I've come to hate the word "unpacking" as in "let's unpack this problem and see how we can solve it" or "this Scripture verse needs some unpacking before we can understand it."
But I am unpacking after this Women's Retreat. I took a set of expectations, a sort-of-willing and sort-of-trusting heart, some neatly arranged trepidations and hope, hope. I came back with laughter, hours of prayer under my belt, new praise songs I need CD's of, a bundle of tersely delivered advice, a sense of what peace is, and knowledge by seeing, if not by experiencing, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are expressed in the same group of people who later can charm the retreat manager into opening the TV room so they can watch the Detroit Tigers do their stuff.
In no particular order, here is what I took away from the weekend. I am writing them down to get them out in front of me, so I fit the pieces together in various ways and see what I have:
The retreat master Fr. Thomas Dubay was outstanding. A precise man, a scholar, a priest to the bone. He has an academic sense of humor, that cautious Minnesota twang, and a lovely hokey archaic turn of phrase, not quite of the "23 skidoo, oh you kid" vintage, but close - to any of my sister retreatants reading this, I say "zippy-doo!"
From him, I learned that much of true holiness is direct, brusque, to the point - you are grouchy? Don't be. You want to gossip? Don't. You and your husband each have a preference? (Or your co-worker, or your parent, don't panic) - give in to their preference.
Doesn't that sound a little, well, unaccommodating, uncoddling? Darn right. We are adults and this is the meat, we're way past the spiritual milk. Why do we demand to be charmed into doing what is right? Why must we insist on being driven in golf carts on the Way of the Cross? Our pasts mean nothing, our dysfunctions, our habits - do we claim to be new creatures in Christ?
I also learned a new way of going to Confession, about which more later.
The externals first. 250 women or so, in age ranging from early 20's, maybe late teens, through to the 70's and beyond. Young women with nursing babies, and their mothers at the same retreat. Friends, sisters, sisters-in-law. Easily a dozen nursing babies, brought along and cared for in a separate nursery when not hungry. So many pregnant women, and not made much of; I regret, no, I am horrified, that in many other parts of my little hunk of society, pregnancy is treated as a startling thing, people stare and comment and congratulate but as though it never happened before and might never happen again (and for many of my friends, they make darn sure it won't happen again). God is in control of these women's lives, and it's a fertile field. Jobs - everything, nurses, teachers, lawyers, bus drivers, lots of computer work. Big families. Women travelling in from both coasts. Women with 30 years of Christian life and family, recent reverts and converts. Clothes comfortable to the enth degree; I must buy me a pair of Crocs, the footwear of the Holy Spirit. Lots of skirt-wearing, which I need to do more of myself. No, I don't think jeans are the Devil's handiwork, but there is something about wearing clothes that only women wear that rings a little truer after this weekend.
What Worship Is
I am generally uncomfortable and sorrowful when Christians use the word "worship" when they talk about a sermon bracketed by singing. I think the common phrase "praise and worship" would be more precise as "praise OR worship." This weekend, all of the talks and the prayer meetings led to the true highlight of each day: Mass, the worship of the living God, Emmanuel, God with us not only at a precise historical time, but now in our hearts, and now especially at the time of Mass, present on the altar, the Lamb standing as though slain, and our Heavenly Bread, to be carried away in our very bodies and beings, to fan the flame within and to be spread through the whole world.
But I think I finally got the singing part figured out: it IS praise, and God created us to give Him glory and praise of His Glory. I still prefer to disconnect praise and worship, but I am very willing now to connect singing and praise, singing and prayer. Yeah, I know, He who sings prays twice, (look at the link, too, it's lovely Catholic Nerd stuff), but not for me, until now. It's impressive how many songs these women knew, by heart, and their church's hymnal has been carefully selected and richly added to by many compositions by parishioners. God was good to me because the first night's Mass had mostly songs I not only knew but knew by heart, so I could spend less time fishing for my reading glasses and peering at the text and more time raising my heart and mind to God.
Peace with Pain
This is a cheerful group of women; the laughter at the silly things and the clever things was warm and loud. But talking to them individually, I heard stories of abuse, divorce, death, dying, all the tragedies. They weren't happy, but they were serene, not mindless, but given over to God. There were angry women, and a couple with incomplete thinking (I'm not excluding myself here), but they were striving through Christ to find solutions and peace and eternity. This is a whole community; they pray for each other and cook for each other. They criticize and love, gossip and apologize, comfort and shun, do right and do wrong. From the outside, they might look like automatons of forced happiness, but I see instead people whose lives are in order, or at least pointed toward Divine Order.
The Charism of Holding the Coats
Did I experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, at least in the outward "word" gifts of tongues, or prophecy, or interpretation? Did I get my hands raised in praise past my shoulders? Nope. Does this mean that I did not praise charismatically? I don't know, honestly. I had people tell me yes and no. I did feel some pressure and "left-out-ness" when, during the prayer times, women prayed and sang in tongues, danced, when healing was named and prayed about. But other women told me that they felt the same way. Others told me that there were more charisms than those visible ones. I'm ruefully okay with the idea of displaying the Charism of Holding the Coats and Having the Coffee Ready for those who can inspire to prayer others by the Spirit gifts. Actually, I'm a little relieved, since I was just plain scared of the whole idea.
I have no fear of the Mass, of worship, deep intimacy, during that time when we meet at Calvary and the Empty Tomb. God has been so good to me, so consoling, teaches me so much. Perhaps there are others who are afraid of that.
The Same Jesus
I had a concern I didn't express before I left for the retreat that the Jesus I met at this retreat would somehow be different than the one I've come to know at home in my decidedly non-charismatic parish. Since my devout friends at home tend more towards the Opus Dei type (serious, silent, strong and holy), I've seen very little of the outwardly cheerful, passionately praising type of worship, which would be, as fruits of the Spirit received, pointers back to the Source of that Spirit.
If this Retreat Jesus was any different from Home Jesus, I planned on choosing Home Jesus as the Right Jesus, because in silence He found me, loved me, healed me, changed me. This Retreat Jesus was being shown to me, displayed in the beauty of community, and maybe I couldn't tell if I was being touched or healed. Is this incoherent? Sorry, have patience. Praise God, it's the same Jesus! I recognize Him in these women, and in their praise and worship, in their lives and families. Maybe now that I'm over that hump, I may be more open to the Holy Spirit in the future.
The Greatest Relief
In two days, I never heard one heretical word, sang no song that made US the source of good, nothing was taught that gave us any credit for anything but opening up our hearts and wills and minds to God. I didn't have to process anything through the filter I've necessarily crafted, coming from a parish where we can't go too long without an exercise where we alter the "Hail Mary" to make it about us, or hear that the miracle of loaves and fishes was Jesus' influence to make people pull their lunches out from under their coats. The chapel at the retreat center was too small for all of us to fit at Mass, so they put an altar in the main meeting room, but there was no felt-bannerism, where the decorations were plain but the vestments were beautiful, even though ancient reverence was framed in acoustical tile and fluorescent light. I don't think I appreciated that until I got home and it came back to me that I could listen with a whole heart and an unguarded intellect. THAT's worth the drive alone!
Forget Zen - for direct, try Catholic
Do these statements sound too simple?
When you're grouchy, stop it.
When you're pausing on unchaste TV, change the channel.
When you're tempted to exercise your own will, don't.
When you want to tell someone to stop bothering you, instead, smile at them.
Your feelings are not a sin; your actions are.
Take five minutes every day to examine your conscience on a specific sin and it will cease.
What is the sound of one hand clapping (okay, I'm kidding). These aren't simple and they sure as heck aren't easy. Do them not because you will become a happy little golden pool of light, an oasis of harmony to those around you, cue the sappy music, (although you will), but because they are small hidden acts of virtue practiced to put down your will and do God's Will instead, to do great AND small things for love, to join our little acts with the supreme act of Giving. We can't all be burned at the stake, but we can all stop cutting people off in traffic, handing back excess change, smiling silently when the bore you're related to tells the same story, wrong, for the fiftieth time, because of the love you have for those people, given Christ's love for them and love for you.
A life lived this way is as heroic in virtue as any warrior saint's life of brief and blazing self-sacrifice.
There's a scene at the end of the movie Godspell, which, with its evil uncle Jesus Christ Superstar, formed way too much of the catechesis I received in the 1970's. Purely icky as the theology of that movie was, the end stays in my mind: the various winsome folks who have collected around the mime-faced Jesus (when the words mime and Jesus get into the same sentence, you normally have trouble, but stay with me) take his dead body down from the chain-link fence. His arms have stiffened out to his sides. They carry his body, arms protruding past their shoulders, away from the scene of death. They find themselves on a sidewalk in a downtown area, and as they turn the corner, people and cars and life start to stream past in the cross street. When the camera follows them around the corner, they're gone, seemingly, absorbed into the busy uncaring unseeing swirl of life of the city. But we know they've not disappeared, they're carrying their message of Christ's Death and Sacrifice into the world. That final scene redeems the movie (and the perfect raunchiness of the song "Turn Back, O Man" helps, too) for me.
The women in the retreat certainly took away the Suffering and Risen Christ, not as a secret, preached out of the sides of their mouths, but worn right on their faces and pouring from their hands. I want to be that way, and with His Help, I can be.
Thank you, Christ the King Parish, and thank You, Christ the King!