Before I left on retreat some of you asked me to share my experience with you when I got back, so here goes. How many of you have ever gone on a retreat? Good. Most of you have a general idea of how things go. It’s a time to get away from the daily grind and to focus on what God’s trying to tell us. The Trappist Abbey at Gesthemani, Kentucky is a walled community on several hundred acres about 45 minutes south of Louisville.
It’s a silent retreat in keeping with the monk’s mostly-silent lifestyle. There’s a half hour presentation each morning and there’s a spiritual director available, but most of the time it’s just you and God. Brother Christian, the retreat master told us that one of the misconceptions about the monks is that the stone wall around the place is to keep people out. It’s actually there to keep the noise out. It does a pretty good job. They don’t watch television and they don’t listen to the radio. To them, that’s just noise that they don’t need.
When I go there, and this was my ninth year, I usually have something in mind that I want to pray and think about. Sometimes that works out but most of the time God hits me with something very different. Among other things, I was hoping for some help with this weekend’s homily. Unless you’ve been asleep for the last few minutes, you know that the first reading and the Gospel today are about marriage. I WILL get to that in just a few minutes. But there was one idea, one concept that kept coming up over and over again during the four days I was at the Abbey.
I keep a retreat notebook. The first thing I did when I got to Gesthemani was to look at my notes from last year. One thing that Father told us last year was that God is telling us that there’s only one version He wants of us, but we keep insisting on being someone else. We’re all part of God’s plan as long as we do His will. He told us that a saint is someone who has realized who he really is.
This year’s retreat master, Brother Christian, spoke to us the first day on the monastic life. A monk’s life consists of work, prayer, and spiritual reading. They work, making cheese, fudge, and fruitcake to make the money they need so they have time for the other two. They work four hours per day. They’re in church eight times a day, singing and praying, starting at 3:15 in the morning. The rest of their time is free to read and study, with the emphasis on spiritual reading. They’re usually in bed by 8:00. Through spiritual reading, he said, you become who you are. You become as holy as it’s possible for you to be, WHERE YOU ARE. We’re all monks to some extent. Some of us are just better at it than others.
On Tuesday afternoon I picked up a book in the library written by a Baptist minister. The book was on Celtic prayer. Being a good Irishman I thought I should check it out. Besides, I wanted to see what this protestant had to say about a basically Catholic version of spirituality. He seemed to be very surprised to learn about practices that Catholics have known about for centuries and that you and I take for granted.
The author says we’re not supposed to be somebody else. God already made that other person. He says that God never does the same thing twice. He quotes a Jewish rabbi who said, “At the last judgment I shall not be asked ‘Why were you not Abraham? Why were you not Moses? I shall be asked why were you not [yourself]?” I started seeing a definite pattern in what God was telling me.
I won’t bore you with any more details except to say that every talk I heard, every book I picked up, and even an audio program I listened to while I was walking in the woods came to the same conclusion. God doesn’t want us to be a second-rate copy of someone else. He wants to be a first-rate version of ourselves.
Brother Christian pointed out that we’re all closer to perfection than we realize because perfection is different for each one of us. If my idea of perfection is to be a world-class triathlete, I’ll never make it. But if my idea of perfection is to be the best husband, the best father, the best grandfather, and the best deacon that I can be, I can do that. That’s my perfection. And that’s what God wants. It’s up to you to spend time in prayer and reflection to find out what God wants you to be. Then do your best to be that person.
I had lunch Friday with a friend of mine who just graduated from a Baptist seminary. He’s going to sell his house and move his family to a little town in Wyoming to start a new church. The population of the town is 80% Mormon. You have to understand one thing about Mormons. They’re DEDICATED to their church. If a Mormon decides to leave the church they’ll be shunned by family members and friends and probably lose their job since most of the businesses in the town are owned by Mormons.
That’s the environment my friend is moving into. No, thank you! But he’s convinced that’s what God wants him to do and he’s doing it. He’s been going to school and planning for this for the last ten years. What if he fails? The last Baptist church there did go out of business. If that’s what God wants him to do, and clearly he believes it is, and if he gives it his best shot, which he will, then, win or lose, he’s doing God’s will and he’s being the best version of himself he can be.
So, what’s any of this have to do with today’s readings about marriage? According to Matthew Kelly, the Australian writer and speaker, “the purpose of marriage is two people getting together encouraging, challenging, and helping each other to become the best versions of themselves that they can be, then raising children to become the best versions of themselves. Marriage is God’s tool in most people’s lives to create holiness.”
The first reading ends, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” In the Gospel Jesus quotes this reading to the Pharisees and adds that “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” That’s what God tells us about marriage and yet people say our Church is “controversial” in saying that marriage must be between a man and a woman, and that it lasts until death.
I’m very blessed. I have a wife who supports most everything I do. [She was a little iffy about the Vespa, but I know she was wanting me to not get squished by a semi truck.] She puts up with a lot being a deacon’s wife. She supports me in my ministry and didn’t give me a problem about leaving our parish of over thirty years to take this assignment. But most of all she pushes me to be the best that I can be. And I try to return the favor. That’s what husbands and wives are supposed to do. After all, we are one flesh. What’s good for me is good for her, and vice versa.
So many people live together today without being married. They pretend that it’s ok. But, how can you have a proper relationship with God if your second most important relationship is founded on sin? It’s impossible.
What did I learn from my retreat? I learned that I should always pack a sweatshirt no matter how warm it is when I leave home. More important, I learned that I need to spend more time in prayer and spiritual reading. I learned that God doesn’t want me to be Saint Francis of Assissi, or Bishop Sheen, or Cardinal Dolan. He’s done them already. He wants me to be the best Mike Buckley I can be and he wants you to be the best you that you can be. And I learned that the only way to find out what that means is to spend time in prayer and spiritual reading. We can’t hear God if we don’t listen.
Filed under: faith, Personal Growth, Prayer | Tagged: Catholic Church, Gesthemani Abbey, marriage, matthew kelly, trappist | 2 Comments »