It was quiet. Subtle. I didn’t even notice at first. My nine-month tenure as Retreat Planner had already begun. I think it may have been in the first eight weeks or so that I discovered an alarming trend: I wasn’t getting as much out of Mass as I used to. I’d sit and stare up at the altar (makeshift; we held our masses on campus, so we had a plastic table with a cloth on it, but eh) during the Consecration and try to feel something. But there was less emotion there. There was less of a glow, less of an aura, less energy. I wondered why I’d been able to sense God’s presence easily in the summer, and now it was so difficult. As schoolwork piled up and the Ministry began demanding more and more of my time, I started to lose focus. I prayed for help. I heard nothing. I prayed more, harder, longer. Burned through rosary beads. Went to daily mass. Confessed my sins.
I’ll take this opportunity to mention that I moved into a house with seven other Catholic men at the beginning of that school year. It was a choice that made perfect sense in the spring prior, when I was still totally embroiled in the Ministry, but once I finally arrived I realized that it was going to be different than what I’d expected. The house maintained weekly prayer as a group, and there was an expectation of good Catholic behavior while in residence. These things weren’t a problem for me at first… but we’ll get there later. Back to the topic at hand.
I got totally screwed in a relationship early that year. Felt pretty beat up about it. On the plus side, my retreats were a major success. The one early in the year was a huge hit (Blair and I had to do some fancy footwork when an unexpectedly small number of students showed up, but we managed to turn a potential disaster into a night of fun), and the one in the fall was even more amazing (two words: Catholic Rave). We were on a roll. But something was missing. It seemed like there was… I dunno… a hole in me. Something that used to be filled, but wasn’t.
No, that’s not the right way to put it.
It was more like waking up from a dream. I kept looking around me and catching brief glimpses of the real world, but then I’d put myself back to sleep, sometimes forcibly. I didn’t want to see the world that ceaselessly tried to creep into my vision. I didn’t want to think about all the things that didn’t make sense about my faith, about God, about Catholicism, about religion in general. I didn’t want to confront the blatant hypocrisy and ignorance of some of my classmates and housemates.
Anyway, there was one more event that I feel is worth mention, and then everything else after that just continues downhill. Keep in mind, this was not a turning point; rather, I see it as a catalyst for a reaction already occurring. In preparing for and during the execution of that year’s “Search” retreat, I finally saw plainly just how artificial the whole of the religious experience on that retreat is, and it disturbed me.
Let me explain: Search is run almost exactly the same way every single year. Friday evening is when the students first arrive. We group them up and let them get to know one another. Make them comfortable. Saturday is filled with almost non-stop activity: prayers, talks given by older students, discussions among small groups, various faith related activities, and so on. The main event is that night; we give the students a long break in the late afternoon, and then subject them to another talk (usually their fifth of the weekend). But this is no ordinary talk. This talk is very carefully designed to evoke a certain emotional response in the students: guilt. We want them to relate to the wrongdoings of the speaker, and then feel in their hearts a desire to change whatever wicked ways they may have. The speaker calls for them to turn over their sins to Christ through the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession, for you non-Catholics). But things don’t end there, no sir. This party is just getting started.
We put on an “impact skit” for the students. Usually the older student leaders on the retreat do this. The show is generally about a student who becomes weighed down by sin and can only find peace and redemption by turning to Jesus. The purpose of the skit is to—and I kid you not—turn on the waterworks. Our objective is to not see a single dry eye in the house. And usually it works; the emotional charge from the talk carries over to the skit, causing that guilt I mentioned to compound upon itself. The students are now becoming malleable putty in our able hands, and there’s still one more shot to fire: the “impact activity”. This is a hands-on, prayerful event that allows us to transfer the students from the gymnasium they’re seated in to the nearby chapel, where they can go to confession. In the three years I attended and worked on Search retreats, we used blindfolds in two of the impact activities. They’re a fantastic way to maintain the emotional state we're shooting for. We didn’t use them that year, but nonetheless we succeeded in keeping everyone in the highly vulnerable state we wanted them in. They went to the chapel, they confessed their sins, they prayed their little hearts out, and low and behold, their faith grew exponentially.
Those poor kids. They had no idea we’d set them up.
Not even one minute of that evening is unplanned. We spend hours and hours before the retreat getting everything ready; coming up with the most impactful talk, skit, and activity, gathering supplies, rehearsing the performances, and generally trying our best to make the evening as emotionally evocative as possible. And we always succeed. Not a dry eye in the house.
This practice raised a red flag for me. At the time, I tried to justify our actions. “Perhaps what we’re doing is necessary?” I thought. “Perhaps these students (some of whom haven’t been involved in the Church for years when they attend) need a major hit of faith smack to have their eyes opened to the power of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice? Perhaps what we’re doing is making it easier for God to speak to the students whose hearts have been hardened by sin?”
“But why, then,” I reasoned, “would a God of infinite power need us to so flagrantly interfere with the emotions of these students? Surely God can do a fine job of communicating on his own? Moreover, it seems downright counterproductive to put these students in a highly emotional state; after all, how can we trust that what they feel when they’re all worked up is really the presence of God, and not just the feelings they think they ought to be feeling at the time? How do we know we’re opening a channel for God to speak to them, and not just making them extremely vulnerable to suggested thoughts and experiences (which we then graciously provide)?
Anyway, my apologies for that long story. The overall point is this: after seeing how crafted the whole of the Saturday evening experience is at Search, I realized that everything I went through on that fateful night at my first Search two years prior was, in fact, just as artificial. I could no longer trust the revelations I’d had at the time, despite how real they’d felt and how much they’d meant to me. I became jaded. I wondered how much of what I’d been through in my faith life up to that point was formulated the same way.
After that, things continued to crumble. I got embroiled in another unhealthy relationship. My grades fell. I did things that I knew my religion taught against (things that would make a nun blush, if you take my meaning). The final retreat Blair and I planned that year went well, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t feel like praying anymore. For months and months I’d been asking God for a sign, for help, for anything. Here I was, living with die-hard Catholics and acting as a spiritual role model for the Newman community, and I was having doubts about God’s existence! I hated what I’d become, and I tried even harder to hang on to the God who seemed to have disappeared from my life.
But like an old picture left in the sun… God faded.
Next time: The exciting conclusion! Stay tuned!