Articles

WHERE EVEN WOMEN STOP TALKING

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1952
Articles

WHERE EVEN WOMEN STOP TALKING

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1952

WHERE EVEN WOMEN STOP TALKING

At retreats across the country more and more Canadians, both men and women, are finding that a week end of silence, prayer and meditation opens the door to a new personal peace

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

EVERY FRIDAY a fast - growing army of Canadians from bum to bencher, medical man to mother of eight, bid their friends, families and cronies good-by for a new kind of week end. They don’t fish, hunt, golf, ski, swim, sail, dance, drink or loaf around reading The Case of the Lame Canary. They do something a lot more relaxingthey stop talking. They think, pray, listen to their spiritual leaders, take a good look at themselves and try to get in touch with God. They call it “making a retreat.” Paradoxically, although they don't set out for the usual week-ender’s objective, "having wonderful time,” they often have the time of their lives.

The eighteen-year-old daughter of « Toronto hardware merchant reported, after making her first retreat, "I feel as if I were walking over five feet of eggs and not breaking one.”

A printing salesman said, “I make a retreat every year before I go on holidays so I can really relax and enjoy myself.”

A reformed alcoholic told me, “A retreat helps a man recover from what makes him a drunk— having nothing in life lugger than himself. Before I made my first retreat I was like the girl who said, ‘I believe in God, but I’m not nuts about Him.’ ”

An Anglican priest stated flatly. "Any man who doesn’t make a retreat is a damned fool.”

In « world bone-tired of noise, speed, traffic, worry and war news, silence can have a powerful, simple appeal. Technically, retreatants can talk at certain times, such as during dinner and supper, and short "recreation” periods afterward. But for the greater part of forty-eight hours they worship, move around, meditate and mingle in silence.

The principle of retreats is nothing new to Anglican or Roman Catholic churchmen. Priests of both churches make retreats as part of their ministry. Roman Catholic prep-school and college students make three-day retreats at the beginning of the school year, which most of them recall the way they look back on a good scrubbing. "It's like medicine,” one priest said, "they don't like it,

but they know it’s good for them.” But voluntary group retreats for the average golf-playing, moviegoing Joe who is no more religious in the usual sense than you or I or the guy next door is something new. And it’s spreading like » 1940 chain letter, even among people outside the Roman Catholic and Anglican faiths.

“Men that I had to talk into making their first retreat a few years ago,” one retreat captain said, “phone me now to ask if they can come and bring a couple of friends.”

The first retreat house was established in Canada forty-three years ago in Montreal, with twelve people attending. Last year, in the province of Quet>ec alone, there were twenty-two Roman Catholic retreat houses for men and seventeen for women, which were attended by over ninety-two thousand retreatants. Attendance at one Toronto retreat house has grown from three hundred to fifteen hundred in the past ten years. The Anglican Church has set up an Association for the Promotion of Retreats which is affiliated with a parent organization in England, where "making a retreat” is as familiar a term as “making ^ buck” is in Canada.

In the United States it is estimated that in the past twenty-five years the number of annual retreatants has grown to a quarter of a million.

In Canada the Anglican Church holds week-end, single-day and part-day retreats in convents, monasteries and schools under the auspices of such religious orders as the Sisters of the Church, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine and the Society of St. John the Evangelist. But Roman Catholic retreats generally last at least two days and are held in special retreat houses such as Manresa. one of those for the Toronto district.

Manresa. located on one hundred and seven landscaped and wooded acres near Pickering, Ont., is a lush eighteen-room country house with broadloomed corridors, tile bathrooms, glassed-in showers and « seven-car garage. It formerly belonged to a wealthy American promoter.

In charge is Father James O'Gorman Fleming, a brusque, vigorous, fortyContinued on page 71

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six-year-old Jesuit priest with white hair, a pink face, humorous blue eyes, chestnut eyebrows, which he brushes with a papier knife while talking, anc a faint Irish brogue. He lives there with a houseman, a gardener, a German | shepherd dog named Mike and a Chinese cook named Robert Chong who, when I asked him if he’d evei made a retreat, laughed and said, “Hot today, isn’t it?”

Fleming said, “I’ve never asked any of my staff their views on retreats. I’d consider it an intrusion on an employee’s

Retreatants have their own simple quarters, a third of a big partitioned bedroom, each section with prayer desk, dresser and bed. They make their own beds, eat their meals together in a main dining room, and spend the week end in a physical environment that is somewhere between that of a summer lodge and a small expensive family hotel in town.

The retreat follows a fixed schedule, built around a series of informal addresses by a Jesuit priest appointed retreat master for the week end. He sits at a desk in the narrow chapel, which was originally a big sun porch, and here, in conversational nonchurchly tones, he explains the points of the exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order of Jesuits and universal patron of retreats. The address over, the men file out and begin the meditation period which follows each talk, sitting around by themselves in the library, the lounge or, in good weather, out around the grounds, thinking over what they have just heard. Most of them wear sports ' shirts, slacks and knock-around shoes ! Sports clothes are recommended on the grounds that they help ease the tension some men feel so close to church.

To a newcomer it’s t bit startling to see so many men dressed as if for golf or holiday horseplay, sitting around thinking. The men can smoke except during prayer periods or devotions. Veteran retreatants warn newcomers to bring plenty of cigarettes and matches, as a heavy smoker, cut off for two days, is ap>t to find it impossible to get his mind on anything.

Peri >ds are marked like changes ot class in high school, by the ringing ot an electric bell that can be heard all through the retreat house and for a I long distance out in the grounds. • Fleming appears now and then from his office upstairs, passing silently along the colorful corridors in his black cassock or stepping out briskly in the grounds, but it is the retreat captain who shepherds the group through the practical details of the week end and appoints men to such minor offices as bell ringer and acolyte.

Men with serious personal problems to get sorted out need no prompting to make full use of the principles of the retreat.

“Many of them have tried other wavs without success," Father Fleming says. “To them i retreat is t last chance. They face things in i way that they’ve never faced them before.”

Rut a few go through the monastic routine like a boy on a school visit to the Egyptian pottery section. Silence is not always a hundred percent. It’s a shock to some. and. in the first stages, a bit embarrassing to most.

A fast-talking fashionably dressed woman secretary who organizes retreats to one of Toronto’s two Roman Catholic retreat houses for women told me, “I I

was told by a priest that the men aren't as good at being silent as the women.”

But when I asked her what priest, she said. "That would be telling, wouldn't it?"

Most talkers simply keep going by sheer momentum after meals, but others try to talk in gestures and sign language, missing the whole idea, which is to be silent, "not only outwardly but inwardly." Others go for walks in pairs, keeping considerable distance between one another and talking out of the comer of their mouths, like convicts planning a prison break. This dodge doesn't fool Fleming who can spot talkers the way an ornithologist can spot a redpoll warbler. Now and then he stands on the terrace

muttering things like "Look at those two. Talking to beat the band." Usually he lets it pass, unless the talker is bothering others. Then Fleming gets the retreat captain to check him. ("They don't mind the retreat captain, but they might be upset if I did it.")

Usually there are thirty-five to forty men at Manresa on a retreat, although the week end I was there there were only twelve: the retreat captain, a dark nervous accountant in his midfifties: a Canadien importer: a brisk red-faced bald man who told me, "Don't mention my occupation, just say I composed When the Boys Come Marching Home": a thimble-sized professional magician: a shy-looking shaky day laborer: a department-store clerk: an apprentice electrician: a commercial artist: a secretary: an engineer: a Bell Telephone lineman: and a tall pleasantfaced restaurant operator with sad brown baggy eyes.

I arrived in rime for a noon meal of onion soup, boiled beef, creamed potatoes, carrots and peas, applesauce, ginger cake and coffee. Everyone got a long way with the meal in silence although there was no restriction on talking during this period. The retreat captain asked the waiter in a puzzled stage whisper if Father Fleming had issued special orders. The waiter shook his head, shrugged and looked mystified. Everybody at the table had been listening in. They all started to laugh and talk at once, each saving he hadn't been talking simply because nobody else had. It was the twelfth of July.

I was introduced amid general laughter as a Protestant making a retreat from the Orangemen. The man who composed When the Boys Come Marching Home told a joke about i man who suddenly became violent about the Jews, charging them with crucifying Christ, and who, being told in some amazement that that happened two thousand years ago, said he'd only heard about it yesterday. Somebody called out. "That man at the end of the table is a writer: give him more soup." The retreat captain told me the trick in making a retreat was to get in a room with someone who didn't snore. He added. "We had a salesman here once who was so used to having a room up over a streetcar line i he couldn't sleep for the quiet. Lots j of men are scared to leave the house. They're afraid of the great outdoors."

After dinner I followed the men i around the Stations of the Cross, a devotion commemorating the main i events of Christ's journey from Pilate's

tribunal to Calvary. We walked in a body to fourteen locations along the gravel pathways, each position marked with a wooden plaque on a standard. The laborer had been chosen to read the prayers at each station. He was in shirt sleeves. He wore braces over his faded pink-striped shirt. He was nervous and unhappy looking and pretty shaky. His voice quavered.

“Then he released to them Barabbas, and, having scourged Jesus, delivered Him unto them to be crucified.”

It was hot. A cicada was buzzing off in the hot fields. The men’s boots made scuffling sounds in the gravel.

“Wishing to liberate Jesus.” the quavering voice went on, “Pilate brings Him before the multitude. He is bruised and bleeding from head to foot . .

Mike, the German shepherd dog, appeared with « baby rabbit in his jaws, put it down playfully and watched it curiously while it flopped on the ground until it died of fright. We shuffled silently to the next station. A blue dragonfly, its body throbbing in the hot sunlight, clung to the wooden station.

“O Jesus I have little reason to become indignant at the people who clamored for Your death.” the laborer read in a thin voice.

The men repeated the words in a mumbled monotone. “. . They onlyrepresented me and other sinners in their cry . . .”

Three Sabre jets tore through the hot summer sky, their hollow scream drowning out the quavering voice of the little man in the pink-striped shirt.

I left the group and walked toward a ravine with the retreat captain, who had planned to break his schedule for that week end to give me the information I wanted. We crossed a high rustic wooden bridge.

“Those men are all making a serious effort,” he said. “The man reading the service is a bit nervous, but he's trying.”

He showed me around a deeply wooded section of the grounds. When we came back and sat down in the library, the Quebec importer, a handsome. expansive elderly man smoking a cigar, sat down with us. evidently declaring a brief recreation period of his own in the interests of giving me information. Out the window I could see half a dozen men sitting under trees. Four were reading: two were looking out over the countryside and smoking.

The retreat captain told me that getting people to come out on a retreat for the first time takes a bit of selling. "For one thing they’re a bit shy of spending the week end with strangers. And they don't know what’s going to happen to them. They don’t even know how it’s going to feel to stop talking. One old fellow brought a deck of cards with him so he could play solitaire in case things got too tough. He didn’t open the pack.”

Many of the retreats are organized and promoted by a ten - man lav executive of the Catholic Laymen

Retreat Association, appointed each year by Fleming and under his direction. who hold formal meetings once a month at Manresa.

“We discuss problems, hold post mortems on week ends that didn't go over so well. And we appoint retreat captains for each week end. Each retreat captain lines up the men for his own week end. but we all work together too to get men out. We have phoning bees. We meet at night in business offices where members of the association work in the day time, and use the phones. We all get on a phone and call prospects. We get the names different ways. Some are turned over by Father Fleming. Some come from the parishes.

“We get all kinds of excuses. They say, T know retreats are a wonderful thing. 1 just don't feel like it right now. I feel holy enough. When they do get here some of them do a lot of kidding at first They say, ‘What a sacrifice' What « week end for golf!’ But it’s just to cover up their nervousness. They all leave here enthusiastic about the whole thing.”

The occasional person who believes repentance is proportional to discomfort, he told me. is a bit indignant about having things so good.

“One man had been living with somebody else's wife and he exp< : c d to get chewed out about it for f. i veight hours. He was sore when he wasn’t. He thought it would be something like having a shower. Get cleaned up over the week end and go back to the girl friend on Monday. He just missed the point.”

We went upstairs and on the second floor I could see one man sitting at his desk reading and across the hall from him another writing at his desk. '1 he retreat captain told me that November until April a~e the best months to get people out. Enthusiastic organizers are not above using a trick or two in the good cause of getting a prospect over the first hurdle. Once two trout fishermen, temporarily becoming fishers of men. arranged to go on a fishing trip with two cronies, bought four bottles of whisky to make the whole thing convincing, skilfully deposited the two innocent victims in the happy fishing grounds of Manresa. After the week end the two new retreatants took the bottles home, uncorked. They’ve been regular customers at Manresa ever

“Men with wives who make retreats themselves usually don't have any trouble getting away. Even if their wives don't make retreats they don’t mind as long as they’re left the car. One woman told Father Fleming If you can knock any religion into my

old man's head I'm all for it.’ It’s in a woman's interest when her husband makes a retreat anyway. One man said he found his wife unbearable until he made a retreat. Then he found he wasn't so hot himself."

But occasionally, he said, a wife gets a bit sharp about the whole deal, figuring that a man can go a long way without his soul, but he won't get far if he doesn't look after such household chores as fixing the plumbing. Sometimes wives won't call their husbands to the phone when the retreat captain calls. The odd one shouts back. "I'd like to see him go this week end. I'd just like to see him gol " One wife getting a look at Manresa for the first time. said, with some asperity. "Howdo you keep them from coming every week end?”

Lots of Alcoholics Anonymous have found making a retreat a logical followup to their twelve-point program and Fleming encourages them to make retreats. "There's a remarkable resemblance between the A.A. program and the first part of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.” he says. "One of the big difficulties of an alcoholic is recognizing the reason for his problem. A retreat helps him do it."

Other people who make group retreats to Manresa are doctors, dentists, lawyers, department - store groups. Immigrant groups often make a retreat, bring their own retreat master who speaks their language. Among the professional men. doctors show the liveliest spirits. "They act just like a bunch of kids," Fleming says proudly. ' Xext to the parish priest, they're the busiest men of all. They give up their time, get another man to take their place in the office. They make a real sacrifice.”

Manresa is run by donations and retreatants are asked to give what they can: it is pointed out that it costs between ten and fifteen dollars to feed and house a man over the week end. Donations have ranged from nothing to one hundred dollars. When I asked Fleming if Manresa showed a profit he said. "Are you kidding? I had to beg money this spring to keep things going."

People of all faiths are welcome at Manresa. Fleming watches the newcomers arrive dubiously, looking a bit like men in a dentist's office, and leaving with enthusiastic vows to be back with as many friends as they can bring, and behaving, as Fleming puts it. "as if they were walking on air."

In the way of publicity, one of his executives, an advertising man. has prepared a slick plastic folder that starts: "Manresa offers you two days of physical rest, of mental peace and spiritual refreshment and an opportunity to get away from it all." Which is a modern way of saying what one early Christian. Peter Chrysologus, said. "Let the voice of God sound in our ears: let not familiar sounds confuse our hearing.” Or, as Father Fleming put it, tapping his desk with his papier knife: “A retreat is the best way to get back on the beam.” ir