A Personal Reflection: Encountering Christ at a Cedarbrake retreat
By Kira Ciupek
The third week in April, my life hit a “10” on the busy-meter. My harried schedule had included four out-of-town trips, one doctor’s appointment, and three hectic days of teaching and writing. With little sleep and loads of stress, I desperately needed a get-away weekend. The “Encountering Jesus” retreat at Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center just happened to land at the end of this extraordinarily hectic time. Perfect, I thought. I’ll go.
But my good intentions competed with my tired and achy body, making it a temptation to stay home from the first Friday evening session. I considered sneaking in Saturday morning, after a good night’s sleep. Then I wondered, what if I miss something important — maybe the very spiritual insight I need most? Maybe, even, a life-changing encounter with Jesus? I had pushed myself all week; I could go the distance. Mind over matter, I thought. So, after taking a dose of vitamins and grabbing my bottled water, I hit the road to Cedarbrake.
Traffic was thick, but leaving 317 and coming up the long driveway leading to the conference center, my mood began to change. A canopy of vibrantly green trees, lush after a remarkable amount of spring rain, formed a latticework above my head. The late afternoon sun, filtering between the leaves, dappled the ground and flirted with the shadows, making the light bounce and shimmer. Suddenly, the stress and worry of the previous week washed away.
Upon entering Cedarbrake’s Irene and Arthur O’Connor Conference Center, I was warmly greeted by Brian Egan, Cedarbrake’s director, who gave me a personalized name-tag and directed me into the meeting area, where I noticed that everyone wore name tags. This immediately helped everyone feel comfortable enough to introduce themselves to one another. Within the first five minutes of entering the room and sitting down, at least three people had engaged me in friendly conversation.
The Friday evening session opened with prayer, followed by Egan’s introduction of the presenter for the weekend, Franciscan Father Albert Haase, who entered the Franciscan Order in 1976 and was ordained a priest in 1983. Wearing the traditional brown, hooded habit of the Franciscans, Father Haase introduced himself energetically, in a gravelly voice and sing-song style that was mesmerizing. He jumped right into his presentation by addressing how we can “Encounter Christ” in our daily lives.
“The spiritual journey is a process of being transformed by the Spirit of God into a little ‘Christ’ for the loving service of the present moment,” he said. “It begins with an awakening to the grace of God, who uses both the good and the bad to awaken us. We suddenly begin to catch fire. One of the most important spiritual practices is to be pondering your life. That is why Mary stands in our Catholic tradition as the great ‘ponderer.’ She was always pondering things in her heart.”
As the evening slowly faded into night, and the sky outside the Conference Center windows grew bright with stars, the retreatants listened intently as Father Haase shared the remaining three of four steps in our spiritual journey.
He said after the “awakening,” there is “purgation,” which means taking a “hard look at your life,” and practicing the three stages of spiritual “CPR,” which he described as community, prayer and repentance.
“Attach yourself to like-minded people,” admonished Father Haase, “and build a relationship with Jesus in prayer by spending time every day in silence before the Lord. Then, take a moral inventory of your life. Begin to renounce deliberate sin.”
The third step in the spiritual journey is “illumination,” when we recognize that, “God is closer to us than we ever thought or imagined. God is like the air we breathe. I live in God, and God lives in me,” Father Haase said.
Thus follows the fourth step, “union,” which is the moment-by-moment recognition of our relationship with God.
“These four stages of the process are not distinct or rungs of a ladder; rather, these processes are always working in our lives. We’re always experiencing the stages in deeper and deeper ways,” he said.
We ended that night with prayer, and I went home feeling physically tired but spiritually energized.
As I drove home I thought of the Pastoral Plan for the Austin Diocese, and its theme of having “an Encounter with Christ that leads to Transformation.” According to the plan, attending a retreat is one pathway for encounter; retreats are where the fellowship of other believers, and the serenity of the natural setting, can help smooth away worries, and awaken one’s heart. I sensed that this was beginning to happen to me.
Saturday dawned, and I returned to Cedarbrake. Father Haase, who is not only a priest, but an award-winning author, itinerant preacher, and for several years has been a spiritual director at St. Maximilian Kolbe Friary in Crowley (south of Fort Worth), began the Saturday session with exuberance.
Pointing to the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Mark and the barren fig tree in the Gospel of Luke, Father Haase continued, “From Jesus’ perspective the spiritual life is about bearing fruit and being transformed. For Jesus, sin is the refusal to be transformed. To not allow God’s voracious enthusiasm for me to change me.”
Father Haase suggested that we are transformed in many ways, including prayer, receiving spiritual direction, and meditating on the fruits of the Holy Spirit as we prepare for confession.
When the morning session had ended and the time had come for lunch, we enjoyed a good meal and friendly conversation. I sat at a table with Denise Rohloff, who had driven from Austin to participate in the retreat.
“What I’m getting from this retreat,” she said, “is realizing that every moment of your life is an opportunity to grow closer to God. You don’t have to spend a lot of time, a lot of money — you just have to actually live eternally. Doing that purposefully will give you the relationship with God you are seeking.”
Sandy Simko, another retreatant, told me he had not only been touched by the words of Father Haase, but enjoyed being on the beautiful Cedarbrake property.
“The best part,” Simko said, “has been spending some time alone in prayer, both in the chapel and walking around the grounds. It’s a beautiful day. Quiet and relaxing.”
The retreat, which drew 52 participants, ended on Sunday with Mass. In the final session before Mass Sunday afternoon, Father Haase talked more about the title of the retreat.
“I think your diocese is right on target — encountering Christ does lead to transformation,” he said, adding that an essential ingredient in both encounter and transformation is learning how to live in the present moment.
“The present moment is a portal to experiencing God,” said Father Haase with a flourish of his hands, lowering his voice to a whisper. Everyone in the room listened closely as he continued. When you live in the present moment, “you sense the magic in the air, in the most ordinary things … the sunset, the sky, the fingernails of a 1-month-old child. You become aware of the presence of God; God and angels are much closer than we ever thought,” he said. “As you live in the present moment, the present moment will validate your unique path to holiness. As you respond to the ambassador of the present moment, you will be transformed into a little Christ.”
Driving home after the retreat, I thought of how many tasks awaited me, the responsibilities that had piled up in my absence; but then I remembered Father Haase’ insights, and how he had said that most of us are, “either stuck in the past with guilt or we’re stuck in the future with worry and fear.” Only in the present moment, he said, can we encounter Christ and be transformed.
And this inspired my prayer: Yes, there will always be dishes in the sink, duties to perform and bills to pay; but in the midst of these, Lord, may I be present in every moment of every day, with you.