|Photo: Santiago Rodriguez, S.J.|
My fellow brother Jesuits have written previously about the Jesuit-led young adult retreat called Hearts on Fire (HoF), where the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is introduced. We had the opportunity to bring HoF to Regina, Saskatchewan this past weekend, where I found myself in the unique position of being both on the Jesuit retreat team and the local host.
I have always enjoyed running retreats. It gives me a concrete sense that I am not someone who serenades the retreatants with eloquent speeches, nor gives them a substantial lecture of how to understand God on a rigorously intellectual level. I am merely preparing them, so that they be prepared for an encounter with the Lord in their prayer and reflection periods. As many know, this kind of encounter can be wildly unpredictable, yet immensely fruitful. Couple this with taking care of the details behind the scene to ensure that the retreatants be physically well-disposed, and I have a strong sense of what the mission of St. John the Baptist feels like: “prepare the way of the Lord, then get out of the way”.
With my other hat as the local host, the story started off less satisfactorily. Having eyes and ears on the ground, my role was to organize logistics as well as to promote the retreat. Convinced of the methods of St. Ignatius regarding the dynamics of the spiritual life, I desperately wanted more young adults to attend. After all, it is a rare occasion for four young Jesuits to gather in the middle of the Prairies and give instructions on the highlights of the Spiritual Exercises. It is not a numbers' game, but it makes sense to maximize the benefits.
As the registration got off to a slow start, I was quite worried; would anyone show up? Or, does anyone even care? Every time I took this to prayer, the Lord seemed to be telling me that this was his work, not mine. Then the numbers increased significantly the week prior to the retreat. Clearly, it was the Lord's work. I did my part, and hung on for the ride. We ended up with a crowd of decent size, but I still found myself feeling dissatisfied on the first day of the retreat. I was perhaps feeling even a bit let down because the number did not meet my expectations, and that it did not “match” the amount of work that I had put in. I understand the idea of getting away from the numbers, but I was nevertheless affected by it.
As the retreat went on, this sentiment began to change, I had the chance to converse with the retreatants. They thought that the presentations were helpful, the prayer periods challenging, and the small group sharing fruitful. The size of the group was not intimidatingly large, which allowed for more intermingling. It then occurred to me that it was the Lord working again. This was yet another humbling moment for me. The numbers would look good on paper, but a large gathering would be superficial if it was just us talking and advising, but not the Lord. Someone coming to a retreat and having a change of heart is always God's work. We provide some materials and tools; now it is up to them and the Lord to continue. This is quite similar to the recommendation of St. Ignatius that the directors of the Spiritual Exercises “...should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his Creator and Lord.” (SE 15)
All this was yet another example of preparing the way and getting out of the way. I would like to call it “John the Baptist Style”, and I invite you to fill in the music and dancing with your imagination. When this happens, there isn't even room for the slightest sense of pride, such as “I am proud to be considered worthy to cooperate with the grace of God”. It naturally conjures up the words of the Baptist, “...but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” (Mt 3:10-11) When we realize that it is the Lord at work, it is an example of “God is God and we are not”. This is like getting a glimpse of the Glory of God; the natural reaction is a sense of wonder and awe.
Here is an invitation to all of us, to recognize when to let go of our pride and sense of security so that we can witness the wonders of the Lord. This “John the Baptist Style” is easy to describe but difficult to practice. Nevertheless, it promises a deep-lasting peace and joy that draws us closer to this Flame that is God who burns but does not consume.