By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
As part of our spiritual exercises, priests are expected to do an annual retreat, which we usually do as a group. But this year I decided to go on a solo, private and silent five-day retreat in late October somewhere in the hills of Colorado — a retreat with no moderator, no scheduled conferences, no presentations — just me and whatever I chose to do. I was all excited to be there, because for me it wasn’t just another priestly spiritual exercise; it was a time to get away and be on a journey alone with the Lord.
When I arrived at the retreat center, the director, a priest, took me to my room, which was one of more than 25 rooms on the second floor of the building. To say the least, my first inner reaction was disappointment. The room was small and had no bathroom/toilet in it. He asked me to drop my bags in the room and follow him. He took me down the hallway, and after passing several rooms he pointed out to me the men’s restroom. In it there were two toilets and two shower stalls. Then he pointed to another restroom down the hallway. He told me they’re all shared bathrooms and toilets, and that I could use any of them except the female one, which was down the other side. Meanwhile, there were other retreatants also doing either private or small group retreats. I thought, “These two little bathrooms and toilets for all of us to share?” I went back to my room and began to wonder how long these five days would be. The idea of no bathroom in my room, but only shared bathrooms on the hallway for a number of people, made me downcast.
Honestly, everything I saw at that moment crushed my expectations. I thought to myself that by the time I walked the hallway to and from the bathroom at 2 a.m., any chance of going back to sleep would have disappeared! I thought of how I would have to walk to the bathroom wearing my clothes (and my face mask, of course) in the morning to go take a shower; or how I might have to wait in line because others were already there ahead of me. All these thoughts went through my mind within an hour of my arrival.
Believe me, so many things came into my head that I started wondering if it was a bad choice to be there. I even told myself: “This is the last time I will come here.” All these thoughts on the first day —I wondered if I could survive the next five days!
As these thoughts lingered in my mind, I heard a silent, unrecognized voice inside of me saying, “But I thought you came here for a retreat? You are not here to be comfortable for yourself but to be comfortable with God.” That inner voice reminded me that it wasn’t about my comfort, that, after all, it was about how comfortable God would make me if I would abide joyfully in his presence. This inner voice was so calming. And right then I knew that God was present in that place. It was then that I realized fully the purpose of my leaving Dallas to go to Colorado — I came to be with the Lord.
Reflecting deeply, I finally came to be at peace with myself. Satan wanted to steal the moment from me. I just had to realize quickly that I wasn’t on vacation and this wasn’t a hotel, and it wasn’t my house or some luxury resort where I could seek my own comfort. This was a retreat house, a place to find myself when I felt lost in the hustle and bustle of the world.
Coincidentally, I had decided to reread the book “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis for my retreat spiritual reading. While reading, I came across these words: “True peace of heart, then, is found in resisting passions, not in satisfying them.” This resonated with my experience and spiritual journey during the retreat.
As I did not get what I desired on arriving at the retreat, these words truly told me that I was on a retreat seeking God, not pleasure, and that to find Him, I must resist my personal desires for comfort. I then resolved to totally disengage myself from any source of external distractions. Hence, for the remaining days of my retreat I totally shut down any form of technology, including my phone, email, social media, Internet, etc. And, of course, no television. Giving up these technologies and media for five days created my most peaceful five days in recent years. I needed a reset from the noise.
Sometimes in our lives we come across uncomfortable situations that may even embarrass us. But oftentimes it’s our preconceived expectations that make us suffer mental agony, especially when those expectations are not met. Remember that God is present even in our disappointments, and He can help us turn those disappointments into joy. Unfortunately, many times we ignore that silent voice, and hence we remain irredeemably disappointed with life.
My experience at the retreat center only reminds me how hard it is for people in our time to become saints. We hear and read about the lives of the saints, how they mortified themselves and made themselves uncomfortable, sometimes even deliberately, in order to be comfortable with God. Some left the comfort of their luxuries and slept on stone beds or lived in caves all their lives — St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Padre Pio come to mind. But here I was, complaining to myself on the first day of a retreat that would last less than a week.
Our problem today is that we’re losing the sense of sacrifice, often because we are so determined to be comfortable. A little discomfort today sets us off against ourselves and against each other. One recent good example of this problem is the way the discomfort of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the use of not-so-comfortable face masks to protect ourselves and others, has become a problem for many of us, so much so that it is no longer a health concern, or even a sacrifice of charity made for the good of one another, but a constant agony.
Sainthood is a difficult thing for our generation to attain because the little acts of charity, sacrifice, love and contentment that accompanied the lives of the saints have eroded. Our desires for personal comfort and the “myself mentality” are gradually winning over our souls. My retreat period has taught me that I’m not immune to such ways of feeling, thinking and acting. We’re becoming victims and prisoners of our desire for comfort, both individually and as a society. If we would be the true humans and the true Christians that we desire to become, we must individually examine the effects of selfishness and lack of sacrifice in our lives. But I can tell you it’s very difficult to acknowledge our individual culpability in this. Lots of humility is needed!
Looking back at my retreat house experience, however, I must confess that, ironically, despite my first day experience at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House in Sedalia, Colorado, this retreat marks one of the best that I have ever had as a priest and it was, without a doubt, one of the most spiritually fulfilling five-day periods of my life.
I’m now convinced that the arrangements I found at this retreat house were deliberately designed to add to the spiritual experience of the retreat. Surprisingly, throughout my stay there I didn’t experience any of the discomforts I was concerned about on the first day, or if I did, I never felt them. This was meant to be a silent retreat, and it really was —we walked in silence, prayed in silence and even ate in silence. Everyone kept to himself in a massive and mostly deserted thirty acres of vegetative land. It was a beautiful place, located on hills befitting a place of prayer and encounter.
I will say that, in the end, it was a great retreat location and an excellent environment that reminded me that all I need is to have more comfortable moments with the Lord, not with my desired comforts or pleasures.
I will go again. To the same place.
Father Jacob Dankasa is a parochial vicar at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church in McKinney and a regular contributor to The Texas Catholic.