For a religious, there is really no excuse for not being religious. Daily prayers are built into one’s schedule, one lives in a church having access to Blessed Sacrament 24/7, and on top of that one is not only encouraged but actually required by the Canon Law to do a 5 day retreat every year! The wisdom of the Church here comes to remedy a profound existential paradox: a person may be a professional spiritual leader, with what seems to be a perfect support system, and yet they need those intensified times of renewal lest they get distracted, confused about their priorities, or even burnt out.
Taking advantage of the annual retreat obligation, six months after I started my ministry at St. Catherine’s, I switched off my cell phone and threw myself into the contemplative silence of Queen of Peace Dominican Monastery in Squamish, British Columbia. Lost in the snowy mountains of British Columbia, this community of cloistered Dominican nuns invites people of all faiths to immerse in the pristine beauty God has generously showered on that picturesque location and to spend time with them in quiet reflection and manual labor. The undeniable hallmark of the monastery is the chapel. Perched on the slopes of the Squamish River Valley, it overlooks breathtaking glacial peaks you can contemplate through a gigantic sanctuary window behind the altar. What an experience it was to chant morning prayer with the nuns, slowly “chewing” upon the words of praise the ancient psalms so mightily express, while in front of us the sun was rising over the valley and the mountain snowcaps! Love and joy would fill my heart, along with a tangible experience of peace and warmth. Good Lord, how much did I want to simply stay in that place, in that moment!
At dinner I met a fellow retreatant, a young woman by the name Julia. She escaped her busy life in downtown Vancouver for a weekend. When I shared with her my observation about the window and the mountains, and how wonderful it would be to just make this transcendent moment last forever, she said that those mountain peaks reminded her of the Lord of the Rings. Caradhras? – I asked, thinking of the peak Frodo, Gandalf, and their friends fail to climb in their journey to Rohan. No, she said, the beacons. (For those who don’t remember, or have never watched Peter Jackson’s rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, the beacons are great fireplaces placed on top of fourteen peaks in the mountains between the Kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan, used as a call for help in case one of the allies is in danger). The beacons are lit, said Julia. Gondor is calling for help. The world needs us. We can’t just stay here comfortable when people’s souls are at risk.
As I thought about it, enveloped in the peaceful silence of the monastery chapel, looking through the enormous sanctuary window at the mountain wilderness, I realized that there are another windows back home, at St. Catherine’s. From our Newman chapel you can’t see much except for people walking to and from classes, waiting for a bus, studying on the President’s Circle grass. And it dawned on me that these people are beautiful, as beautiful as – or perhaps even more than – my mystical Canadian mountains.
The beacons are lit, the world is indeed in danger, a huge danger of forgetting how beautiful, how sacred these people are. And the retreat has achieved its goal, with some help from a young Canadian stranger: I returned with a firm resolution to love what I see behind both windows with the same love.