Tag Archives: Retreat

In Memory of Joe Palmisano, SJ

joeyA Jesuit friend assured me that they only invite the most wise and experienced spiritual directors to serve on the 30-day retreat.  I’d had some not-so-great directors on shorter retreats, so my biggest concern about completing the Spiritual Exercises was whether or not I’d have a good spiritual director. If you have to maintain sacred silence for 30 days, at the very least, I wanted someone good!

One of the first people I met at Eastern Point Retreat House was Fr. Joe Palmisano, SJ, who was assigned to be my spiritual director. I soon learned that he was only 36 years old, he had been ordained maybe 3 years, and this was only his second time directing the Spiritual Exercises. This could not possibly bode well for my retreat!

But Joey had this bright smile and a way of putting people at ease. We quickly discovered that we had many things in common. Most significantly, we shared a connection with the people of Nicaragua. Joe had traveled there on a service trip during college, and as a campus minister I had taken many students on mission to Nicaragua. We both enjoyed simple things like fresh flowers and saltwater taffy. And Joe had a brain tumor. It was an unlikely connection, but my spiritual director back home had a son, Michael, who was struggling with the same thing.

Joseph Palmisano, SJ, died last week on Christmas Day at age 41. He was first diagnosed in 2008, and when I met him in summer 2011, he was in relatively good health. I knew that his condition had worsened in recent years, and he eventually moved to the Jesuit infirmary at Campion Center, in Weston, Mass. Our last email exchange was nearly a year ago.

The past few days have been a flood of memories.  I spent last night reading through my journal from the 30-day retreat, hoping to catch another glimpse of Joe. I am all at once sad, and grateful, and …. laughing! Even as I type this, I keep spontaneously spelling out the word J-O-Y instead of J-O-E.

Joey proved to be wise beyond years, compassionate, kind, an attentive listener, and very funny.  I could not have asked for a better director! While I’m sure there are many people who knew Joe much better than I ever will, I am grateful for the 30 days we spent together on the shores of Eastern Point.

As I read through my journal last night, what I actually discovered is that I wrote a lot about JESUS.  Encounters with Jesus in prayer, stories about Jesus in scripture, long walks with Jesus along the ocean, and encouragement from Joe to keep spending time with the Lord!

Without a doubt, Joe would insist on giving God all the credit for my experiences on retreat – and rightly so.  It is God who forgives. It is God who heals. It is God who transforms our hearts and brings new life.

However, in all my years of being on retreat, I’ve learned that a good spiritual director can make all the difference in revealing God’s presence.

Joey introduced me to authors and poems and saints who I still treasure – Mario Benedetti, Edith Stein, James Alison, T.S. Eliot, a reflection from Gertrude the Great, The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg, and most profoundly, the writings of Walter Ciszek, SJ and St. Claude La Colombiere.


In our last email exchange, I sent Joe a picture of this Mary and Jesus icon that I purchased on vacation.  His reply, “OMG!!! She is beautiful!!!”

Joey held Pedro Arrupe as his patron saint for healing, and he had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother.  In our prayer space on retreat, he had an icon of Mary, and every week he would bring her fresh flowers. He especially loved orchids. Joe presided at Mass one day – I think it was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – and he brought out all this gold fabric to decorate the altar.  I teased him about it later and he simply said, “Only the best for Our Lady!”  The year following retreat, I emailed Joe and asked for his prayers as I was leaving on another mission to trip to Nicaragua. He sent me a short note along with a photo – an icon of Mary next to an orchid plant.

There are so many conversations with Joe that I will treasure – stories that are much too personal to share or simply too difficult to put into words. I remember his patience with me when the graces of the retreat were slow to unfold. He delighted in the ways God revealed himself to each individual retreatant, especially in ways that took us both by surprise! One day, after a particularly difficult experience of reconciliation, Joey laid his hands on my head and prayed over me. It still brings me to tears.

We all need witnesses. We need mentors and guides. We need trustworthy companions to hear our stories and help us make sense of life.  I am so grateful to have Joey as a witness to the tremendous work that God was doing during that time.

Joey also stuttered. I usually forget that he stuttered, because after a while I hardly noticed. It is one of those qualities I truly appreciated about him. His speech impediment had a way of drawing people in. It forced me to slow down and pay attention to the present moment. It reminded me that we are all fragile, limited, imperfect human beings in need of God’s care.  And God uses all of what we have to offer – even our brokenness.

On the last day of the retreat, I asked Joe about what is real.  Are these mountain top experiences (like retreat) real or simply a figment of our imagination?  And how do you know that the Spiritual Exercises actually work?

He assured me that the spiritual life is real! Our experiences of God in prayer are real. Love and mercy and grace and forgiveness are real. And then he shared, quite personally (in details that I won’t reveal), of the ways he saw the graces of the Spiritual Exercises unfold in his own life.

The graces of the long retreat make us free and unafraid to be the man, the woman, the priest, the minister, the friend, the son or daughter, brother or sister whom God wants us to be. It was this heartfelt knowledge of God’s love that made Joey a friend to many and a most authentic soul in the world – even in the midst of a serious illness.

I am grateful to have met him when I did. When I count the spiritual mentors in my life – my spiritual director here in Chicago, the women in my prayer group, lay men and women with whom I have served, my best friends, and numerous priests who I have known as colleagues or confessors – Joe Palmisano will always be included in the litany of saints who have graced my life and brought me closer to God.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon him
May his soul and the souls of all the faithfully departed
Rest in peace.

Peace and Love,

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It’s Got a Nice Ring to It

I’ve always wanted a ring.  It doesn’t have to be an engagement ring or wedding band, and I certainly don’t imagine a guy getting down on one knee.  I’ve just always wanted a ring.

Last summer, much to my surprise, I found it!  I was browsing along the Rocky Neck Art Colony, not at all in the market for jewelry, when I wandered into Alma’s Arts & Antiques.  I spied this purple cats eye stone, accented on each side with heart drops, and an expandable silver band.  Not only was it well within my price range, it was utterly cheap.

It is not uncommon for people to notice and comment on it, and not because it is an impressive piece of jewelry.  Rather, they comment on it in light of my single status, some more overtly than others!  “Why are you wearing a ring, I thought you were here to talk about the single life?”  (You get the idea!)

When people ask me about the ring, the first thing I do is take it off and let them see it.  I paid less than $10 for it, and I’m pretty sure my uncle Jeff (a jewelry designer) would be ashamed to know that I’m outfitted with such junk.  But in twelve months’ time, I have not dropped it down the bathroom sink nor has it turned my finger green.  So I’m determined to keep wearing it!

I was intentional about buying the ring, and I intentionally wear it on my left hand ring finger – but all for pretty superficial reasons.  First, I think it’s a pretty ring and I like the way it looks on me.  It goes well with my style and complements my other jewelry.  Second, I’m right-handed.  I would much prefer to wear a ring on my left hand, because I don’t like getting it caught on things when I’m writing or washing dishes.  Finally, the ring reminds me of my trip to Gloucester.  I can recount many significant moments there, although none of them are specifically tied to the ring itself.

I wish I had some wonderfully thought out, theologically astute, and spiritually enriching answer to why I wear the ring.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a good answer whatsoever, until I made a spontaneous remark a few weeks ago at Theology on Tap.

Someone asked about the ring again, and I could hear the caution in her voice. “I wanted to ask you about the ring …” she said.  Afraid of what she might say next, I quickly pulled it off my hand.  I told the story of where I bought it, and then I said, “It’s kind of funny actually, because this is not the ring I would have chosen for myself. If I were the one picking out the ring, I would much prefer my birthstone, and I definitely would have selected a solid metal band.”  She complimented me on the ring again, and much to my relief, we went on to talk about something else.

It wasn’t until later that night on the drive home that I reflected on what I said.  “This is not the ring I would have chosen for myself.”

Most people do not intentionally choose the single life.  Given the choice, I think a lot of singles would prefer to be married.  Of course, we all like to think that we would choose the “happily ever after” version and not the gritty reality that includes dishes, diapers, sleep deprivation, financial downturn, cancer diagnosis, etc..  But perhaps even some of the most happily married couples or the most content people in religious life would say something similar.  “I never could have imagined choosing this, but God knew better than me.”

The fact that this is not the ring I would have chosen for myself explains exactly why it is the perfect ring for me.  The single life is probably not the life I would have chosen for myself, but it is where God has called me to be.  As I have allowed myself to embrace the single life with an open heart, I realize how mysteriously perfect God’s design is for me.

There are times when I absolutely rejoice in being single!  Other times I wonder, how did I get here?!  As I reflect on some of the more significant decisions of my life … you know the ones, when two paths diverged in a yellow wood, and I had to make a choice.  There are decisions in my life that I perhaps would not have chosen on my own, but it is so evident that God’s providence has lead me to the place I am today.

If I had a choice, I would have gone to college at Creighton rather than Briar Cliff.  It turned out that Creighton wasn’t a good fit; and Briar Cliff just felt like home.  I followed my heart, and it was one of the best decision I ever made.

I signed up to interview with three different internship supervisors for my M.Div. practicum, but the Sheil Center was not on my original list!  God had something better in mind.  Once I met the director from Sheil, all of the other options fell to the wayside.  Eight years later, the rest is history!

God willing, I will be going on a mission trip to Haiti later this year.  (I’m so excited!!)  But I didn’t choose Haiti; I did not go out seeking a mission to Haiti.

Over the last year, I’ve had a deep sense that God was inviting me into something new.   I’ve allowed my heart to be completely open and free, and as we discerned our next mission trip, all signs pointed to Haiti.  Plans are now falling into place and I can feel my heart drawn more deeply there – not because it is Haiti per se, but because I know God is waiting there for our arrival.

So, why do I wear a ring?  I wear it because it reminds me that this is the life God has chosen for me.  It reminds me of 40 days at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Mass. and the powerful transformation that God began there.  It reminds me to live in the present, to spontaneously wander into antique stores, to treasure moments of silence, and to linger a little while longer in chapels, forest preserves, and art galleries. It reminds me to live in trust and go wherever God calls, even if it is not the place I would have chosen for myself.


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30 Days of Silence: If You Never Get Lost, You Never Get Found

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.  Ignatius was a great spiritual pilgrim, and his path to following Jesus is well documented in his Spiritual Exercises.  I am grateful for so many people, men and women, lay and religious, Jesuit and others – who have been a part of my own spiritual pilgrimage – many of whom are connected to the Jesuits or Ignatian Spirituality.

Today also marks the anniversary of my completion of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in the form of a 30-day silent retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House.  Last summer, I spent six weeks on the outskirts of Boston, and much of that time was with the Jesuits in Gloucester, MA.  The day we “broke silence” for the final time was (aptly enough!) on their founder’s feast day – July 31.

I’ve not written much publicly about the experience, perhaps because it was so personal. A year later, I am still processing it all and still gleaning insights from that extended time in prayer.  Furthermore, when the subject of silent retreat comes up in conversation, most people have pretty strong feelings about how they could NEVER do a silent retreat.  As an introvert, I cannot think of any better way to experience God’s presence! Although it was a “silent” retreat, it was certainly not a “quiet” retreat.  The more time I spend in silence, the more my interior life lights up, my conversations with God become more rich, and the insights more profound.

The introvert in me is also not sure how to put this entire experience into words, especially in one short blog entry (which in hindsight is now a very long entry!)  But in honor of the great feast day, I thought I’d share a bit about my experience and give people a glimpse into the inner workings of a silent retreat.

One of my last days in Gloucester, I found a t-shirt at the Life is Good store that summarizes my time there.  The slogan on the t-shirt read, “If You Never Get Lost, You Never Get Found”.

I know many people who have taken trips to exotic locations in order to “find themselves” – individuals who decide to cycle across the country, go hiking in the wilderness, or take a pilgrimage along holy routes.  I have a friend who volunteered in Thailand for 18 months, and she came to many of the same spiritual insights that I discovered after 30 days at Gloucester.  Some people intentionally decide to lose themselves in a great adventure in order to find their true selves.  So, why did I sign up to spend a month in complete silence?

Well … I went on retreat, because I was lost.  I was already lost.  I didn’t fully realize it at the time (and who cares to admit this anyway?), but I had slowly taken a series of turns that were leading me down a path I no longer recognized.

I had been through a long season of growth and transition – a career change, graduate school, unexpected leadership challenges, two book projects, and a move.  Although I had “arrived” at the place where my chosen vocation was leading me, it wasn’t what I expected and I no longer recognized the person I had become.  On the outside it looked like I had it all together, but on the inside I was becoming jaded and quite unhappy.  I began to sense the initial stages of burnout (I’ve been THERE before and didn’t want to go there again), so I knew something needed to change.

I desired to take some time away, hopefully to regain some confidence and clarity, so I decided to do something that was both familiar and comforting – a silent retreat.  At the same time, I knew that 30 days would be a stretch and a big risk, which is exactly what I needed to find myself again.


Let me just pause here to say that silent retreats are not for the faint of heart.  If you’re not accustomed to long periods of quiet time alone, I would strongly recommend that you begin small.  Perhaps an hour of silence at home alone, and then maybe an afternoon of silence at a local church or retreat center.  Then progress to a 3-day weekend of silence. The typical Ignatian retreat is an 8-day silent retreat, but even this can be a bit daunting at first.  I completed several 8-day retreats before I even considered doing a full 30-days.

People often ask, what do you mean by silent?  By silent, I mean you don’t talk!  Meals are silent.  Prayer time is silent.  There are no speeches or witness talks.  We don’t say hello when passing each other in the hallway (although, it is nice when people exchange smiles from time to time).  We do however have Mass everyday, and Mass is … the Mass.  We sing aloud, respond to the prayers, and exchange the sign of peace as one would normally do at the liturgy. The only speaking time is about 45 minutes a day with your designated spiritual director.

In the midst of complete silence, most people report feeling a deep sense of connection with others – a connection that extends beyond words.  Being on retreat is holy ground and sacred time.  It is palpable and profound when those around you honor the work God is doing by maintaining sacred silence. There is a deep connection that happens when we support one another simply by being in one another’s presence – or allowing another person the space he or she needs to be alone.

The beauty of silence often comes in what we are able to hear – the breaking of waves along the shore, the quiet rustle of a deer walking through the trees, the sound of one’s own breath.  It was in the extended silence that I began to recognize the rhythm of my own train of thought.   One of the greatest gifts of the 30-day retreat is learning to discern the myriad of voices that run through my mind.  I now know the peaceful consolation of God’s voice, when my thoughts are in alignment with God’s will for my life.  I also recognize more clearly the runaway train of fear and anxiety, which are often not my own, but the disruptive voice of evil.

Another misperception about silent retreats is that you pray on your hands and knees for 24 hours a day.  One of the best pieces of advice, given to me by the spiritual director on my first 8-day retreat, was to create a schedule to give a sense of order to the day.  Ignatius recommends 4-5 distinct prayer periods throughout the day each lasting 45 minutes to an hour.  I like to get some physical exercise on retreat, too, so I always plan time for a run or long walk. Then once you build in time for meals and Mass (and perhaps a nice long nap), your day is complete.

And by “distinct prayer periods” I don’t mean a running stream of Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s – although that is a wonderful way to pray.  Ignatius’ method of prayer is imaginative contemplation. The Spiritual Exercises are designed around a series of scripture reflections which are divided into four weeks.  Each “week” of the exercises could last anywhere from 3-10 days.  Over the course of 30 days, you pray your way through the entire life of Jesus, with many stops along the way.


There are many stories I could tell about my time with Jesus and the intimate sharing in conversation about his life and mine. (I am quite serious in extending this invitation, if you want to hear more about my time with Jesus, let’s definitely grab coffee sometime!)  I will share one profound moment of prayer and the resulting conversation with my spiritual director that happened around Day 10 of the retreat.

Prior to retreat, I felt like the stress of all those life transitions had left me “paralyzed” and disconnected from the real me.  I found great comfort in praying with the story of the paralytic and began to feel a deep sense of healing and connection to Jesus.  Just as a break through seemed immanent, I had a really difficult night of prayer.  Many of the old wounds resurfaced, and I found myself re-living much of the pain and disappointment that accompanied the transition.  That night on retreat was not unlike some of the more painful moments during the transition itself – nights when I cried myself to sleep and awoke the next morning still wiping the tears from my eyes.

Ironically, I woke up that morning to find a thick gray cloud of fog had rolled over the retreat house.  The fog that enveloped the property was indicative of the heaviness that weighed on my heart.  I fumbled my way through my morning routine – praying the liturgy of the hours, eating a bit of breakfast, catching up on some journal writing.  The dining room at Eastern Point overlooks the grassy back yard and the adjacent cove which extends into the expansive Atlantic Ocean.  I would normally sit there for long stretches enjoying an extra cup of tea.  That morning, I could barely see past the windows.  But as I sat at the breakfast table with journal in hand, I uncovered a few insights related to the transition that were not obvious in the dark of night.  As I walked over to meet with my spiritual director, the fog had lifted enough that I could almost see the water.

Fr. Joe and I met each morning after breakfast, in a little reflection room that overlooked the ocean.  We talked through this heavy burden that weighed on my heart.  He and I were both confounded by its force.  The previous day, I was feeling so comforted by the story of the paralytic. Fr. Joe and I talked at length about what was getting in the way of my truly accepting the gift of God’s healing.

As I talked with Fr. Joe about the conversation I’d had with Jesus in prayer, there was an incredible moment of clarity.  As Fr. Joe and I touched on the breakthrough I’d been searching for, the strangest thing happened.  I could sense the clouds beginning to part and the sun growing brighter outside.  Then, in one of those spectacularly placed moments, a stream of light burst through the window, sunlight filled the room, and illuminated the space on the floor between us.  (It all sounds very surreal and made-for-TV-movie special, but it really did happen!)

There were many moments of divine affirmation on retreat, but none quite this visceral.


There were many graces (and challenges!) that accompanied my experience of the Spiritual Exercises.  Although, one does not return from the 30-day retreat a completely different person.  As I learned from another Jesuit friend this past summer, the success of a retreat is measured by the fruits that come to bear after the retreat.  My 30-days at Eastern Point did not magically fix everything that was broken; there was still a lot of work to be done.  One of my friends said it best though when he said, “Something has changed.  You are the same Beth, but your heart is different.”

Jesus had truly softened my heart after being hardened by years of transition and in response to many changes that were beyond my control. I experienced many layers of healing and forgiveness and a genuine desire to extend that forgiveness to others.

I’m more willing to trust the slow work of God.  I also know that God will never stop loving us.  Even when we do our best to thwart God’s love or reject God’s gifts, God continues to pour out his goodness upon us.

Spending the summer on the East coast also helped me rediscover a love for adventure, an appreciation for lingering in coffee shops and antique stores, and a desire to “put out into deep water” as my vocation continues to unfold.

Surprisingly, I’m still in the same place – geographically and career wise.  But I feel like I’m here with greater clarity of purpose.  Which reminds me of another moment in prayer, much earlier in the retreat, and long before finding that t-shirt in the Life is Good store.

I had been reading sections of Mark’s gospel, and I recall saying to Jesus in prayer, “You sure spent a lot of time with the sick and crazy ones!”

I don’t exactly like sick people.

And Jesus’ response was clear, “I know, Beth.  You do much better with the lost.”


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