I love my weekend getaways with the boys. Don't get me wrong. Every week, I look forward to spending my weekends with my wife and kids, which are the most important part of my life.
But, my weekends with the boys are important in a different way. I get to disconnect from all the noise and stress of daily life, or the crying and fighting over who said or did what to whom first, and concentrate on prayer, reflection, spiritual growth and, hopefully, helping other men grow closer to God, not to mention, the many laughs, tears and maybe smoking a cigar or two in the process (although, let's keep the last part between us).
It's called the Emmaus Retreat, which brought me back to the faith in 2006, after almost thirty years of floundering. Ever since, I have been involved religiously (pardon the pun) in every retreat.
On Friday, before the retreat began, we were driving back to the parish after our traditional seven-mile walk to the retreat house, where we try to follow the footsteps of the disciples that walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus three days after the Crucifixion, the friend who was driving, turns up a Rolling Stones song on the car stereo named, Saint of Me, which, to be frank, I don’t recall ever having heard before (my friend Ronald, God rest his soul, who was a huge Stones fan, is probably rolling in his grave!).
In the tune, Mick Jagger sings, “Saint Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man, Jesus hit him with a blinding light and then his life began… Augustine knew temptation. He loved women, wine and song and all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” Then the refrain goes, “I said yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, you’ll never make a saint of me.”
It was sweet. It's the type of song that in a younger, more self-centered stage of my life, would have immediately prompted me to roll down the windows and crank up the stereo. The lyrics and music were contagious. A couple of the guys started singing. While the song was playing, another friend that we had been trying to get in touch with but couldn’t because he was in a deposition sends us a text message, that stated something to the effect of, “I said yeah, oh yeah, you’ll never make a saint of me.” At that moment, we loosely adopted it as our anthem for the weekend.
After listening to the song several times, I started thinking (it does hurt sometimes). While, the words appear to make perfect sense, considering our image of the holiness of “saints,” i.e. St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up all his wealth to live a life of poverty and service to his fellowman, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a young stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, and Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to helping the destitute on the streets of Calcutta (OK, she hasn’t officially been recognized as a saint by the Church, but is there any doubt she’s in heaven?), they may be textually deficient.
You see, all Christians are called to holiness and sainthood and, as the song says, anyone can become a saint, even a Christian killer like Saul, who became Paul, and a pagan man of debauchery like St. Augustine. In fact, to be a saint, means to be chosen and set apart by God.
St. Paul calls the early believers saints and the Church teaches that Holy Communion is a physical and spiritual “communion” with the Body of Christ; meaning, not just Christ, but His whole being: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. And, since the Church is Christ's Body, in receiving the Eucharist, we are receiving communion with the saints in His Heavenly and Eternal Church, including those officially recognized as such by the Church, our friends and family, who have gone before us, as well as those en route to heaven (that are being cleansed through fire). So, through faith, love and a sacramental life, God can make a saint of me.
The retreat was as powerful as ever. I would say it was the best of the twelve retreats I have participated in, but that seems to be the prevailing thought after every retreat.
Over sixty men, from all walks of life, from lawyers (and we have many in our group since, you can say, they make good sinners) to handymen and unemployed, and from different faith backgrounds, came together for an amazing and profound experience.
As the retreat was wrapping up, one of the retreatants, came up to deposition man and me, embraced us (yes there's a lot of man love on our retreats) and said, “What I experienced and felt here this weekend, I had never experienced or felt in my entire lifetime. It was like a huge burden that had been weighing me down for a good part of my life, has been lifted. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
As the retreatant turned his attention to another guy, my friend looks at me and we smile. There is little that is more gratifying for us than to hear the genuine words of appreciation from someone that has just spent their weekend with us, trying to grow closer to God.
While it is not personal pride, since most of us understand that we can only do what we do by the grace of God, it is an external sort of pride in having served God to touch another person, even if in a very minimal way.
It makes all the months of preparation, the separation from our wives and kids, sleepless nights, last-minute logistical challenges, hard work and long days, time away from our favorite leisurely activities and emotional drain worth the effort, which is why many of us continue to return; retreat after retreat.
On Sunday, during one of the exercises, we got a special visit from retired Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, who lives on the property, where the retreat house is located in Coconut Grove.
Bishop Roman is probably the holiest man I have ever met. As one of the men in our group pointed out, this is a man that is small in stature. He’s 83-years-old, extremely humble and somewhat frail. Yet, he commands reverence. He exudes holiness. I imagine it is similar to what I have read about Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II. In fact, I believe Bishop Roman is a living saint.
During his visit, Bishop Roman says to us, “There are two types of Catholics; those that are fully awake and alive in their faith, like you are this morning, and those that are sleeping. It is up to you, to go out and wake them.”
And, thus is our charge from Christ to “make disciples of all nations” and why we keep coming back to serve on retreats.
On my way home from the retreat house, I put in the CD that was given to all the participants and heard the Rolling Stones’ song that I had heard for the first time Friday. And, as I listened to the words, I couldn’t help but rolling down my windows and sunroof, cranking up the stereo and singing, “I said yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, you can make a saint of me!” as tears rolled down my face…