Days before my graduation from Marquette University, I dropped in on a Jesuit friend of mine, Fr. Frank Majka. In a nutshell, I was freaking out! I was to give the baccalaureate speech at graduation in front of thousands of my classmates and their families reflecting on what the years at Marquette had given us, and how it had prepared us for the world. Trouble was, I had no clue what I was to do with my own life.
Fr. Majka simply told me in his own unique way to chill and when the graduation was over to consider going to the New Camaldoli Hermitage on the mountainous cliffs of Big Sur, Calif., to retreat for a month in contemplative silence with the monks.
What?! Me?! I need to talk to process life and all its decisions. Why would someone who knew my personality so well tell me to do the opposite and shut up? I went back to my apartment and stared at the ceiling for hours asking myself this silly question: Why was it so luring?
It took 17 years for me to take him up on his recommendation. Recently, I came to the understanding that my life is pulled in so many directions. I had been so hyper-focused on career, marriage, my children, and my outside interests that I had lost my true focus.
Sure, all these things are important, but as the late Vince Lombardi once said, “God, Family and the Green Bay Packers, in that order.” I had lost focus on my core — on who I was.
I tell my students that you cannot be a good leader of others until you lead yourself. How can I be whole to others as a man of service unless I am whole and true to myself?
It is cliché to say life is all about balance, but it sure is true. Our cars need tune-ups, runners need rest, and houses need spring cleaning, but we fragile human beings, built of a complex mix of emotional, spiritual, physical, cognitive and relational moving parts, often ignore the need for a break.
Just as Lombardi realized, halftimes and off seasons are not only for rest but to reflect on the past in order to be more efficient in the future. One of my life coaches, Fr. Frank, saw I was going a million miles an hour, albeit successfully, but in order for me to find my center, my purpose and perspective, I needed to retreat somewhere where God could speak to me.
Not only would it be important to find a place and a moment to find God, but to find silence where I could actually listen.
I packed a bag, turned off my cell phone, turned off my voice, and ventured down California’s great ocean highway, winding my way to this monastery of contemplative life among the monks.
I arrived later than expected to find a dark compound and no welcome desk. I walked into the chapel.
There, in the dark silence, were three lit candles on a stone altar, and in the middle of this beautiful octagonal chapel was a small crucifix hanging from a 40-foot cable. The candlelit marble floor provided enough light for me to see an assortment of monks in their robes along with a handful of “ordinary Joes” (laypeople like myself) on prayer cushions sitting against the walls. All silent attention was focused on the monstrance that held the Eucharist.
I wondered how much I would miss my family, what thoughts I would have running through my mind about work or tomorrow, but they didn’t come. My intention to invite the Holy Spirit into this retreat away from my fast-moving world was graced to me. This was the best start to a retreat I have ever had.
I started my retreat with what is at the core of my Catholic faith – the true presence of Christ in my life. I have never enjoyed the dark and silence as much as that first evening.
That is until I walked outside in a new, reflective and aware frame of mind. The stars in Big Sur above my head made the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Imax Planetarium look out of focus and distant. The intricate beauty of the universe heightened my awareness of God’s hand in creation.
I went to bed that evening at peace. I awoke to an even greater sense of peace. Daytime at this hermitage brings a whole new reality of the mountainous cliffs spilling into the sparkling ocean below. The morning haze of the Californian coastal fog appears like a Renaissance watercolor painting. The birds and wildlife come alive.
I hadn’t even cracked open the Bible or other books on poems and spiritual reflections I brought with me. God was speaking in the silent beauty.
I could go on about what these four simple, graced days were like – I couldn’t pull off the recommended 30 day Ignatian retreat. You will have to track me down and buy me lunch for me to share the wonders and insights of my time there. I can assure you I waited far too long to find this safe haven of peace, prayer and reflection.
In order to be the best father, the best companion, the best colleague, the best volunteer or the best friend possible, I need to be in tune with my Creator.
There is such a sense in our culture of putting your head to the grindstone, sucking it up, toughing it out and getting over it, that we lose that core principle of humility.
This humility that I cannot do everything on my own is a key to a healthy spiritual life. If you have this, you will have an inner awareness and confident peace about you that will emanate to those around you.
Parents, find a way, before things pile up too high or you distance yourself too far from your relationship with Christ, to make a retreat somewhere small or somewhere grand where you can listen to God’s calling in your life.
There are retreat centers across the globe. Make it a part of your yearly “tune up” to keep you moving toward being the best person you can be. Take mini-retreats during your week; sit before the cross in an empty church or maybe pilgrimage to Holy Hill.
Imagine the role modeling this will be for your children and family to see you take the time for yourself to re-connect with God and to come back renewed.
(Jeff Wenzler is a single father of three unconditionally loving children who keep him on his toes and remind him daily of the need to find balance. Jeff is a member of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, and is the founder and executive director of Pivotal Directions, a servant leadership organization for local youth.)