Saturday, October 1, 2016

Life Down on the Mississippi Abbey

  By Robert R. Schwarz

            It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life;
      therefore they are eager to take the narrow road.

                A  Rule of Saint  Benedict

     It had been a year since  I took US 52 out of Dubuque for a 40-minute  drive to the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey . Here, one discovers Pinocchio-nose lies which Hollywood has depicted  about cloistered nuns . Yes, these women do seek other-world goals but they also  battle with many of the same realities  you and I face .

      I turned down a winding road and drove through the abbey's  630 acres of rolling pastures, woodlands, and late August cornfields . In the distance were ancient Mississippi River bluffs. I had , in more than a metaphysical sense,  entered  another world.   

     I parked my  car outside a small, now closed  gift shop and  walked towards the door   listening to the insistent , loud chirping of birds and glancing at the morning sun dappling upon tree leaves .

     Inside I met Sister Gail,  who for 24 years had managed this monastic community of 17 to 22 Roman Catholic, Cistercian  nuns .  Commonly called Trappist nuns, the women follow the rule of St. Benedict ,  a 5th Century saint who wrote rules for a lifestyle, which historians tell us,  did much to civilize Europe . The abbey sisters here pray daily and often ,   contemplate the life of Jesus Christ,  have hours of silence, live as simply as they can and support  their  monastic living by farming and making candy, which they ship worldwide.  

     The 78-year-old  woman was expecting me and welcomed me with a smile and outstretched hand. "Thank you for coming, " she said warmly and motioned me to sit  at  a small, uncluttered table. Sr. Gail wore a light-weight black habit and black scapula from which  protruded a tuft of her white hair.  She could easily remind  one of a grandmother whose expressionif you were a child promised cookies.

      "You look good," I said, and laid my voice recorder on the table.
      " I feel great, " she replied. "Thank God. "

      We talked about the changing American culture . Though her main news source was the Internet (no daily newspaper at the abbey ) , Sr. Gail sounded well informed about what was happening  in the  world . She obviously  wanted to be transparent and accurate;  her speech was neither slow nor clipped but crisp, and  when she sensed subtle or ironic humor, she would chuckle softly.  

I tried to draw out Sr. Gail's opinions about the upcoming Presidential election ;  she voiced a few strong views but asked not to be quoted.  "The sisters do not discuss politics because it's too  divisive,"  she said.  " We all have our own opinions. "  Lowering her voice,  she added,  " I sure hope we maintain the ethos of a democracy . "

      Perhaps to help these 17 abbey sisters  discern God's will for their  Presidential vote, this abbey  prayer  would be offered: 

             The Abbey's Prayer for Discernment:
                                                                Loving God,
                                    You have a plan  for each of us, you hold out
                                    to us a  future full of hope.
                                    Give us the wisdom of your Spirit so that we
                                    may discover you plan in the gifts you have
                                    given us, and in the circumstances of     our
                                    daily lives.
                                    Give us the freedom of you Spirit, to seek you
                                    with all of our hearts, and to choose your will
                                    above all us.
                                    We make this prayer   through Christ our Lord.

Her Views on Our Culture

     We returned to the topic of the American culture . What bothers  Sr. Gail the most ?  "Probably   the relativism of people, " she replied . " You know: Everything is okay if it feels good. But there are things that ARE wrong. " 

     And  the church ?   She became serious again. "I am a very loyal Catholic but I don't agree with everything that has happened in the church. The stance towards  women is pretty bad. But  I believe Pope Francis is a marvelous Pope. He's  trying very hard to counteract a heavy weight of sexism, a lack of real respect for the  dignity of women  and their abilities to deal intelligently and responsibly  with matters in the church. He is calling a spade a spade,  and he's not popular with a lot of people in Rome because of that. " The pope is trying to instill in people  that  Jesus Christ is a role model, she explained.  "People should be able  to identify each other as a Christian , but that's difficult nowadays."

     Then the former abbess struck a positive note: "But I must  tell you that I see a lot of wonderful things happening in our culture. " She mentioned the Catholic  youth and how seriously  they are taking their spiritual formation . "Yet ,  you never hear about that ." When  she blamed  the media for that ,  I sided with her and suggested she read  two global  newspapers with a reputation for in-depth  and unbiased reporting.     (I am a retired newspaper editor . )

     I asked  her what she thought of a recent newspaper article about the  Vatican  considering a few fundamental changes in the  lifestyle at contemplative   monasteries . Changes would include linking these monasteries  with each other to promote a stronger sense of Church community and also to   raise the required  years for full monastic  formation from four t o six. 

      " I  read the Apostolic Constitution on Contemplative Life with great enthusiasm, " Sr. Gail
stated.  " I feel it opens up possibilities for women to examine  their own lives and to work together to make choices that will be healthy and mature for them.  Day to day living may change, but I can’t comment on that from my limited experience.  We are a worldwide order of monks and nuns so our experience of monastic life is different from that of smaller more independent houses of sisters [ such as ours ] . But I am  very
happy to see monastic enclosure placed on an equal footing with a papal enclosure. " 

     This Cistercian (commonly known as Trappist ) abbey was founded in 1964  by  13 nuns under the leadership of Mother Columba Guare, O.C.S.O. Soon  after its sisters  began making candy as a source of income  along with farming, growing Christmas trees, and raising livestock. The abbey  was declared an autonomous community and raised to the status of abbey on  May 3,  1968 . Sr. Gail  will  tell you  that " seven times a day we gather in the abbey church to sing God's praise. Our liturgies are open to the public. Four small guest houses are available for individuals or very small groups of any religious tradition wishing to make a private retreat in our beautiful, peaceful setting. " 
Too Much Candy ?

     Though  the annual  sale of several tons of candy , which  the abbey makes and ships,  pays most of the abbey's bills, the smell of caramel and mint coming from the ovens here  is not as sweet to the sisters as once before.  " Well, you know," Sr. Gail began, " monasteries don't change a whole lot , but the  candy  work done between September  and December  has grown very intense. We are trying to make candy all year round, and it's grown out of proportion to what we want to have as a balance between work and prayer. " The abbey used to store its candy, which has a limited shelf-life , in its  warehouses.  . To keep the candy fresh and  ready for shipping  throughout the year, the abbey has built three enormous  walk-in freezers .

      Writing in the abbey's newsletter this year, St. Gail stated: " After 50 years as monastery, plus sending a large contingent to  fund a new monastery in Norway in 1998, we are a smaller and older group than the young things who had physical strength and energy to burn in our early decades.  So, we are re-organizing our production a little, hiring a few more helpers in addition to our crews of sisters.  "It's an exciting time, and we are going about it rather slowly so we can figure things out peacefully….to keep  the monastic quality of our life and work. We're always working on silence…that's always our preoccupation.  I'm not sympathetic  with that as a  goal, but rather as something that facilitates a life of prayer. So, now we have agreed to have set times and places for our silence. " 
Disappointing to Sr. Gail has been a few thefts of money from  the abbey's gift shop.  Now the abbey makes sure a sister is present there during its hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Advice for Today's Woman

     Is there anything today's woman, married or single,  churchgoer or not , can learn for these abbey  sisters ? " I'll do my best to answer that, " Sr. Gail quickly replied. " I would hope that the lifestyle of our monastery could encourage women to follow their own call from God to follow Jesus in whatever way is possible in their own life.  Sometimes people in general and perhaps women in particular do not believe in their own personal call from God.  But each of us has heard God in our hearts and feel close to God . That is not something we imagine ! So, believe in God’s call to you! "

      At that ,  I recalled what Sr. Gail had told  me a year ago , that "we get closer to Jesus by prayer, a prayer that really seeks to know Him."  She had also stressed how important it is for faithful Christians and  those   distrustful of the Bible to daily  study it , as should parish priests and Protestant pastors.

      I asked if I could stroll along the abbey's square mile  of pastures and cornfields. "Of course," she said and rose to shake my hand. We exchange a few parting words and then she was off to the chapel.

     My trek began at the abbey vegetable garden near  the barn.  Among the tomatoes, lettuce carrots,  green beans , squash and raspberries,  a weathered sign greeted the visitor with  words: " Where Angles Tread. " I began walking down a dirt, road-size path shaped by  years of tractor  wheels. The path gently dipped and slightly bend every few hundred feet, and  with much of the late summer corn now almost six feet high , I could see nothing  but corn stalks and   the white puffs  of clouds above me no matter where I looked. My eyes repeatedly winked  from sunlight glistening from the  lower leaves of corn  still wet with morning dew . At my senior  age, raw nature did not enchant me as intensely as years ago when , on camera safari, my late wife and I  drove all day across a  wild  Zimbabwe plain . But here , for a moment , as I breathed deeply  again and again, and watched  white and also blue  butterflies and grasshoppers all  flitting or springing  up from the weeks hugging my path  and heard the feint orchestration of cricket sounds , I returned to that Zimbabwe plainand to some place beyond Nature.

      I paused, said a brief prayer, and headed back , hearing again some final words  of Sr. Gail:  " You know, Bob, " she had  said, "the closer we get to God, the simpler  our thoughts about Him and Jesus will be. We can know him better by being grateful , especially for the Nature  He has created for us."

       I would return—perhaps in a year— to his Mississippi. abbey and  share with this woman what I  prayed in her cornfields , how I thanked  God for something He had given me , something which I had never really acknowledged ; it was a gift , but so obvious that it didn't exist for me , so obvious that it would sound silly to even mention, like saying thank You for just being God. I mean, did He not have during those first six days of creation an infinite number of options of what and who He could give life to ?   Was there any divine  mandate that  I had to be created a human being ?  

     Being being human  is  pretty special  in itself !   Nevertheless,  God bless the cricket , the seed of corn,  the  butterfly!

All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Wife and Children or the Priesthood ? A New Priest Tells of His Formation—and More

By Robert R. Schwarz
Thirty-one-year-old Derek Ho lay prostrate  on the marble Cathedral altar, his head resting  on folded arms. Even the surging of organ music  and choral voices could not intrude upon the peace  (with a pinch of nervousness, of course )  that filled him that morning on May 17, 20014 in the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.  Nor, likely, was he aware that the cathedral pews were now  filled with several hundred people, priests, deacons, and families and friends who had come to celebrate a defining moment of   Derek's life  and that of the 11 other seminarians who also lay prostrate with him . His last  six years of discerning God's will for his life was soon to end.
With his family on that big day...
The Gothic-styled cathedral, with its unusual oak and walnut vaults and pink St. Baum marble columns , was dedicated in 1875 and has seen scores of ordinations, requiem masses for deceased popes , and multitudes of prayers by worshippers of all stripes. Its front steps outside facing  north State Street was also  the scene of the murder of a rival to  the Al Capone gang ; and  the cathedral  faced public humiliation in 1907 when an excommunicated priest made a disobedient  appearance, halting a Mass as the Gloria was being sung.
Nearing the end of  the two-hour  ordination  Mass,  the incense seemed more pervasive as  did the yellow cast of light   filling the sanctuary while  endless crescendos kept coming from the  enormous  hand-made organ from ollH  Holland—it has  71 stops, 117 keys  and 5,558 pipes.  The 12 seminarians were now standing on the altar as Archbishop Blase Joseph Cupich laid both his  hands on top of the each seminarian's head and , asking   " Do you promise " , elicited  a holy pledge from each newly ordained  priest.  Then, approximately 200 priests from various parishes in the archdiocese laid hands of blessing  on each seminarian .   
At 11 months  and not quite a priest yet...
More liturgy, more prayers , and finally  Derek and each of his  classmate put on  a stole and chasuble; it's  what they would now wear for the rest of their Roman Catholic lives as priests.   " I felt pure gratitude, especially for all those friends and family who had nourished me through the priesthood, "  Fr. Derek would later relate in this  interview .  "This is what I was called to do even before I was in my mother's womb. "
    [ Go to the following  YouTube website for a six-minute    video of Fr. Derek's seminary experience and a look    at the formative years of his life:

Two years later, after Fr. Derek had been re-assigned from a Chicago parish to serve at the St. James church in Arlington Heights, Illinois,  we talked  in his office.   Fr. Derek is a  mild-mannered man who listens more than he speaks and carefully weighs  his words and opinions  and without  pessimism or sappy optimism. He is articulate but avoids pedantry except when he strays into metaphysics or existential thoughts. ( He does like to probe fundamental questions about human existence.) One might surmise that some of  these characteristics were influenced by his father of Chinese descent. And, oh, yes, this priest also  appears worry-free.  
' God Wants to Give Us Our  Identity '
We talked about why he became a priest. “ My ordination,” he began,  “ gave me my identity.  All people struggle to find out who they really are and a lot try to create their own identity, like  I’m going to do this and become that. But once we open ourselves to God , then we recognize that God wants to give us our identity. When He does , it doesn’t matter then what other peoples’ opinions are of you or of yourself. The goal is to see yourself as God sees you.  When I became a priest, I recognized that this is how God sees me.  That was a huge milestone ."  Fr.  Derek defines   true humility is seeing who we really are, that  is ,  knowing  the truth about ourselves,  our strengths and our flaws. He strongly believes that " only God can fulfill you. "
His goal ?  " I want to learn how to be a really good priest. "   Fr. Derek grew up in a Catholic family  in nearby Buffalo Grove . His father is a retired  engineer; there are brothers Andrew, 37, and Clifford , 26 . His first thought of becoming a priest  after he had graduated  from the University of Illinois with a major in accounting and finance. "What initially attracted me to the priesthood was the idea of  giving myself totally t o God. I wanted Him to be in charge, to be a recipient of His love and to share that love with other people. My expectation had been to get married but it really wasn't to have God be part of the marriage. I wanted    a family, wife, children, my own home , a job, a lawn to mow.  But when I was 22 or 23,  I started to ask what God wanted for me.  "
Fr. Derek also recalled how he resisted his decision to be a priest.  "There was always the temptation  to listen to my pride or ego.  "  He  had doubts about surrendering all to God, asking what if God doesn't  take care of me   ? What if  He's telling me something else but I just can't hear Him?"
To discern God's will for his life—the priesthood or marriage?— Fr. Derek enrolled in the
highly acclaimed Mundelein seminary in Libertyville, Illinois.  There, his learning as well as his  discerning took six years . His formation as a priest included ministering to AIDS victims who showed him  that " God was present in their lives, too. " And working   with  troubled youth at a juvenile detention center, Derek observed that many of these  teenagers came from broken homes without a father  or anyone to help set rules and  guidance . "That's when I also realized  that if  I am  called to be a priest, I'm also called  to be a spiritual father to children. "
Playing golf and basket ball helps maintain Fr. Derek's stocky frame of five-foot-nine and weight of 180. He'll see an adventure movie now and then,  watch a televised  Bears game, and hang with friends he made in high school and at the seminary.  Favorite food? Chinese, of course.

It isn't the length of the story or your story-telling ability
that matters most; it is your  honesty  about your
experience with Jesus . ( from  "How to Share Jesus" by Arthur
Blesssitt , author and celebrated evangelist who carried on foot
more than 38,000 miles across seven continents a wooden cross
12 feet long and 6 feet wide , weighing 45 pounds .

 It's All About a  Relationship with Jesus

      Asked for  his impressions of St. James a few weeks after giving his first homily there, Fr. Derek replied that  it is  "a wonderful , very vibrant  community, with a lot going on and where parents want their religion to "be part of their identity . "  During that first homily,  he reminded people that the Catholic Church  in America is losing  members and  pointed out that 6.5 people who enter the church  , leave it , because too few Catholics share their faith with others. Two  of  the many reasons for   this , he said,  are  " the relativistic culture we live in "  and  because  those Catholics who have slipped away from the church were perhaps  "never taught the love of God ."  He added, " But if you and I have received this love, it's not for ourselves alone but that we might spread it around .  is Search HAWe are all missionaries,  but you don't have to go to a foreign country to be a missionary , nor should we be afraid of sharing our faith. " He then posed these questions: Has the Catholic Church " taught us how to evangelize  to our friends and neighbors, how to pray, to be   welcoming to new members ? "  And , " Do all Catholics know that prayer is what will sustain them in life ? " 
Fr. Derek also asked worshippers during his homily  "if  the church taught us how to love Jesus—personally, passionately,  and intimately ?  If someone asks you about your faith, don’t be shy"  e referanceHe
 He reminded them   that the Apostle Peter exhorted all Christians to always be  ready to  make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in  you  ( I Peter 3:15) .
We briefly discussed the importance which  recent popes have  attached  ( particularly  to    Catholics )   that Christians do more to proclaim the Gospel of Christ . ( Pope John  Paul II , as  quoted  in "Conversations  with God " by Fr.  Francis Fernandez , Vol. 2, pg. 222 , stressed that  Every good Christian must give testimony to the good doctrine of the gospel message, not only by example , but with    words. And we must  make use  of every opportunity that presents itself  (also knowing prudently how to find and make use of these opportunities ) with our relatives, friends, colleagues,  neighbors; with all those people we come across, even for a short time, on a journey, at a conference, whilst shopping  , or whilst  engaging in business. …because God wants our words  to echo his teachings  in order to move hearts. 

For the Word of God is living and active,  sharper than
any two-edged sword ( Hebrews 4:12 ) .

            Would Fr. Derek agree that Christians , when helping or instructing people,  not only proclaim their faith by  Christian behavior, but also by knowing  Holy Scripture well enough to quote some verses word for word rather than voicing a  personal anecdote or metaphor or cliché such as  Have a blessed day ! or Keep the faith ! ? Yes, Fr. Derek indicated.  In fact, during our conversation, it was mentioned how the Bible repeatedly narrates how the spoken Word of God is  living  and active, sharper that any two-edged sword .
 " So, I would encourage people to know their  Bible , " Fr. Derek  said.  " And the church has to teach its members how to read it,  " he stressed. He further advised that all Christians be able  to "give reasons  to people why they believe in Jesus' love and  why they need to trust more in Him than in their own efforts." 
And how does Fr. Derek want to be remembered?  " That I  really wanted all of us to have an intimate and passionate relationship with Jesus. "
             Fr. Derek admitted  to not being overly optimistic about human nature.  Regarding world politics  and its  turmoil today , he said wryly, " This is where the world is at , and  I certainly have a lot to learn here. "  As for  what makes him happy, he reflected a  for a long moment and then recalled a woman who was dying of colon cancer and whose family summoned him .  "They asked me  to anoint her and  then asked me several questions about  Christian faith. I did that, and they soon recognized how important their faith was to them, how it was going t o get them through this ordeal . Just being there with  them was life-giving, joyful."

The End
All comments are welcome.

© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Love Blooms a Bit More After this Jesuit Retreat for Married Couples



By  Robert R. Schwarz
Note:  This article was originally posted 
in March 2015. You'll also want to read 
at the end of this article  interviews 
with a marriage-seasoned deacon 
 and a couple married 47 years.
The ideal love between husband and 
wife is God's chosen image of His 
relationship with us.  ( Sister Ruth 
Burrows, author of bestselling books )

" The idea here is to fall deeply in love . " 

            He was a 68-year-old Jesuit priest walking alone down the long approach road to  his  retreat center , one of many places he has called home in his global travels.  He carried a walking stick, and the sun was  coming up on a nippy Saturday morning in late April.   If you saw the doe and her two fawns  nibbling cautiously  in a nearby meadow  and heard the  dove cooing afar ,  you wanted to avoid believing that the 80 acres of  secluded  woodland and grassland  around you was only a two-minute drive  from the sprawling suburb of Barrington, Illinois .
            As the priest and I met,  we paused , smiled and introduced each other.  Aware that this retreat for married couples,  which my wife Mary Alice and I had come to  was a silent retreat ,  I waited for  the priest to speak first.
            "I'm  Chuck Niehaus ," he said . " I'm on staff at Bellarmine  here.   " Who are you?"
            Chuck exuded friendliness ,  and to spark our interaction   he shared some personal matters about his health.  I mentioned why   I had come to Bellarmine.   He showed no intention of wanting to move  on.
            " The idea here, you know, is to fall  deeply  in love, "he  said.   Then he added, as if  he had uttered these same  words hundreds of times to married couples,  " But you don't lose your identity when you get married. "
            He wanted to talk , and so did I—not about anything in particular , just   talk. He told me of his mission work around the world;  a lot of it had been ministering to Hispanics.  I looked closely at him for the first time  and saw a life-weary face. He said "I speak more Spanish than English  ." All those years away from his American  culture was quite a testimony to his faith calling, I thought.      
Man and wife take a break from the retreat's silence
  Walking with Fr. Chuck  back to the retreat center, I paused by a knoll   a few paces off the roadway.  There,  in the shade of a clump of evergreens ,  stood an unadorned  statue of Jesus with outreaching arms . "Mind if I take a picture  of  you standing  by Him ? " I asked.  
            The Jesuit welcomed it.  
            Regretfully,  it would be my last encounter with him during this weekend retreat.    
            I entered through the bright red front door of the retreat house—it is  named after Saint Robert Bellarmine , a distinguished  Jesuit theologian and cardinal  who died in 1621—and headed for the chapel to join 14 other couples  gathered for the morning prayer . My wife was waiting for me in a pew. Ten minutes later, all of us were in the dining room filling our plates with a smorgasbord breakfast of pancakes, bacon, fried potatoes , and scrambled eggs. 
As  eight of us ate at our assigned table , not even a whisper was heard ; we said "good morning " and  " how are you " to each other with  facial expressions,  and we improvised our own  sign language for 'please pass the  orange juice "  or  "who needs  their coffee poured ."  I'm sure everyone was wondering what their table companion needed fixed  in his or her marriage and what overall strategy our two retreat masters would be using to help us " fall deeply in love. "  A bit of suspense was palpable.
Retreat master Fr. Michael Sparough chatting with a married
couple during the retreat's  closing lunch  
At our first meal together on Friday night , talking had been allowed  ( as it would be at our last meal at Sunday lunch ).  I had busied myself  asking questions and taking notes after introducing myself as a retired newspaper editor  doing an article for my blog " Exodus Trekkers " ( ) . Mainly, I wanted to know why this individual had come here . Understandably,  the real reasons would be reserved  for   private spiritual direction sessions,  without or without the spouse ,  with either Fr. Michael Sparough or  Mrs. Mary McKeon, who would later emphasize to me, however, that "we are not therapists or marriage counselors  but spiritual directors.  "
            On that Friday night, a woman in her seventies from Chicago's South Side told me,   " We came because we are so grateful for  what God has done for us." Her husband, also in his seventies,  explained: " She's had five surgeries in the last six months, broke one hip , then the other.  We find comfort in being here with fellow Catholics and feeling freer to express opinions about things. "  His wife added, " I just enjoy being out. "
             Frank ,  a retiree and now a fund raiser for a Catholic agency, said he wanted  to "get away from the noise "  and  to hear the talks given by Fr. Michael Sparough, whom he had heard years ago.   
            Harold,  who teaches law at the Dominican University in River Forest, glanced fondly at his wife and commented, "  I just  wanted to get away from it all." 
            David and  his wife,  a couple with four children, one of them adopted , had driven all the way from a small Wisconsin town when the retreat  they had signed up for  on Chambers Island in  Door County, Wisconsin , was cancelled.  He's a chiropractor and also a substitute religion teacher for 8th graders , and he wanted to somehow apply to his class  what he would learn here .  His wife is his office manager. 
            Thirty-year-old Donna and her trucker husband had come  Madison , Wisconsin . " My husband's phone rings all day long and so I'm  glad he's here even if we didn't know this was to be a marriage encounter. But nevertheless  it's a blessing . "  I told her Mary Alice and I also had believed this was just an "ordinary" retreat but were glad it was for married couples because we had a few wrinkles in  our marriage to iron out . 
             ( For the record, Mary Alice and I  were both widowed when we married 18 years ago , and are still working—amicably— on her need to retain the independence she had experienced while raising two children after  her husband's death, and on my need to  "be in control " as I had been  when managing a newspaper  staff.  )
            Breakfast now over,  we rolled out linen napkins into a ring on which our  names were written and turned our heads to the retreat house executive  director , Fr. Paul B. Macke,  now standing to explain the events ahead.  Fr. Macke recently celebrated his golden jubilee as a Jesuit , which  had included  an 18-year stint in Alaska. Some would describe him as a ruggedly handsome guy with a soft-edge bearing of  corporate CEO.   (" The special touch at a Jesuit retreat ," he later told  me, " is that we can learn to talk to  God and discern what He might be saying to us."  ). We learned there would be seven "retreat talks",  three  Masses, a healing service,  stations of the cross, time each day for personal prayer and reflection ,  confession  dialogue  with a priest , and  a renewal of marriage vows.  He also mentioned that the $345 individual  retreat fee—or whatever the participant could afford— did not   cover actual expenses and that anything we paid beyond that would be most appreciated.
                        "We ask that you maintain silence in the chapels,  your room and in the corridors, " he added.   "If you speak with your spouse outside, be conscious of the needs of  others. "  A "quiet " conversation with one's spouse in the library and lounges would be allowed.
            Precisely at 8:45  a.m. that Saturday  ,   a buzzer reminiscent of our grammar school  days,  reverberated throughout the entire retreat house. It meant we had exactly five minutes before the next event started;  so we filed into the chapel like obedient children ;  we were   excited about what new dynamic we might discover about love and marriage. Last night we had learned that the agenda of retreat  talks was outlined by the " 5 Languages  of Love ," the title of a widely read book by Dr. Gary Chapman, director of Marriage and  Family Life  Consultants, Inc.  These  languages were: " Words of Affirmation " ( If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. ) ;  " Quality Time" ( Nothing says 'I love you' like full, undivided attention ) ; "Receiving Gifts" ( If  you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that your are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. ) ; "Acts of Service: "  (Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love ?  Absolutely ! ) ; " Physical Touch":  Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face—they can all be ways to show excitement , concern , care and love. ) .
Mary McKeon  in  a private session 
    Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon are now  seated  to the side of the altar. Their eyes are closed in prayer.  Fr.   Sparough , dressed in priestly black except for a partially concealed  white v-neck sweater , is a slender , five-foot-eleven , 64-year-old Jesuit . He now rises and walks to turn off  the meditation music which has been filling the chapel for the  last ten minutes, and   you notice that his eyes behind his  steel-rimmed glasses   appear constantly focused on a thought that is  demanding expression.  He has a full head of  black hair and his mustache and small beard on his chin  have flecks  of gray. What will become more noticeable through the day is how his drama training is reflected in his movements and voice;  he walks fast and rhythmically, even when approaching you in the confines of a chapel . ( He comes from a family of Catholic dramatists ; I've seen him act on  public television and , at a retreat several years ago, he riveted the attention of  an all-male chapel   audience when talked about sin while  juggling  four balls .  )
Fr. Sparough moves to the speaker's podium and welcomes us. His diction is precise ,  warm and engaging .  As he spells out some of the retreat rubrics of the day, he wants to make sure that even though he has the august title of  "retreat master" ,   he wants you to know you are free to exercise options . He'll often  preface his directions  with phrases like "If  you care to " or  " You might want to "  or " For those of you who have a preference for.."   Here  is a Jesuit , you might  conclude,   with the confidence of a medical school professor  and , more importantly , a man who believes every word he is saying and  badly wants you to believe it.
He introduces  Mary McKeon. Now, if you detect a hint of the academic in Fr. Sparough, you might also see a combination of wife-mother-nun in  her. She is a  veteran of—as she puts it—"the honor , privilege , and joy of bringing people into a greater relationship with God ."  She appears to be in her mid-fifties.
Mary walks to the microphone , folds her hands in  prayer , and remains  silent for a long moment.  She is slender ( not a pound over weight, my wife observed ) , has blondish hair and blue-green eyes.  A colorful scarf accents and gives an extra feminine touch to her brownish tweed  jacket.    
Whenever she  speaks to us—whether about God,  love, or sex— she has an alluring mannerism of bending her elbow down to the rostrum and then resting her chin in the palm of her hand ever so naturally. 
Mrs. McKeon  relates her background ; it  included several years of   caring for  her  ill husband, a prosecuting attorney for the U.S. Justice Dept. , whose frequent   pain eventually goaded him to verbally  abuse his wife . Then there was the "blessed"  death of her mentally challenged  sister , who had been  afflicted with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. 
Mrs. McKeon has a smile and gentle manner that might remind one— especially a man—of that certain  cute substitute teacher  one had in grammar school, the one whom you thought would let  you could get away with anything.  Her voice has an innocent , soothing  tone of seduction .  Yet—and perhaps to her credit—one would easily believe she definitely would have failed in an acting career.
However, like Fr. Michael,  Mrs.  McKeon's persona has a yin to its  yang.  She puts phrases of speech  together that are seamless,  and her pauses between topics are perfectly timed for impact and ease  of  comprehension .   When she has a private conversation with you ( as my wife and I were to have ) , she is both relaxed and deeply serious.  As for her  yang side,  we were to see her go into serious  high gear when   rushing from a chapel or the  auditorium to a private consultation. She was then all business and logic and order—in a pleasant  Germanic sense.
In her single-occupancy room , a retreatant takes some
free time to read Holy Scripture
Our topic now was how love is  expressed  in " Affirmation."  We opened with Mrs. McKeon leading us in the song  " Come as You Are " and  ending it with her own words , " Jesus loves you just as you are. " She went on to say ," We don't change another adult.  Only we can change ourselves. "   Next , while standing next to our spouses,  we wrote down  on worksheets  our answers  to  questions like :  " When and how do you and your spouse offer words of affirmation to each other ?"  " How do you feel and respond when his/her words are negative , critical, or unkind ?"   " Share   an instance when words had a profound impact on your life/sense of self,  positively or negatively ."
Mrs. McKeon closed   with the loud exhortation,  "KINDNESS ! KINDNESS !  KINDNESS ! "  My  wife had tears.
            Prior  to lunch , my wife and I toured the two-floor  retreat  house that accommodates  79 guests  in  single- bed rooms , each equipped with a sink , desk,  Bible, and linen.  For most  guests ,  bathrooms and showers are in the hallways.   We were told that last year more than 4,000  people came for weekend retreats, including Catholic high school students .   We made a stops  in the library with its enormous collection of  religious books and Catholic magazines , the basement  bookstore, and  an exercise equipment  room .  Along the way, we passed several small conference rooms where retreatants  sign up for 15-  to 20-minute sessions  with  one of the five resident  priests or  with Mrs. McKeon.
 In the lobby, we paused  in front of a large portrait of Saint Ignatius Loyola , the 16th Century Spanish priest and founder of the Jesuit Order.  Bellarmine retreats are built upon two pillars of Jesuit spirituality:  the " spiritual  exercises" of St. Ignatius and silence itself. The heart of the exercises is the daily examination of one's conscience .  Quoting Pope Francis about silence, Fr. Sparough wrote in a Bellarmine brochure, "In silence we learn to listen to God who speaks to us  with  the tenderness of a father and mother. "
             After a lunch as sumptuous as our  dinner and breakfast , Mary Alice and I returned to our rooms for a catnap , relying on that school-like buzzer to wake us in time for the  Chaplet of Divine Mercy and  another retreat talk .  
            " Carefree timelessness that is not agenda-driven  " is  how Fr. Sparough introduced us to the next of the " 5 love languages" : Quality Time.   He encouraged us to commit to spending one hour daily in a one-on-one conversation with God.  Again we filled out a questionnaire and shared  it with our spouse . Two  of the questions were:  "What stands in your way of your having quality time ? "  and " When and how do you and  your spouse share quality time together ? "  There were long moments of silence  during our sharing, followed by whispers and a couple's occasional exclamation of disagreement.
            During " Service, " the next  love talk by Mrs.  McKeon ,  Mary Alice and I looked questioningly at each other when asked ,  "Are there things that your spouse does for you that you take for granted and wish to acknowledge and express your gratitude for  ?"  My wife  smiled and nodded . " Your number  one goal should be to find out what makes her happy—and do it," Mrs. McKeon  told   us  male  spouses .
            When we filed  into the chapel for the talk, Giving Gifts,  while  listening  to  CD music of two Broadway hit musicals—" Do You Love Me" ( from Fiddler on the Roof) and  the equally soul-shaking song—"Thank the Lord " ( from Godspell ) ,  we knew we'd be seeing—or hearing—something  not of the usual  Jesuit tradition. Sure enough, Fr. Sparough opened  with a display of his dramatic talent by reciting  and acting out the poem ," The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson , an author , educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist who died in 1938.  For ten minutes or so,  Fr. Sparough made the book of Genesis come vibrantly alive for us.  He gave us the same religious excitement when he silently dramatized the scene of the apostle Thomas on his knees  before Jesus, surrendering  his doubt about his Savior's resurrection  with , "My Lord and my God ! " 
After he had   made us realize  how a thoughtful gift—no matter its material value—can be a  powerful love language,  Fr. Sparough recited a prayer of St. Ignatius:

Take, Lord,
and receive all by liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
all  that I possess.
You have given all to me ;
to you Lord, I return it.
All is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love
and your grace,
that is enough for me.

            Shortly before my wife and  I were to meet with Mary McKeon, we joined the others  to hear an afternoon homily by  Fr. Mackey on the importance of forgiving our spouse when we feel he or she has wronged  us. "Let go of it, "  he told  us .  Have the courage to say what has to be said, even if it risks starting an argument, he added.
Fr. Sparough giving spiritual direction 
    On the bulletin board outside the chapel were signup sheets to meet privately with  Mrs. McKeon  and Fr.  Sparough and two other priests.  At 4:30 p.m. , Mary Alice and I entered  Mrs. McKeon's  very small room and ensconced ourselves  a few feet from her.  " We came here to talk about independence and control in our marriage , " I said , trying to be sufficiently  casual so  she would believe  we were a well behaved couple with no serious problem.  Our spiritual  director leaned  back in her chair , looked warmly at us and smiled as if to say I'm glad you're  here . Let's visit a while , shall we ?    
           "  Bob and Mary Alice, this retreat is not to fix marriages but to help married people develop a deeper intimacy with God. I am a spiritual director , not a therapist or psychologist. I've seen many marriages come together for the first time due to a spiritual bonding. "
            "I know, " my wife said . " I think we've seen some of that here ."  
              Sensing that neither one of the three of us cared to do an autopsy on a marriage issue which had been largely  resolved months ago, we began  small but convivial talk on topics here and there.  
            That night during a dinner of a tossed salad, freshly baked  rolls,  baked chicken,  real mashed potatoes, string beans , and a dessert  of  brownies and  ice cream that we  scooped ourselves  from gallon containers ( some of us had three helpings ),  we listened to a recorded lecture on spirituality by seminary president   Fr. Robert Barron , theologian and    author/ narrator  of  the highly acclaimed "Word on Fire "  DVD.
            At 7:15 we were in the conference center ,  learning—in a compelling way—why  physical touch  was the most important love language for many couples, . Wondering, I'm sure ,  what Mrs. McKeon had to say about sex , we waited now  for her to unfold her praying hands and  begin.  She may have read our thoughts , for within a minute or two she told us that the manner in which we touch our spouse "should be genuine and gentle and what your spouse needs— whether it’s a backrub, foot rub, or sex. "
            The point is, she exclaimed,  is to "  CONNECT ! "  She related how she once went to the bedside of a dying old man who had been so gruff in life that no one liked him . He certainly didn't want anyone to touch him nor he to touch anyone, surmised Mrs. McKeon. But when she  boldly reached out and  grasped his hand, saying "shall we pray," the old man acquiesced . They then  looked into each other's eyes  during the entire prayer.
          Her story stilled the conference center  . Silence was even more prolonged when Mrs. McKeon told of the  time when she , with heartache,  came to console her   three-year-old   grandson lying  ill . Having been born prematurely had permanently afflicted his vision and required him to wear strong  glasses . Mrs. McKeon bent over him, bringing  her face close to his so he could clearly see his grandmother  .  "We looked closely into each other's eyes and all  he said was "I love you. "
            We wrote our answers to several questions about "physical touch , " which we shared with our spouses very quietly, of course. . What gives you the greatest pleasure?  Is there something that does not please you ?   When and how do you experience God's loving touch ? We were also asked to recall some nonsexual "touching times" that enhanced intimacy between  us.  
            By now ,  I believe each of us knew much more about our spouse and ourselves than we did 24 hours ago. Growing a bit impatient with the process of learning so many do's and don’ts about this new "language of love, " I asked Mary Alice if she thought there was any more we really  needed to hear.  She frowned  and turned her attention to Mrs. McKeon and Fr. Sparough , who were in a huddle talking  to each other as if they had asked each other the same question.
Fr. Paul B. Mackey, Bellarmine ,   executive director of
Bellarmine,  at the portrait of St. Ignatius , founder of
the Society of Jesuits 
     Fr. Sparough broke off the huddle like a football quarterback.  He promptly centered himself in front of  us all , and without a word began to reenact Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples during the  Last Supper .   It served as an  introduction to Mrs. McKeon's   announcement  ( which came after a short break) that were going to do something never done at one of these  retreats: Spouses were going to wash each others' feet. A few  gasps and a chuckle or two were audible as we turned around and saw that  towels and basins had been placed on nearby tables. We had the option of washing our mate's feet, which some of us did. Our Jesuit conference center soon resembled a dispensary for podiatry patients. 
       A healing service was conducted at 8:30 that same night.  Fr. Sparough blessed each of us on the forehead with holy water . Prayers were said that addressed our  problems and  afflictions  that we brought in prayer  up to the altar .  Afterwards, Mary Alice went to her room,  and I took a short walk in the cool night air to process out what I had learned  that day.   What had been poured into my heart and mind by the retreat masters , by my wife, and by the  Holy Spirit  was  overwhelming . I would need a few days  to  contemplate all the applications for my marriage and for my day-to-day living. Very  helpful was the meditation  by Blessed Mother  Theresa  given to me earlier that day during my confession session  with Fr. Sparough. (  It is entitled "Thirst " , and I have laid the meditation  on my night table at home and have since read it three times. ) A few lines from it are :  " Imagine Jesus speaking these words to you  tonight"…It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night….I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds.   
Outside, after I had walked more and   taken deep breaths and   said "hello" to the stars, I felt prepared  to renew my marriage vows the next day along with the 13 other couples.  
      Sunday morning: graduation day .  " What we want for you is a transformation in your lives, "   Fr. Mackey told us at breakfast.
In  the conference center for the final retreat talk,  we were immersed deeper in Jesuit spirituality  by praying the "Examen" , a way of praying developed  almost four centuries ago by Saint Ignatius and which today many  Catholics throughout the  world, especially Jesuits ,  might say at any time and place ; it is meant not only as an in-depth, daily review of one's conscience but also  a means to embrace the Jesuit central theology  of FINDING GOD IN ALL THINGS .
            Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon guided us through an adaptation of the Examen. It exhorted us to :  
# Relax and be open to God's presence.
#  Pray the following: Father, thank you for t he gift of the light of this day.
o   Open our eyes to see  your grace at work within and around me.
o   Open our ears to hear God's whisper  in the music and noise of our   life.
o   Open our minds and hearts to think and feel, as God  would lead us.  
o   Pray all  this in the name of Jesus, our Brother, our Savior, and our Friend.
#   Reflect quietly for a moment  on our  three days here , asking ourselves:
o   What we are most grateful for—and why.
o   How did we experience God in our spouse .  ( We were advised to  "savor  this grace and remember it for the  future." )
o   What we are least grateful for and what do we need to let  go of . 
o   What had been a challenge, calling us to grow stronger.
     We shared our reflections  and then prayed the "Our Father. " Mrs. McKeon  told us how she had   experienced a benefit of the Jesuit way  of examining one's conscience:  Once in conversation with a priest , she asked  him an innocent  question about his training and education. The priest snapped back an unwarranted and  curt reply.   "Later, he came to me, "  Mrs. McKeon recalled,   "and asked  my forgiveness for his behavior . "
            "In a few moments  Mary McKeon and I will be leading you in a renewal of your marriage vows ,"  Fr. Sparough said. " But now, I'm going to ask you to stand and tell everybody what you have learned during this retreat." Then remembering a retreat courtesy, he quickly added,  " If you want."  Several stood , including me, and offered comments like:  " I now know my wife better "; " I now know my husband better";  "We're grateful "; " I've learned a few important things I should have learned a long time ago about love" ;  " We're going to tell our friends about this retreat. "
      I'm sure there was a lot more each of us could have shared—and probably did later at home . But as Mary McKeon told my wife and me ,  this was a spiritual retreat  and not group therapy or an AA meeting.  We were not asked to read out loud the "love letters" we had been asked yesterday  to write to our spouse, telling him or her ( "as best as you're able")  some of the reasons why we love him or her. 
Whatever those intimate  letters said was now being expressed  by the many  spouses tightly holding hands or draping an arm around one another. It was our body language of love, so unlike that during  Day One or Two of our retreat.
The  chef--a much appreciated  member of the retreat   
    Next, we were asked to stand and look into each other's eyes and repeat the church's formal wedding vows. Voices went low. Hugs and kisses followed . The  lunch buzzer sounded and we all filed into the dining room for a cheerfully talkative lunch.
 Experiences like any Jesuit retreat need a  private debriefing  by the participant…A week  after the retreat, Mary Alice and I  were sitting  down to dinner in our home in Arlington Heights. My  wife cheerfully  asked me:  "Do you think our marriage is better off now?"  I  smiled at her and squeezed her arm. She smiled.  
That night I took a retreat  prayer card off my bedside night table and read the first line from a poem attributed to Fr.  Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of  the Jesuits.

Nothing is more practical
 than finding God in a quite
absolute final way. 

…and a few words now from  3 marriage 'veterans'
               " Good communication , "  says John Brown,  kept him and his wife Eileen together for almost 46 years –that and a marriage encounter 30 years ago at a Chicago hotel. " Prior to that encounter," John says in our interview with his wife in their Arlington Heights ( Il )  home , " we were not really communicating very well. "
            " We thought we were," chimed in Eileen, "but we were talking about things . We weren't going to the  feelings level. "
            John is a retired information specialist at an office supply  company ;  his wife taught fourth grade for seven years  at the St. James Catholic school .
            Asked for advice for married couples,  John says , " Do whatever you can to enrich your relationship, seminars, books ."  Think of what will benefit your spouse rather than yourself, he adds. " Don't be selfish , like sitting at your computer for hours rather than talking to your  wife . Couples can end up like roommates. "
When expressing anger to your spouse, Eileen cautions,  " Do not say   ' You make me angry ' , rather say ,  ' I  feel angry because--'   . That statement opens the lines of communication more easily. "
John and Eileen Brown and grandson Randy
John  and Eileen are strong believers in marriage encounters where couples share  and discuss their marriage "stories. "   For 15 years, the Browns presented   weekend  encounters. They  now belong to a "community" of married couples that meets monthly at the Our Lady of the Wayside church.  The Browns also suggest husband and wife, if interested in a weekend encounter,   sign into the website of  Worldwide Marriage Encounter    ( for  encounter locations  and dates .  
" Our Encounter Weekend taught us how to communicate at a feelings level ," says Eileen. "Learning that, changed the way we related to each other. We renewed our love for each other that weekend. "
For couples contemplating marriage, John advises ," Get to know each other ." But he quickly adds that surveys show that couples who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate.  These at-risk  couples refrain from the wisdom of  dealing with conflicts, and do so out of fear that  expressing their feelings will cause  his or partner to leave, he explained. The Browns agreed that without  the sanctity of marriage vows, it becomes "too easy "  to leave a partner when the "going gets rough" as will happen in any marriage. 
" Forgive and Forget " Says the Deacon
Paul Schmidt, a deacon at the Browns' church and a married man for 47 years, sums up his marriage advice this way: " You're never going to be prepared one hundred per cent for marriage. " His advice to couples contemplating marriage is: “ They should meet with the parish priest; as part of the marriage preparation, the priest will ask them to take an online survey called ‘ Couples  Checkup.’ It will show areas of strength and areas for growth. “
Deacon Paul Schmidt and wife Paulette
 Things might "pop out at you which are clear indicators that you're not ready for marriage," he says. "For example, many couples never have talked about how many children they want. " Another question asks how they think they will "fit in" with the family of their intended spouse. " Don't pass over these questions ," the deacon says ."These issues  should be thoroughly discussed. "
The  couple will also be asked to participate in a six-hour pre-marriage session (called "Pre-Cana ") at their church or other local churches.  
Paul and his wife Paulette have participated in and facilitated marriage encounters  during the last fifteen years.
Paul's best advice for married couples is : " Forgive and forget , nothing is perfect. Too many couples are married but live separate lives. Keep communication lines open and don't prejudge. The biggest thing is to listen to what your spouse is really saying.? Many couples don't get to the feeling stage in their communication ."  He encourages married couples to consider making a marriage encounter weekend. It will provide the tools to have real communication and change their lives, he maintains.  

All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz