I think everyone knows that the annual priests’ retreat (where I am right now) is too short! Before we are ordained (either to the diaconate—transitional or permanent —or to the priesthood) we are expected to make a 5-day retreat. Every year in seminary I went to one of 5-6 retreat centers at the beginning of the year for a similar spiritual exercise. 2-1/2 days after a long year of pastoral ministry is not enough—but it’s what we have.
We are blessed beyond words with the quality of our retreat site: Manresa. It’s run by the Jesuits, sits on property abutting (literally) the Mississippi River, has really good cooks (!), and grounds & chapel are wonderfully suited for prayer and meditation and quiet.
In addition, especially in these last 5-6 years, our retreat directors (priests who give the conferences that supply the grist for our spiritual mill) have been outstanding. This makes such a huge difference.
There is also plenty of time for “fellowship,” if it’s what you also need or desire: beyond a “happy hour” before supper, conversations can usually be found on the steps of the refectory, or inside at a card game (yes, poker is a very “spiritual” exercise for several of the priests!), or friends walking the grounds and sharing their hearts. Perhaps, too, there might be a private appointment with the retreat director or one of the Jesuit priests for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And there is a structure to the days revolving around the Liturgy of the Hours, Holy Hour, and celebration of the Eucharist.
There is also time for quiet—if I choose to sit on the porch outside my room, folks know not to bother me, and if others are sitting quietly, I know not to disturb them.
So why do I go to Assisi every year for a personal retreat?
For starters, it’s a longer time for prayer and meditation. It’s also a place where I can enter into prayer and meditation better than any other place on earth. It’s very hard to describe the joy and peace and sense of the Presence I get during Adoration and Evening Prayer in San Damiano, where our Lord first communicated to St Francis through the crucifix that he was needed to be more than a solitary brother of penance. It is hard for me to share the connection I have with the Basilica San Francesco, where he is buried, or the Eremo dei Carceri (the Hermitage) on Mount Subasio, where he went so often to pray. It’s why I go, and being “alone” in many ways sharpens the experience of the retreat, even if I am staying in a hotel and not a retreat center.
My “personal” retreat there will be this coming February (God willing). But as I lead a group of pilgrims this June through northern and central Italy, and as we make an “obligatory” stop in Assisi, I will find a way to break away to go to San Damiano and relish my time with Him in that special place. We are material creatures, after all (and the fully incarnational Lord has redeemed us, body and soul)—so physical things like places and things and people and times and sacraments are crucial for us.
You won’t read this until my return, but I hope that your “post-dated” prayers will be a support to me and all those other priests who are here this week. Thank you for all the affirmation and support you give me! Our Savior is a wonderful parish!