by Fr. Tom Widner, SJ
"A retreat," says Mike Besl, a 36-year-old businessman and retreatant at the Jesuits' Milford Spiritual Center in Ohio, "is a chance for me to stop and contemplate where I am in my spiritual development and relationship with others. I look at my personal roles and reset them if I have to. It focuses me on the bigger picture."
Mike, motivated by his grandfather, father, and an older brother--all regulars at Milford--says that his interest is "partly the legacy, partly the tradition. It's my way to be in touch with the prior generation."
But it is more than legacy or tradition. For Mike, the fifteen annual retreats he has made are times of reflection and assessment. "I find God in all things even if it is just a reaffirmation of all I find in my daily faith," he explains.
"Whether we are aware of it or not, at every moment of our existence we are encountering God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--who is trying to catch our attention, trying to draw us into a reciprocal conscious relationship," writes Fr. William Barry, SJ, in his 1991 book Finding God in All Things. His work offers an overview of Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, one way to encounter God. Barry, who insists that God tries to catch our attention, implies that we retain considerable freedom even while God pursues us. The Spiritual Exercises, according to Barry, are "ways of helping us to become more aware of the reality of our existence as the objects of God's communication."
Jesuit retreat houses, including Milford, communicate the Exercises in a variety of creative ways for the benefit of many people like Mike. The conference retreats he attends are a familiar type of retreat: a weekend during which a director gives a series of talks based on the Exercises to a group.
But conference retreats are only one of the ways the Exercises are presented by Milford's diverse and dedicated staff.
Carol DeFiore, SNDdeN, is a part-time staff member at Milford who coordinates individually directed retreats. "People forget God is there. God is there all along, listening," she says. "Anything I can do to help them see that is my role."
Jennifer MacArthur, who coordinates Milford's youth retreats, gives and receives an abundance of energy and enthusiasm in these retreats: "I see barriers being broken down," she says, "stereotypes destroyed and new friendships built. It's so wonderful to hear from young people on our retreats that they understand how important it is to listen to another's story in order to truly know them. In doing so, they minister to one another and are the eyes and ears, hands and feet of Christ to those around them. I'm proud to be a part of that experience."
Milford also offers the Retreat in Daily Life (the Nineteenth Annotation Retreat), which allows people to make the Spiritual Exercises over several months. They commit to daily prayer and meet with a Milford retreat director on a weekly basis at Milford or a nearby parish.
"I was already in spiritual direction when my director encouraged me to make the Retreat in Daily Life," says housewife and mother Diane Norman. "I was hesitant about doing the retreat," she admits, but while meditating during the initial meeting, she realized it would work.
Diane says her spiritual director "feels I made good use of it and learned a lot more than she did when she made a 30-day retreat. It enabled me to look at life and see what distracts me from the Lord. In my time with the Lord now, I use some of the methods in the process of being with and listening to the Lord."
Lynn Martiny discovered Milford was offering a DeMello-style retreat, named for Fr. Tony DeMello, a Jesuit who has had a profound impact in the field of spirituality. DeMello retreats are similar to conference retreats in content and length but are not conducted in silence; they offer interaction and discussion among retreatants.
"I'd been thinking about doing a retreat for a couple of years," says Lynn, married to a Milford board member. She had considered another retreat, but "I liked the DeMello retreat's stress on awareness and the idea of being able to interact with God in the here and now," Lynn explains. One liturgy during the retreat was offered outdoors. "It was the interaction with nature, with knowing nature as Church that excited me. I became aware that the kingdom is here," she says.
What was Lynn looking for? "I'm in midlife," she says. "My husband and I lost our business the past year. We worked hard for something, and it was taken away. I became disenchanted and began asking, 'Is this all there is?' It made me look for something more. As a result, I learned that we are more than what we did or what we earned."
The DeMello retreat provided another dividend for Lynn. "I found others on the same search. There was an immediate camaraderie that was appealing. The retreatants were quite a diverse group, but all had a common search, and I was very impressed and warmed by that."
"I wanted to make a 30-day Ignatian retreat," says Judy Turner, a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), wife, and mother, "because of my long admiration for the Jesuits. A formation tradition that produces such zeal, sacrifice, and effective ministry was worth exploring."
For Judy, the 30-day retreat she made last summer at Milford was "a gift from God to me. It was a luxury to have so much uninterrupted time to reflect on Scripture, pray, and enjoy nature. There were struggles, but the overall flavor of the time was joy. The silence helped me notice so many gifts of God that I usually miss. The daily meetings with my director kept the focus on God and not on my own progress or lack of progress!"
Daily mass, the high point of Judy's retreat, "was a tangible expression of Christ becoming more real to me and nurturing my spirit."
And the journal she kept during the retreat has become her personal scripture. "God communicated with me," Judy reflects, "and my life is changed. I started the retreat with questions regarding my marriage and direction for ministry. I was led to recommit to my marriage, and the marriage is richer and more enjoyable than ever. I sense that I am to remain in my current ministry for a time, but I know now that the real issue is God's freedom with me.
"Toward the end of the retreat God asked me, 'How much freedom do I have with you? Can I do anything with you I choose?' At a deeper level than ever before, I answered, 'Yes.' "
For Judy, "the wonderful discovery since that time is that God's freedom also means my freedom. I do my ministry in a more God-focused way, with less need to succeed or impress people. There is less burden, less anxiety, more joy."
How has she continued the retreat?
"The retreat experience continues to make Scripture come alive for me," she explains. "The Examen of Consciousness at least once a day keeps me open to God's shaping my life. The Ignatian principles of discernment have brought light to confusing situations and guidance for godly decisions. I really can't imagine how my life would be at this point if I had not made the 30-day retreat. It was a life-changing experience."
Housewives, business executives, religious womenmdash;many people find at Milford a sacred ground to which they are drawn to rediscover themselves and their roots in God's call. The center describes its mission as "providing programs, facilities, and an environment that help people to find God in all things and to live lives of compassionate service." To seek. To find. To live. Therein lies Milford's mission.