Manresa on the Mississippi: “The house of silence and sacred sod, where nobody speaks to anybody and everybody speaks to God.”
How thankful I was both to find a weekend during Lent without too many family events, and also to have a wife generous enough to allow me to take 4 days of personal time. Why did I feel called to go on this retreat? Simple, I wanted to become a better husband to my wife, father to my daughters, and servant of Jesus, my Lord and Savoir. In my desire for this, while “fertile” for a teachable moment, I didn’t expect what the Lord chose to give me at all. Here is the story as it unfolded.
Upon reaching Manresa, just 30 miles outside of New Orleans on the Mississippi River, I could immediately feel the serenity of this 150 year site. Getting out of a car and into a wheelchair, was a gentleman whom I soon found out was 90 years old. As I offered to wheel him into the quarters, I told him it was my first time to Manresa, and asked him how many times he’d been. “Well, this year makes my 68th straight year, son, and I wouldn’t miss this weekend for anything. You are in for an awakening.” As I left him, he said, “Before we go into silence, I want to wish you a good retreat. Keep your ears and mind open.” That I did, and one of the first things I wrote was, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
In the first Principle and Foundation of the Ignatius based exercises, we are reminded that we are “created to praise, reverence, and serve God…and must be freed from anything that hinders that purpose.” Following this, we undergo an examination of conscience. This has always been a somewhat laborious exercise for me, because I figure that I am always taking inventory on what I’m doing wrong, so never before has there been a real lightening bolt during this preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always generated a huge list of sins for which to ask the Lord’s forgiveness, it’s just that there aren’t really too many surprises during the process. Well, this occasion was very different.
I walked into the immensely peaceful land of Manresa. The field of deeply green grass was lined with azaleas, camellias, roses, and many others flowers in full bloom. Towering above the flora stand many majestic Live Oaks abundant with Spanish moss draped over the massive branches blowing in the gentle breeze. Scattered throughout the yard are dozens of comfortable, thick wooden chairs for meditation. I chose one near a statue of the Blessed Virgin and plopped down ready to complete the examination of conscience.
As a matter of course, I decided to read the section in our retreat manual designed for this purpose. It contained an interpretation of the 10 Commandments written by one of the Jesuits at Manresa, Fr. Roma. To begin, I turned to Deuteronomy 5 and read the actual commandments, remembering that Jesus has summarized them for us in Matthew 22:34-40 as the greatest being love of God (for #s1-3) and then love of neighbor as yourself (for #s 4-10). Everything went from routine to “startling revelation” when I got to #6, “Thou shall not commit adultery.” As usual, I merely thought, “OK, got that one no problem. The marriage portion of things is under raps.” Then I turned to Fr. Roma’s interpretation:
“THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT protects the sanctity of marriage, reserving the total sharing of man and woman with each other to the sacred bonds of matrimony, when the love of one man for one woman expresses the kind of commitment and fidelity that God has for each.”
Wow. Back up. I took a double take. Sure I’d not had an affair, but Fr. Roma had totally flipped the commandment on its head so that it was all positive. Suddenly this 6th commandment was not forbidding me from anything, but instead it was calling me towards something ─ a new way of life. And more importantly, the calling of this commandment was something that I was immediately sure I had never even come close to accomplishing in nearly 20 years of marriage. I realized that I’d never really understood the commandment before at all. Having been called to a married life as my vocation, I need to love and devote myself to my spouse so that the bond and support of her literally MIMICS what I expect from God each day. If, despite my faults, I expect clemency, patience, and unbridled charity from God towards me, so then should I demonstrate the same qualities in action (not just words) to my wife without counting either the frequency or the cost. In this way, our marriage will be an exact reflection of God’s love. Why did it take me 20 years to realize what the 6th commandment meant?
That night I went to bed sorry for having been so off the mark. The next morning, the picture became even clearer for me. It was the feast of St. Joseph, which happens to be the namesake of my childhood grade school. It is a shame I didn’t learn more about him when I was there, but it is true that there is just not that much written about Joseph in the Bible, right? Well, what we do know, coupled with a well-founded imagination and prayer, is all we need. This man, Joseph, took on his immortal role (as a mere mortal) with vigor, direction, and a resoluteness that changed the whole of mankind forever.
It is written (by Jacob of Serug) that, “Joseph looked on the Blessed Virgin Mary as the high priests looked on the Holy of Holies.” He loved her with a love beyond all human limits. This then is my calling as a husband ─ to imitate the Holy Family. I have failed to date. I have not prioritized to that degree in loving my wife. It is not enough just to be true, faithful, and in-love with her. More is required.
Again, I prayed: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” The answer was deafening. I must do a much better job of balancing the Mary (spiritual life of prayer and adoration) with the Martha (functional application of faith into action, support, and anticipation of my wife’s needs) at home. I must take my newly advanced faith and depth of union with Jesus actively into my daily life as a husband, and father, friend, and professional. I know that on my own, even with this realization and the desire, I will only be able to come close to success with the help and through the grace of my Lord, Jesus Christ, and through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the ever present infusion of the Holy Spirit.
As I went to sleep that night, I realized that a new phase of my married life was about to start. Nervous and in anticipation of let downs due to lapses in focus, I prayed for guidance. The next morning, I woke before dawn and walked beneath the mighty Oaks once again. With the clouds blowing and a quarter moon visible through the swaying moss of the Louisiana sky, words of a message to my wife began echoing in my mind…I can’t wait to share all of this with her and begin anew as a husband with light and direction…thanks to the Lord’s guidance. AMDG.
Oaks of St. Joseph at Manresa