I approached his office door. He was seated inside, leaning against his desk while thumbing his cell phone. He noticed me, put down his phone, looked back at me brightly, and motioned me inside. I sat down on the other chair in the small room…
Sunday evening I returned from a 72-hour silent retreat. No phones. No computers. No television. And no talking. (Well, you could meet with the priests and also give a confession.) And from these clues, you can guess this was a Catholic-run retreat.
I’m not Catholic.
But that didn’t stop my friend Paul–the same Paul who, in 2010, helped convince me to go teach in China–from trying to get me to come along on what, for him, has become an annual unplugging in suburban St. Paul, MN. (Indeed, I wasn’t the only non-Catholic, though the vast majority of the 70 or so attendees were.) And I say “unplugging” in the literal sense. Spiritually, you sort of did the opposite. The silence, the lectures from church scholars, and the reflection afterward had you plug into something deep, rich, and livening.
I expected some of this when thinking ahead to this weekend. I have had a couple of other “unplugged” experiences in which I calmed down, reflected on my life, and saw & felt truths about myself camouflaged in the usual hectic, noisy, distracting world.
What I didn’t expect was the newfound appreciation I’d have for this particular version or path of spirituality–Catholicism, or more general, Christianity. Whether it was the company of 70 others all trying to be better men, the lectures, the reading I’d do over breaks, or the tradition and meaning I saw and felt throughout my three days, I felt compelled to sit down with one of the priests. I was conflicted about my beliefs. So I approached his office door.
I shared my concerns to Father Paul (or simply “Paul,” insisted the 40-ish man with light hair and greying goatee). I told him how the uplifting power of being here, as well as my re-energized appreciation for the life and sacrifice of Jesus, clashed with my concerns about Christianity as a religion, for example: accepting Jesus’s miracles on faith, and the damnation of nonbelievers. Paul began by encouraging my questions. He had had them himself. He shared how he left the church as a teenager, but then a spiritual experience brought him back at 19. Then after studying the world’s religions, his conviction in Christianity grew to have him sitting before me. I appreciated his openness. And then I appreciated the wisdom of his closing remark: “The best thing you can do here,” he stated to me, “is just be open to the spiritual truths you gain from your experience.”
There was no shortage of opportunities this weekend for which to seek and find spiritual truths. Nor was there a shortage of topics addressed on which I reflected, prayed, and wrote: accepting love, loving others, listening to God, knowing myself, knowing what (and how) fears interfere in my life, having the courage to face them, having integrity, searching for life’s answers, prioritizing correctly, engaging with the world, doing the right thing, exercising humility, generosity, gratitude…
As as a result of this Catholic retreat, I gained appreciation for Brandon as a spiritual being. As Wayne Dyer said, “We’re not human beings having a spiritual experience. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.” The trouble is, I remember hearing this while driving, probably in a hurry somewhere with a few things on my mind. It’s hard for me to fully appreciate who I am until I become quiet enough to listen for it.
“God whispers,” I recall someone saying this weekend.
And about the mental conflicts, such as the ones I expressed to Father Paul? I believe answers to such questions also lie in silence–as one did for me when walking through ankle-deep snow on the trails in the woods and fields of the retreat campus.
The key for each of us, I think, is to find that silence, ask/listen for truth, and come to our own best understanding of the world and of ourselves. That is how we get in touch with our spirituality. That is how we be our best selves.