Where the Spirit Moves You

A few weeks ago I made my annual eight-day retreat. That’s a misnomer, of course. You don’t “make” a retreat. If anything, the retreat makes you. Along with a Jesuit friend, I spent the last week of August at the Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River. I’ll spare you the details of how beautiful the scenery was, which is hard to convey in prose. In short, it was gorgeous.

It was a great retreat with a great director in a great setting with, as an added retreat-house surprise, great food. And God, as many of my Jesuit friends like to say, showed up.


Midway through the week the retreatants were invited to an evening reconciliation service. As anyone who has been on retreat knows, one tends to go to almost anything sponsored in the evening, as a way of staving off any potential end-of-the-day boredom. Besides, I always need reconciliation.

It was not to be a traditional service, but would take a form familiar to people who make retreats, which I would call relaxed-contemplative.

Set in Linwood’s cedar-paneled chapel, the service began with a reading from the Gospel of John: the story of the woman caught in adultery (8:2–11). Next, one of the retreat directors preached on the reading and quoted from a gorgeous poem by Irene Zimmerman, O.S.F. In an imaginative meditation on the Gospel passage, Sister Zimmerman has Jesus look upon the woman, with compassion flooding him “like a wadi after rain.” The image stunned me. Even more moving was the image of Jesus seeing the adulterous woman condemned by the crowd, and wondering if his mother, with her unusual pregnancy, had endured similar contempt. After this came an examination of conscience. What did we want to ask God to forgive?

Then something strange.

At the front of the chapel was a shallow box filled with sand. We were asked to approach the box and trace three words in the sand, symbolizing our sins. After they were written, another person from the congregation was to come up and wipe the words away. The image came from the Gospel passage, in which Jesus writes words in the sand. Following some quiet time, there would be a general prayer of forgiveness.

Immediately I thought: How cheesy! Instinctively I called to mind the people who would probably laugh at the sandbox. Then I remembered something that a spiritual director had told me: Never dismiss a possible avenue to God.

The first retreatant, an elderly woman, walked up the aisle, and silently wrote her words.

From another pew another woman walked up, and without reading what was written in the sandbox, wiped the words away. Then the two women embraced.

I found myself welling up with tears. How moving it was to see one stranger help another. I wondered if the people in the crowd felt the same when Jesus forgave the adulterous woman.

When it was my turn, I didn’t have to think hard about what to write. “My sin is ever before me,” as Psalm 51 says. I wrote three words and waited. Then, unexpectedly, my friend approached, wiped my words away and embraced me. How wonderful to have a friend help you in the spiritual life, I thought.

Some people reading this column may have started rolling their eyes long ago. The free-form service would not be to their liking. But lately I’ve noticed that too many people (myself included) tend to judge and condemn, just like the crowd, spiritual practices that work for other people. This is true in every part of our church. Adoration is rejected as too traditional. The rosary is set aside as antiquated. On the other hand, the services I enjoyed that weekend are condemned as unorthodox.

These condemnations are as unjust as were the crowd’s condemnations of the woman.

Here’s what I say to people who sniff at one or another spiritual practice as too traditional or too progressive, as too rigid or too loosey-goosey: Try it. Twenty years ago in Nairobi, my Jesuit community had a practice of visiting the Blessed Sacrament after dinner. I eschewed that. But my superior encouraged me to try it as a way of worshiping with my brothers. The first night I did so I was flooded with consolation. I could hear God saying, “See? I really can be everywhere”—in a tabernacle or in a shallow box of sand.

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Nancy Walton-House
5 years 5 months ago
Great article. I am glad you wrote it. Recently I have been participating in person-to-person reconciliation at Seattle University's Chapel of Saint Ignatius in addition to parish communal reconciliation services which I did exclusively for many years. I experienced profound healing and grace from the person-to-person reconciliation. It is really good to be able to talk with someone who is kind and understanding and reminds me to treat myself the same way. It is strange how my labeling things as traditionalist or progressive causes me to miss out on the gift of grace from time to time. All is good.
5 years 5 months ago
I'm on the same page as Nancy Walton-House. A few years ago in London, I was "caught" in a Latin Mass at the Oratory. I was going to leave and return for the later English Mass. But, the Holy Spirit caught me by the shirtsleeve and gave me the grace to stay. I was raised with the Latin Mass. I memorized the Latin as an altar boy and love to hear my traditional parish Choir sing "Ave Verum" and "O Magnum Mysterium". I also love the vernacular and the sign of peace! At this Mass, I was sure my presence was filled totally with nostalgia, not worship. Gratefully, it was both. I saw the other worshippers mostly dressed in black, dutifully immersed in their thick missals (which I used to use and now keep on my bookshelf.) The priest at the altar had his back to us...properly vested with amice, maniple, and biretta. My presence felt exclusive until we all approached to receive the Eucharist. Then, it became clear that all of us were there for the same purpose regardless of rubrics or ritual. The temptation to "label" becomes less and less for me as time goes by. We are truly in this "worship thing" together. Fr. Jim heeded his spiritual director and allowed "grace" to prevail....thereby opening yet another window to view and thus embrace the Lord. Yes, just try it!
Bruce Snowden
5 years 5 months ago
Fr. Martin, I must say your essay about your retreat, “Where The Spirit Moves You,” was exceptionally moving and the only way my eyes rolled were downward with the words, “O God be merciful to me a sinner” written on the sand of my heart. Yes, my sins as Scripture reminds, are ever before me. My heart began beating a little faster as I reflected on the woman caught in adultery, finding myself caught up imaginatively in the contempt of the crowd she experienced. Then following your question as to whether Mary, about fourteen, pregnant and unwed, had earlier become the topic of village gossip and contempt. If that really happened how upsetting to Anna and Joachim Mary’s parents and of course Mary herself! And all Believers. In the past I’ve found myself wondering based on the possible scenario you suggested if in fact what we call the “Visitation” the Second Mystery of the Rosary, was sparked by village gossip and contempt towards the young girl Mary, compelling her parents to hurry her off to stay with a family member named Elizabeth and husband, she too pregnant and elderly. "See, I really can be everywhere" as you imagined Jesus saying -" in a tabernacle, in a shallow box of sand "- even in ordinary human events like parents protecting a child from gossip and abuse, providentially to be used later honoring worldwide the protected child and her protectors.. Thanks for your spiritual boost.
Alyson Rodrigues
5 years 5 months ago
A moving account of humility and friendship. This is most certainly a way in for Christ to enter.
John Swanson
5 years 5 months ago
"Here’s what I say to people who sniff at one or another spiritual practice as too traditional or too progressive, as too rigid or too loosey-goosey:" Mostly it isn't "the people" who need to hear this, but the pastors. The service you describe would never be permitted in our parish, because "the pastor" wouldn't allow it, not matter what "the people" wanted.
Mary C. Hannon
5 years 4 months ago
I "made" a retreat at Linwood earlier in the summer, participated in a similar healing service, and enjoyed a profound experience. Uneasy at first, I found myself fully engaged in this communal healing and deeply moved by the experience. Thanks to Fr. Martin for sharing this experience with a larger audience.
Trish Mac
5 years 4 months ago
"... Who can forgive sins, but God alone?" (Luke 5:21) God keeps the books and everything that we do, good or bad is recorded in them (Rev. 20:12). "But I (Jesus) say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36); "that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:3). "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). The only One who can forgive sins is God. Having someone other than God tell you that your sins are forgiven is putting themselves in place of Almighty God~against Him and Him alone have we sinned (Ps. 51:4). God can forgive our sins only because the Lord Jesus Christ has paid the penalty for them (Eph. 1:7; 4:32; Acts 13:38) with His own blood. We do not become righteous before God through good works, religious rituals, morality, or law-keeping. Justification is the free gift of God through faith in Christ Jesus finished redemptive work on the cross of Calvary (Rom. 3:25-28; 4:3-6; 5:1). Repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15).


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