November 2011

Discovering again a language that is accessible

“In over 20 years of working with young people on retreats, I have discovered several things that both lift me up with great joy and other things that leave me somewhat dismayed”, writes Paul O’Shea.

BY Paul O’Shea

Taking time away from the ordinary and regular routine of life in order to recharge the batteries has been part of every religious tradition since time began. So important is the need to spend time outside the ordinary, that business corporations, sports teams, public service departments, include ‘retreat’ time as part of their annual planning. Performance reviews undertaken by nearly every profession are, in many ways, a form of retreat, where an individual takes time to look over their role and make a judgement on their successes and challenges.

It has become practice in Catholic schools to have a retreat experience for senior students. What is it that we do? And, as one parent asked recently, “why do we do it?” In an age when traditional and institutional religion is under increasing pressure from all sides to justify its relevance, the call from the author of 1 Peter rings loud: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”.

A retreat in the Christian tradition is an opportunity to accept the Lord’s invitation to “come away and rest awhile”, to look over life and allow God to enter in and do some housekeeping! Within our tradition there are many schools of spirituality that find expression in different retreat experiences. The Benedictine “school of the Lord’s service” presents those of us who are called to lead retreats to heed well the admonition of Benedict when he says “we must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words” (Rule 20). In her commentary on this passage, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister says: “The function of prayer is not to establish a routine; it is to establish a relationship with the God who is in relationship with us always”.

In over 20 years of working with young people on retreats, I have discovered several things that both lift me up with great joy and other things that leave me somewhat dismayed. The uplifting aspect is the very obvious hunger for the spiritual – the world that lies beyond our sight and is known through faith – and the richness the Christian tradition offers in helping us understand our human reality. There is a hunger for relationship that offers a deep and satisfying meaning to what it is to be human and young, bursting with all the richness of expectations as the threshold of adulthood approaches.

The dismaying aspect is the growing gap between the richness of 20 centuries of accumulated Christian wisdom and tradition, mediated through the saints and sinners who make up the community of the Church, and the serious lack of knowledge of the tradition of so many of our young people despite years of Catholic Christian education. Fortunately the gap is not unbridgeable.

The challenge is to discover again a language that is accessible. Our tradition is of no use if we lack a language to express it in ways that are appreciated by the young people we are called to teach. Our young people live in a world that is saturated with noise. They crave a way of understanding their humanity in safe spaces with people they trust and more often than not, with their friends and peers. This challenge is faced in every generation.

“Religious stuff” makes no sense unless it is unpackaged and interpreted. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity makes this easy through our use of images, music, art, movement, symbol, gesture, ritual, Word and Sacrament. I have always found that young people resonate with these because the power of the sign or symbol goes beyond and touches something deep inside.

So, when we celebrated reconciliation during our recent Year 11 retreat, the tradition was respected while being recast and opened to allow those who were unfamiliar with the opportunity to be embraced by it.

What this meant in practice was creating a space for students where they could sit quietly and…

  • take time to be reconciled with others in the room at one of the ‘reconciliation points’ marked by two facing chairs;
  • make a gesture of reconciliation with someone who was not present on retreat at ‘the absent person reconciliation point’ marked by another two chairs;
  • sit at the reconciliation point in front of the crucifix, the (Greek) ikons of Christ, his Mother, John the Baptist, the images of Benedict and Scholastica and the retreat candle;
  • go and experience individual sacramental reconciliation with the priest, or sit and be on their own.

That most students found themselves able to participate in one or other of these actions and do so for about an hour in a way that suggested a serious engagement with the process, spoke much about the power and richness of the tradition in its traditional forms and in more contemporary guises.

The witness of faith for the Christian is an integral part of our tradition. St Francis put it eloquently when he said “go out and preach the Gospel; and when necessary, use words”. Christianity is fides quarens intellectum – faith seeking understanding – to use the phrase of another Benedictine, St Anselm. The witness of faith for those working with young people on retreat is to present the totality of our tradition: prayer – formal and informal communion with God; theology – the articulation of the human search for God; liturgy – the ritualised action of the meeting of the human with the divine in Word and Sacrament; evangelisation – the bringing of God into the totality of the human experience.

I can find no better way of describing all of this than what Eastern Christianity calls “divinisation”, the radical and outrageous Christian belief that we are called to be “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.3-4). This is what makes a retreat “Christian” – the opportunity to allow oneself to be open to this absolutely unbelievable claim. No other religious tradition makes a claim like this; none.

Our Year 11 retreat followed the journey from self through relationships with family and friends into the experience of relationship with God and the community of the Church. Some students found this exciting and refreshing; others found it challenging and demanding, but all discovered a richness within their human story that pointed beyond themselves towards a greater reality and purpose.

At the end of the retreat I was convinced that the young women and men of Rosebank’s Year 11 cohort, ably shepherded by the staff who walked with them, were immersed into a rich experience of the Catholic Christian tradition, and found that God can be imagined and experienced in so many ways. Let us continue to “lift up our hearts”.

And this is my experience at the end of every retreat; God has not yet tired of humanity. In our young people God’s promise is renewed yet again, and the words of Gregory Nazianzen from the fourth century ring with promise: “I must be buried with Christ and rise with him again, be co-heir with Christ, become a daughter, a son of God and indeed God him/herself”.

Paul O'Shea

Paul O'Shea is Dean of Mission at Rosebank College, Five Dock, and has taught for many years in Catholic schools in Sydney. He holds degrees in theology, education and history, and has lectured for many years in church history, interfaith dialogue and the dynamics of teaching religous education. Paul recently published "A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe".

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