10 months ago

I feel just as you do about this. Some of the media simply reports "fact", and the President certainly gives us much direct content to consider right from his own mouth and Tweets. I'm not manipulated by anybody. The President's truth is whatever he says it is at any particular moment. I'm a scientist, and that's not how it works -- not in science and certainly not in civil society or relationships. I find him utterly exhausting.

James Haraldson
4 years 10 months ago

If you make the claim that ideological bias does not exist in scientific practice, you are lying about being a scientist. I find phonies utterly exhausting too, especially those willing to be submissive to the anti-Christian bigots who dominate the main stream media, almost exclusively, with their perverse world view, of whom Donald Trump so heroically takes to task on a daily basis.

Sandi Sinor
4 years 10 months ago

Take that retreat. I feel that if I don't do something like that soon, my health will be in danger, literally.

The country has not been this polarized since the Viet Nam war, and what Trump is doing is even worse. He is destroying almost everything that is good in America, replacing it with a creed of me-first and greed. Goodness and compassion are nowhere to be seen. Jesus' teachings are ignored, while bigotry is encouraged. The values of the America I have known and loved my whole life are being destroyed, and millions of Americans are cheering.

Randal Agostini
4 years 10 months ago

I know exactly what you mean. Before our World was going to pieces with the loss of family values, discrimination against people of faith, the promotion of abortion, belittling motherhood, inability to follow our religion in our schools and hospitals, the abandonment of gender, the promotion of at will divorce and same sex marriage, single parent parenthood, government leaders who lie, the establishment of a State Secular religion .... the list goes on.
Fortunately there are people of faith who understand that virtue and compassion comes from our hearts and not from a government, which is heartless. Fortunately there are now political leaders who are willing to speak the truth and expose the greed and power of government. The danger is so real against those threatened with losing their power that they prefer to abandon common sense and logic and descend into a life of despair and hate.
A retreat at this time sounds positive and encouraging.

Anna Ryan
4 years 10 months ago

Yes, John! Thanks for this eloquent, relevant reminder.

Rhett Segall
4 years 10 months ago

Dorthy Day , so vigorously involved in social justice efforts as well as corporeal works of mercy, experienced deep frustration at the apparent fruitlessness of her efforts. However, she found renewed inspiration in the life and teachings of Theresa Martin-the young Carmelite nun. Dorthy came to the realization through the example of the "Little Flower" that if our efforts at helping others is rooted in a relationship with Christ, nourished by time alone with the Lord, then success is assured.

Boreta Singleton
4 years 10 months ago

Amen, John. Thanks for reminding us that the only people we can change, with God's grace, are ourselves!

Boreta Singleton
4 years 10 months ago

Amen, John. Thanks for reminding us that the only people we can change, with God's grace, are ourselves!

Andrew Strada
4 years 10 months ago

It could have been a productive weekend if the author reflected on whether sustained hysterical overreaction is a sign of deep commitment to Catholic social justice principles or just a form of masochistic self-indulgence.

Michael Gerrity
4 years 10 months ago

My father used to take me to Malvern Retreat House in Pennsylvania when I was a teenager. I protested mightily at the time, but now remember the retreats fondly. Mr. Dougherty, please don't feel guilty about taking a little time to regroup from our current stresses and strains and just catch your breath.
Unhappily, the comments have reminded me about the high percentage of Catholics who voted for that moral degenerate in Washington. It really makes me wonder what the point of a Catholic education is, if it can bring people to such depths.

Rose Tait
4 years 10 months ago

J Cosgrove says it all.....fake news.....
I believe Donald Trump wassent by God to save our country and others.

Mary Finnegan Weeldreyer
4 years 10 months ago

Yes, you should continue to pray for President Trump as he protects your religious freedom, something that was threatened with the last administration.

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