Tag Archives: Travel

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.

ENCOUNTERING SILENCE 

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.

WALKING THROUGH THE FOG

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.

NAMING THE GRACES

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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Reflections on Recording the Audio Book

A mysterious package arrived this week from Franciscan Media (formerly St. Anthony Messenger Press).  I’m always happy to receive a package in the mail, but until I tore it open, I had no idea what might be inside.  Much to my delight, the box contained two complimentary copies of the audiobook of Party of One!  We finished the recording way back in September, and I had completely forgotten that these were on their way.

The first question I often receive about the audio book is, “whose voice is on the recording?”   Well, it is me.  Answering that question again this week brought to mind this unfinished blog entry that’s been sitting on my desktop for nearly six months.

Prior to sitting down in the recording studio, I skimmed through the book – mostly to take note of a typo or two that were missed in the last round of edits.  I did not, however, read through the entire manuscript page-by-page.  Several hours into reading the book aloud, I wish I’d been more prepared!

Upon completion of the manuscript, I felt more confident and comfortable with the single life than I’d ever been before.  Sitting there alone in a soundproof booth, just me and a microphone, with the sound engineers three doors down the hall – I felt a surge of emotions that I had not anticipated.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being single!  Most days I am content and completely happy in my relationships, my work, and my personal life.  This is truly the place where God has called me to be.  And yet, as I’m sure is true with any vocation, there is that occasional nagging “if only” voice.  If only I were in a relationship.  If only I had made different choices along the way. If only things could be different.  Is this really where I’m supposed to be?

Reading the book cover to cover allowed me to reflect on the current state of my single life, and I was surprised at how much I need to hear my own advice.

Gratitude

I was amazed at how often I talk about “living in the moment.”  Staying present in the moment is not always easy.  Invariably, we sometimes give in to worry or comparing ourselves to others or a need for control.  Gratitude is a helpful spiritual tool for staying present to what’s in front of us.

Ultimately, gratitude shows me where love is present in my life: where intimacy resides in my relationships, where laughter overflows in my friendships, and how the generosity of friends and strangers alike provides for what otherwise seems to be missing.

Generativity

I tell a story in Party of One about a pottery studio in southern Utah that I visited many years ago.  I also spent a significant part of the summer on the East coast on retreat and visiting friends.  All of this reminded me of how much I love to travel, and how desperately this sense of adventure has been missing from my life!

God, who first breathed life into us at the beginning of time, is the ultimate Artist.  It is in God’s very nature to be generative. As children of the Artist, we all have inherent creative instincts. … As single people, it is important that we find an outlet for being generative in order to fulfill that hope and desire that our activities and relationships become life-giving for others.

Creativity and new life come in many different shapes and forms.  I made a New Year’s resolution to take advantage of opportunities to “try something new”.  So far this year I have eaten octopus at a local Korean BBQ, attended a bris at the invitation of a Jewish colleague, and taken my first (and probably last) music lesson on the french horn. (One of my students needed a guinea pig for his music pedagogy class, and I enthusiastically volunteered!)

Hope

Finally, I’ve been reconfiguring my work-life balance, and the chapter on hope rang true on many levels.  As I’m now finishing this blog entry at the half-way point of Lent, it also seems fitting to mention that hope is at the heart of the Pascal Mystery.  As we allow pieces of our past to die, we trust that new life is on the horizon.  My Lenten journey has been all about “breaking up” with bad habits and allowing new opportunities to unfold.  That is how transformation happens.

Hope means letting go of the past, holding onto what is good, and re-imagining the future. What remains when all else is stripped away? What in my life, what of my purpose, my identity, my mission, and my values in life still remain?  Maybe there is nothing obvious at first glance. But perhaps there is a tiny seed of hope buried deep in the darkness.

Party of One: Living Single with Faith Purpose and Passion – Available in paperback, Kindle edition, and now in audio format!

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In memory of Barbara Bowe, RSCJ

One week ago, the Catholic community lost an important teacher, mentor, and biblical scholar.  Sr. Barbara Bowe, RSCJ returned home to God last Sunday, March 14, 2010.  I knew Barbara as professor, advisor, and travel companion.  A kind spirit with a sharp intellect and a deep love for sacred scripture, Barbara was a genuine teacher who truly cared about her students. 

I think Barbara would have whole-heartedly supported this project on the single life, and it is for this reason I miss her most today.

Upon graduating from Catholic Theological Union in 2007, I had the great privilege of traveling with a group of students to the Holy Land.  Barbara served as tour guide and retreat master for this two-week pilgrimage.  One of the highlights of the trip was our stop at the Jordan River where we took time to remember our baptismal promises.  Barbara invited each of us to voice in our own words, the promises made at our baptism and to reaffirm our commitment to ministry.  This opportunity to share my “call story” was a defining moment for me as I truly accepted God’s invitation to preach, teach, and lead others in a gospel way of life.

Several weeks after the trip, I received an email from Barbara thanking me for my participation and inquiring about the statement I voiced during our prayer service at the Jordan River.

My reason for connecting is to tell you how much I enjoyed being with you in Israel I was particularly moved, Beth, by your sharing at our baptismal renewal at the Jordan at Yardenit … and something you said that day makes me want to say to this — if religious life is a viable option to consider in your future — I would be happy to talk with you and have you consider the Religious of the Sacred Heart.  If that option is not even remotely on your computer screen … then it is our loss.

I was flattered and grateful for her invitation.  It was not the first time, and surely will not be the last time, that someone suggested I consider religious life.  Barbara extended this invitation with absolute sincerity and without any expectation of what my response should or ought to be.  In return, I felt completely free to be honest with her.  I explained that with much prayer and discernment, I have found a tremendous and ever deepening call to life as a single person.  While I continue to hold open the possibility of religious life, and even marriage, I don’t see either one of those happening anytime soon.  Several weeks later, I received an equally generous and affirming reply. 

Your clarity of mind and heart speaks volumes of a spirit-filled call to be who you are.  Who could wish anything other for our friends?  Of course, I am happy to be a sounding board for you at any point as you continue to respond to God’s action in your life. 

Barbara’s invitation for further conversation crossed my mind many times over these past two and half years.  Life gets busy.  School, travel, and work took up both our time, and our conversation never took place.  Our last email exchange occurred in late September 2009. 

Barbara agreed to write a short blurb for the back cover of my first book Finding My Voice: A Young Woman’s Perspective.  When I wrote to express my thanks, she confessed to only skimming the manuscript and looked forward to reading the entire work.  She was dealing with a variety of health challenges and decided to take a medical leave for the Fall semester.  A few weeks later she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. 

I wish Barbara were here to see this next project into fruition.  My desire to write a book on the single life is the result of much discernment and flows from that same call about which Barbara and I briefly spoke.  There is so much more to be said, and I wish she were here to listen. 

In Barbara’s own words, I wish to express my hope for anyone who stumbles upon this blog and the book that will follow.  To all those who wonder about what it means to be single and how this fits into God’s call for your life:  May God grace you with the clarity of mind and heart that speaks volumes of a spirit-filled call to be who you are.  Who could wish anything other for our friends?

Thank you Barbara for believing in God’s unique call to each one of us, for creating the space to bless and affirm that call, and for inviting countless students to discover the holy places where God dwells.  May you rest in peace.

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Everything is Bigger in Texas

Until this past weekend, I spent more time in the Houston Intercontinental Airport than in the city of Houston itself.  Houston is a regular stop when I travel from Chicago to Managua on our annual mission trip to Nicaragua.  However, my brother and his family recently re-located to Houston, which gave me the chance to see Texas beyond the borders of International Terminal E. 

They say that everything is bigger in Texas.  Indeed, I experienced Houston in a BIG way this weekend including a visit to the Hermann Park Conservancy, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and a drive down Interstate 10 (also known as the Katy Freeway).  

In contrast to everything that seemed tall and wide and oversized, I was reminded that it is the little things that make a big difference.  Thanks to my sister-in-law, I arrived to find fresh flowers and dark chocolates strategically placed in the guest bedroom.  I traded seats on the airplane with an elderly woman, so she and her husband could sit together.  And I watched as my niece took her first solo bicycle ride sans training wheels!  I always find that moments like these cannot be capture nor repeated in any proper fashion. 

The BIG moments in life are often few and far between.  We look forward to graduation days, significant birthdays, weddings, holidays, and retirement parties with great anticipation.  They mark our accomplishments and are a source of celebration.  Today I count my blessings by remembering the little things that bring me joy.  They make up the majority of our lives and ultimately add up to something great. 

What are the little things for which you can give thanks today?

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A first time for everything

One of my favorite provocative questions is, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”  Well … today marks the first day of my adventure into the blogging sphere. 

Over the past year, I have been a first time home buyer, a first time published author, a first time Lacrosse fan, and made my first visit to La Fuente, Nicaragua.  There is something about first time experiences, the rush of fear and excitement, and the thrill of new discoveries that keeps me coming back for more.  

We always take a risk when trying something new.  I am launching this blog with the hopes of generating interest in a new book project (read more on the “Call for Essays” page).  I trust that the Holy Spirit inspires all of our “yes” decisions, whether we fall on our face or are caught by grace.  Let’s trust that the Spirit is going to catch me on this one! 

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

 

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