You may have noticed in a recent issue of America (2/25) a listing of retreat houses around the country, sponsored by both Jesuits and others. (The list will be kept up to date on America’s Web site.) Jesuits generally make an annual retreat of six to eight days, and while the specific purpose may vary from year to year, it ordinarily involves an effort to deepen one’s relationship with God through reflection and prayer in quiet surroundings.
The surroundings, as well as the kinds of retreats, can vary widely. Some indeed are made at retreat houses, but even a simple room in a Jesuit residence or some other equivalent setting can be suitable. In earlier times, the normal format was the preached retreat, with conferences (talks) on spiritual themes given daily by the retreat director. After the Second Vatican Council, many began to prefer one-on-one directed retreats. In these, the retreatant meets with a director each day to discuss how the prayer has been going.
Some, though, prefer to make annual retreats on their own, with perhaps only a Bible and the text of the Spiritual Exercises for guides. This is what I did two years ago, when I took a bus to the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, Pa.one of the retreat houses included in America’s list. At the time I joined the Jesuits, Wernersville was the site of the Jesuit novitiatea huge 1920’s brick building with a cloister walk on either side. Because the retreat marked my first extended visit there in a long while, a stream of novitiate memories became a part of those summer days.
Entering a particular room, for example, I could recall conversations that had taken place there decades earlier. One memory concerned an informal gathering of novices in a recreation room. A visiting Jesuit theologian from Georgetown University mentioned to us that the inscription over the doorway of Carl Jung’s house in Switzerland was Vocatus aut non vocatus, Deus adest (Called upon or not, God is there). It was just part of a conversation, but those words struck me deeply, and over the years they have remained as a welcome reassurance of the eternal presence of a God who is with us even when we do not realize it. The inscription, he said, came from one of the classical Greek playsGod can indeed speak to us through many venues. I jotted down the visitor’s words in a little notebook now filled with that and other one-liners from a variety of sources that have often served as a basis of prayer both on and off retreat.
Most of the memories that became subjects for prayer on that retreat, however, arose from daily visits to the cemetery at the bottom of the hill below the building. Backed by a stand of tall firs whose fragrance yielded itself in the hot August sun, the cemetery’s simple headstones are inscribed with names of deceased Jesuits, some of whom I had known well. Two of the headstonesboth set into place during the retreatwere for teachers who had influenced not just my formation, but my life as a whole. Sitting on a stone bench in the middle of the cemetery, I could almost hear what one of them offered once in a novitiate homily: We can assume that God is at least as nice a guy as you or me. A seemingly lighthearted remark, but serious in its underscoring of the depth of God’s love and mercy.
The other Jesuit had taught a course at the long-gone Woodstock theologate in New York City. Alluding to 1 John 4, he said in class: If God is love, the person who loves most perfectly is the fullest revelation of God. He meant that God’s love comes to us not only as a comforting strength, but as a challenge too, to love our neighbor more perfectly. The cemetery was an ideal place to reflect on sayings like these. And the lonely sound of a distant passing train served as a reminder that we do not have unlimited time in our brief journey of life to respond to that challenge, as well as to the invitation to call out to the God who is always listening.