Good Friday, 2021
In mid-February I attended a retreat at Discovery House, an oasis of spiritual healing nestled at the intersection of Wharton State Forest and the blueberry farms that, long ago, helped earn New Jersey its “Garden State” nickname. The group of faithful Catholic men, in whom I humbly claim membership, is known as”Sons of the Father” (SOTF). We deepen the spiritual roots of our faith in this training ground in the hope that we can be as fruitful as those blueberry bushes by living the Gospel message of Beatitude and the consequent Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.
SOTF has the good fortune and great blessing of receiving spiritual direction by the Founder of Discovery House, Monsignor Mike Mannion, a man whose holiness and understanding of mercy were formed by his lengthy work with Mother Teresa, a humble woman. We are sponsored by The King’s Men, an apostolate founded by Mark Houck, himself a member and leader of SOTF, and its mission statement reads:
“Under Christ the King’s universal call to serve, we as men, pledge to unite and build up other men in the mold of leader, protector, and provider through education, formation, healing, and action.”
During the February retreat, “Fr Mike” opened with a meditation and reflection on the Holy Eucharist, titled “Chosen, Blessed, Broken, Given,” to help each man have a deeper and more intimate understanding of the sacrifice made by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I wish we had recorded it, because I never had such a clearer experience of the Blessed Sacrament. But I do remember the essence of it, because after he finished and we had a moment of silence, he asked me to share my understanding and embodiment of those words from my experiences. This was going to be difficult…
Since February of 2018 I have been dealing with the fallout of a massive betrayal by a close friend. This is the second such experience for me. The first helped motivate to write the first of what I hope will be many books: A Boy for All Seasons, but a Man…? . In it I describe a process of boys becoming virtuous men according to the Christian and Classical traditions and in the context of a hostile culture and suffering. I began to share my reflection of Chosen, Blessed, Broken, Given.
I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
John the Baptist (Jn 1:33)
Was I chosen? Did God choose me for these great difficulties? I don’t know. God didn’t choose to cause the suffering inflicted upon Job, but He did allow Satan to test his faithful servant (I’m not as blameless and upright as God’s servant, Job). That’s a heavy load for a believer, let alone one who doesn’t believe. I’m sure that load has proven too heavy for many to continue believing. But then that begs the question that I would ask of them: “What does Good Friday mean to you?” I don’t ask that casually or simplistically. Nothing transforms a person as much as suffering, or the realization (after honest introspection) that he or she has caused his or her suffering or caused it in others by sinful actions. Depending upon one’s formation, these difficult experiences can either deepen faith or break it.
However, I believe I was chosen by God long ago, so He could offer me the gift of faith (along with love, mercy and trust), and then the family and societal culture to help grow that faith. Eventually in my adulthood I could freely accept that gift because I better understood it, or rather, better understood Him because our faith is in a Person– Jesus the Christ–who said “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rv 21:5) I am in good company, since Jesus was Himself put to the test by the “prince of darkness” (Milton) and the “father of all lies” (Jn 8:44) by Judas’ betrayal. I believe He is making me new through this suffering.
The next part, Blessed, also challenged me, but perhaps not so much. I believe God has blessed me by choosing me, because I eventually learned from Father Jim Hutchins (see below) to believe that my necessary purification through these great challenges will lead to my sanctification and the sanctification of others. He taught what our faith has long taught: “Don’t waste your suffering! Use it by offering it to others in an effort to sanctify them!” I also believe that how I go through the good and the bad of life teaches and, more importantly, encourages others. In this I am mainly thinking of my children, Kevin and Maureen. They, too, have suffered; and since they most likely have many years ahead of them, they will again experience some suffering.
It was when I got to the Broken part that I stumbled and fell from the weight of this particular cross. I had great difficulty trying to describe to my retreat brothers the betrayal and its effects. “Have you forsaken me, God?” That statement represents the greatest example of the desolation one can feel from the seeming absence of God. Therefore from this experience and his betrayal by Judas, I know that Jesus and I can identify with each other. That’s a powerful realization, especially when I know that I’ve also betrayed Jesus by my sin. I don’t say this to suggest that I go around down in the mouth and always look at life through dark glasses. Those experiences motivate me toward charity, stemming from my humility in thinking of the “other” before thinking of myself. I know He knows how “forsaken” feels, from both his sleeping disciples and his “missing” Father. I told my retreat brothers that transformation was all well and good, but that I had had enough of it. I know it’s a good thing; but as the saying goes, “too much of a good thing…” I was tired of being a Transformer! I needed the Consolation that only the Chosen One can provide.
The “Given” part did not come from me, but from the Holy Spirit through my retreat brothers. At the end of my reflection, my dear friend and radio/podcast co-host Dan Duddy was the first brother to give a part of himself in his own reflection upon mine, expressing a better understanding of the Holy Eucharist each time the priest chooses, blesses, breaks and then gives the “Bread of Life” during Mass. That’s a great insight. Further inspiring comments came from George, Shaun, Donald, Fred, Kirby, Mark and Ben, beloved friends all.
Returning to Samson…
On Palm Sunday, I completed the “Samson Healing Retreat” run by The King’s Men with retreat Master Mark Houck. Those four days amplified the February retreat described above by a factor of 10. My summary letter below, which I sent to my retreat brothers, gives just a peek into this truly transforming experience. To the men reading this post, I recommend it highly.
As you might remember me saying on our opening night introduction, I walked into the retreat with a fair amount of uncertainty and hesitation, and not exactly sure why Mark invited me (urged me!). As you might also remember, I wondered what healing I could possibly receive while still in the process of receiving wounds, especially in a group full of strangers. By Sunday afternoon, I knew why Mark had invited me and wondered no more about what healing I could receive.
I’m not sure I have the words to express the joy, inspiration, courage, holiness and, yes, healing, I received from you good and great men. Together we opened ourselves and, most especially, our hearts to each other, thereby allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us. The experience sometimes seemed to me as if each man began the retreat with a large onion in his hand, one representing his burdens, and as each of us peeled off layer after layer our eyes stung from the flow of cleansing tears–until the onion was gone. The Consolation had begun!
I have eternal gratitude for the following:
Mark’s belief in me and his trust in us. His leadership and guidance throughout helped us emerge as a team, with each player wanting to play his own part and help his brother do likewise. No egos! The thought he gave to the forest Stations of the Cross, the Name, Claim and Tame witness and Saturday’s Adoration during which Fr Jim placed the Monstrance–Jesus–right in our faces, all stand out for me. You gave me enough time in my face-to-face with our Dear Lord so that He could strip away any remaining guardedness and helped me face the fears of my situation—and give them all to Him. I can never thank you enough, but I’ll keep on trying.
Dan’s “silver lining” role and his witness. He is a man of the turf, in which lies the blood, sweat and tears of many boys and young men he has mentored (including my son, as my marriage was ending). He has borne many of their burdens, and he helps me carry mine. His name implies that he knows what it feels like to struggle, and the strength of his painful witness helped us to carry on. His bold public confession about his player Lewis, his deceased son Francis and himself spoke beyond his words. I learned new things about him, and had plenty of time to meditate on those things as I lay awake long into the night listening to him snore…
Tim’s desire to help those unfairly oppressed by life’s bullies greatly inspired me; but I had no expectation that I would eventually be on the receiving end of his encouragement, in response to my witness talk on Saturday night. I will never forget it, nor his loving hug right afterward. He personifies Semper Fi
As I continue to experience Kirby’s caring, loving and intelligent witness I come away inspired and encouraged. He listens, and cares, and then afterwards offers wise counsel. But most memorable of all was his completely unexpected offer to help me re-roof my house! That just blew me away. I will never forget it.
I didn’t get a chance to talk with Mike at the October retreat. So, during our “Stations of the Cross” experience with him as my encouraging mentor, I began to realize that I had missed an opportunity to get to know him at that retreat. But that was all made right at the conclusion of Sunday breakfast, when he sat down opposite me to share his powerfully moving story. To say that his sharing (from caring!) impacted and encouraged me would be an understatement. Like Tim, he, too, did that after the Saturday night “N, C & T” talks. I will never forget it.
As I was on my way to the shower, I told Dan I had forgotten my shampoo. Knowing Dan’s beautiful head, I hadn’t expected him to have any. But then Charles emerged from his room after having overheard our conversation and held out a bottle of his own—which he did again the following night. And as we were saying our good-byes in the parking lot Sunday afternoon, Charles did a kindness to me that related to my book, one that took me by surprise and made clear his generosity. Small gestures, perhaps; but these, along with his sharing the Simon of Cyrene burdens with Bob, were acts of charity (love) that I won’t forget.
Newmie! My Simon of Cyrene, one whose generosity helps me carry my cross. No one’s generosity is unlimited, but I have yet to experience the limits of his. He, too, is unforgettable.
Steve, the cross that you built helped to represent and demonstrate for us your very difficult experience: the stripping away from you much of your “garments”. Whatever those people did, they couldn’t take away your status as a child of God made in His image and likeness. Your courageous perseverance helps me to persevere; and I won’t forget it.
Bob, during our conversations on Thursday your head and torso were a bit low, an understandable posture considering the weight on your shoulders that you carried to Discovery House. But as the retreat unfolded, I saw you gradually stand taller; and then during our good-bye conversation on Sunday, I realized you and I were seeing eye-to-eye. I won’t forget it. Well done!
Alex, I heard the weight fall off your shoulders during our kneeling adoration, when you came face-to-face with our Lord and released at least some of it to Him. I admired you for your courage at having done that, in front of other men. I thank you for your kind words at our departure on Sunday and won’t forget them.
Joe, such maturity at such a young age! A powerful Station of the Cross, showing the frenzy of sin at the top. Thank you for your faithful witness, and for the kind words at our departure.
Vincent (“Michaelangelo”), an artist whose Stations of the Cross representation helped me have a deeper understanding of the Gospels than I’d had up to that point. The passion in your voice as you spoke of it helped me imagine more than what I saw at first glance.
Chris, I have fond memories of you because of your words to me at the final Host/Cross presentation touched me deeply, because of their content and because I know that you meant them particularly for me. You want me–all of us–to heal.
Pat and Matt, while we didn’t talk much, I appreciated your quiet background leadership in helping to make the retreatants’ experience a wonderful and memorable. Pat, thanks for the promise prayers. Matt, thanks for the simple but memorable encouraging pat on my back after I had concluded my “N, C & T” talk.
Father Jim, truly a “father” to us. Provider of the life-saving sacraments and encouraging pastoral care, both of which protect us from doubt and despair. Your love helped guide each man toward greater self-knowledge during the Adoration liturgy, a greater trust in his Samson brothers and a deeper belief in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—through good or bad. Thank you for helping us experience our suffering as purification and sanctification, and for helping us understand how to move forward with eyes on the Cross.
I have the agape love for each of you.
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Author: A Boy for All Seasons, but a Man…?
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