Michael Chen, with a cutout of Pope Francis, at the Jesuit retreat he took part in earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Michael Chen

Where strangers leave as friends

  • April 17, 2015

Earlier this year, I had a “dilemma.” There were five retreats happening in the same month — some landing on the same weekends. Which retreat should I go on? There was a Chinese Catholic students’ retreat, a quad university chaplaincies including my alma mater, one with the University of Toronto, another one on discernment and the silent retreat with the York University chaplaincy. In the end, I chose the days of discernment retreat. Funny enough, I ended up making a decision to go on a retreat to learn how to make better life decisions.

Offered by Jesuits and the Jesuits Volunteers Canada, the spiritual retreat was not your typical weekend “getaway” from the city. It was in fact held at the Jesuits provincial headquarters near Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto. And it lasted a little more than a day. We started Friday evening and ended Saturday afternoon.

On Friday evening, we introduced ourselves to each other. We all came from different walks of life. The eight participants included a student, working professionals and recent grads but we were all there for spiritual nourishment, to learn how to discern a calling, to take time to reflect and to connect with others.

When we discussed something like our prayer life, for example, we followed the rules of Ignatian discernment and the spiritual exercises. First we went around and shared our thoughts, acknowledging that everyone had something to contribute. Everything discussed was added to the conversation. The second round was connecting our ideas to another person’s. Finally the third round was coming to a conclusion and summing up the ideas. We acknowledged each others’ ideas and said a prayer at the end. This spiritual and logical method of discernment was just one of the tools we learned during the weekend.

Our retreat leaders showed us different prayers and reflections from famous figures like Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. We talked about the examen, a simple way of reviewing one’s day in the presence of God and to remind ourselves that God is present with us during our day. It can be done on the subway on your way home or before you go to bed. We also learned about the discernment of spirits: How to discern if a particular decision leads to either consolation or desolation.

When you attend a retreat, you will make friendships with people. After all, you eat, pray and live in community so, inevitably, you will form bonds with each other. Suffice to say that by the time 3 p.m. Saturday rolled around, I didn’t want to leave the safe and welcome space that we created. We only spent about 12 hours altogether but we shared our life experiences, our struggles and reflected on our aspirations on how to better our lives.

We came in as strangers but we left as better people and hopefully refreshed enough to share what we learned with others when we stepped out into the “real” world.

I left this retreat experience with practical ways to pray and incorporate better spiritual practices into my daily life. I started doing the examen and even started keeping a weekly journal to track my thoughts.

I felt that this short experience of communal gathering, sharing and eating is similar to the 11-month program that the Jesuits Volunteers Canada provides. The program is one year of service in a community setting in Canadian cities and working with locals while living simply. Food and accommodations are provided with a small weekly stipend. Here’s my new “dilemma”: Do I pursue another job to add to my resume? Or do I dedicate a year of apostolic service living and working with Jesuit communities around Canada? Let’s see how I can continue to discern God’s true call.

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