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Personal/Theological Notebook: The End of the Jackson Hole Retreat

Continued From Earlier Entry

Sunday came too early as far as we were concerned. Just the day before, with the last full day of the retreat around the corner, we were starting to dread it, observing or complaining that we had only just started to feel settled into the process or experience.

It was a quiet day to begin with, with its own look and light on Mount Moran to catch my eye. I spent some of this early time just walking and thinking through some things, and doing a bit of photography, whether of the morning light on the mountains, or of the distinctive wheel-and-horseshoe gate through which Michael and I had gone hiking southward the day before. I had noticed it with some amusement the day before, but I hadn't really seen it, in the way that makes you realize that this is something worth taking some shots of (thus pegging me as an amateur, I'm sure).

Scott had asked me earlier if I wanted to walk over to the part of the ranch where we had missed seeing the cattle being branded earlier, and I declined as I wanted to actually make sure that I had finished thinking through the thoughts I was working on, but when that was done, I set off to catch up with him, to see what there was to be seen and to enjoy some more conversation with him. When I got over that way, though, he was in the midst of a phone call with family, so I stood off a ways and busied myself with looking at the horses that were resting in the field before me. A few of those eventually took some notice of me and began walking over, while I mentally kicked myself for not thinking to bring some carrots with me in order to make friends.



We had a Sunday Mass around lunchtime to which we had invited Fran to come out to, and to bring the kids with her. Paul had been offered the chance to serve Fr. Michael at Mass, and we that that that would be a good experience for him: not just the serving, but to see that this is part of what his Dad does when he gets together with his friends. In other words, to normalize the religious and spiritual while our culture tries to privatize it and make it extraordinary in a more negative sense. I also think that it can make a different kind of impression on the imagination to see something like this sort of "kitchen table" Mass, to strip away the trappings of formality from the ritual, while leaving its core visible and present. That, too, it seems to me, can testify to the reality at the heart of Christian worship, that at anywhere and anyplace, this is about Real Life, not a pious make-believe.

I grabbed this picture as we were getting things ready, but I didn't feel quite free enough to shoot during the Mass, not that this is forbidden. If there's anything true about the Catholic Mass, it is that it is self-conscious of its own artistic nature, and it has been represented in art for centuries, as well as incorporating various arts into the dance of the liturgy. But I very much would have liked to have shot the thing, to grab the beauty in the simplicity of our service, whether of the young priest with the stole of his priesthood draped over his shoulders in ordinary clothes, of Michael playing the guitar for the service and cueing us with song lyrics on his laptop, or of just the gallery of moods and expressions going over people's faces between various prayers, songs, readings, or during the Sacrament itself.

The family stayed for lunch and a bit of chat, but then cleared out so as to let the "guy retreat" continue to be such, which was terribly cool of Frannie to be so generous and conscious of giving the space to let that happen.

As the day went on, we found ourselves clustered pretty tightly around the front porch, with a long discussion on the laity within the Church and the ability of laypeople to take the initiative in various ways. Stories were shared that dealt with certain frustrations along these lines, and I couldn't help but notice how far we still had to go in getting the basic understanding of the Church from the Second Vatican Council to take root in people's lives and visions: the reflexive language of people still seemed to speak of the Church as "them": the bishops, the hierarchy, the leadership. Gathered in Council from 1962-65, those bishops and leaders insisted that the Church was "us": the whole People of God, the laity first and foremost. That there is a formal leadership structure that gets called up out of the laity, but that the Church "belongs" to everyone, and that there was a balance to be found between lay and clerical initiative and leadership. I've spent enough time in theology, spirituality and history that I've come to just assume this to be true, but our conversations here showed me that this had still not become the common, "default" position of most people's thinking, whether lay or even clerical. In some respects, this is one of the topics of my dissertation: that there is a balance still to be worked out – both in theory and in practice – between formal offices of leadership and the leadership that is a charism: the leadership that just comes from talent, vision or calling of the Spirit, regardless of official position.

As evening drew on, we pulled out the buffalo steaks we had saved for our final feast together, serving them with baked potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, thick Texas toast, a few assorted leftovers, beer and wine. The door was left wide open so that we could enjoy the show of the setting sun and the colours it produced on its way down behind the mountains. Though we enjoyed the steaks, we had to give the buffalo burgers from the night before higher marks for pure taste. As ground buffalo, it didn't give us the problems that the steaks could, which were very thickly marbled with fat – too much so – that it became a bit of work to eat the steaks.


It was then, after dinner, as we once more sat out on the porch, now bundled more against the drop in temperature, that the conversation developed along the lines with which I opened this account some days earlier: what did we make of this "do-it-yourself retreat" in itself? As I wrote then:
Last night featured an extended discussion on the nature of this beast we had created: the do-it-yourself retreat. This was our second one: the first was in Nashville, Indiana, probably some five years ago. Some local Indianapolis Notre Dame alums who were at that one were absent at this one. This one featured the addition of Michael Wurtz, C.S.C., a friend of Kevin’s and mine from days in the Notre Dame Folk Choir when Michael was a sophomore touring Ireland and Northern Ireland with us as my and Kevin’s friendship started really taking off. Now he’s a(n almost) 31 year-old priest of four years’ experience who is starting doctoral work in Liturgy in Rome this fall. So this was a smaller group of Kevin’s friends who had gathered together so as to see what the mere dedication of a stretch of time might bring us. The do-it-yourself retreat seems to have an agenda that is set only by the free flow of conversation. The do-it-yourself retreat featured a presumption of some kind of dedication or knowledge of the faith: we were all Catholics with either degrees that touched on some aspect of the faith or with work interests and experiences that leaned in that direction. The do-it-yourself retreat does not require, but it definitely enriched, when one of the set is a priest, like Wurtz is: in this case, he no more than anyone else was leading the retreat, but being empowered to lead us in a daily Mass sitting around the dinner table was a definite plus for a Catholic group. The do-it-yourself retreat has absolutely no set activities: no trust-building exercises, no getting-to-know-one-another activities, no obstacle courses, and no schedule. The do-it-yourself retreat seemed to presume a certain level of trust and knowledge of one another, or the confidence that such knowledge, when made known, would be received in a climate of trust.
We had found this experience enriching, but I think we might have been hard-pressed to explain exactly how. But, given the earlier talk about lay initiative, we wondered whether this experience was giving us something which we ought to try to give to the Church at large. Was there something here to develop? Was there a way of explaining the "do-it-yourself retreat" so that others could have the same experience? What set it apart from just being a bunch of friends getting together and talking, eating and drinking? What made it a retreat? What could you outline in doing it, that would guarantee that others trying it would share in the experience of Catholicity which we had enjoyed in the process?

I don't know that that was a problem we solved as we talked about it. Having a priest along seemed a good move, but that would depend upon people getting over the sort of stiff clericalism that treats priests as something different, a different flesh, and not just as another one of "the guys," who also happened to be a priest. Perhaps it helped, in that sense, that some of us knew Wurtz since he was a sophomore, or that we had been in environs like Notre Dame where there were a number of young men going through the priestly discernment and formation process, so that you had a chance to get to know them well while still outside a clerical relationship. But we were all also well-prepared with developed Catholic backgrounds, whether in theology, philosophy, history, or extended and active parish life. Perhaps the do-it-yourself retreat is limited in that way, that it would presume a certain prior development among its participants, or at least among the majority of them. I suppose that's similar to one of the big questions about the modern Catholic university: how do you guarantee the Catholicity of the student experience if the majority of the faculty are not practicing Catholics?

At some point, the conversation was simply tabled with no formal resolutions and we moved inside, grabbed drinks, and entertained one another with a last night of music. Michael pulled out his more serious microphone equipment and spent a bit of time warming that up. I kicked off the night with "Listen To You," a song I had written for my high school students as I left teaching in South Bend, although the lyrics are broadly applicable to friendship and leave-taking. I just rather thought that that was the mood of the moment. Kevin stayed in a very melancholy mood by playing Ellis Paul's "King of Seventh Avenue" with its startling images, and Scott added to the celebration of our time together by lightheartedly invoking the beer imagery of "Poem 62" from A.E. Houseman's, A Shropshire Lad, informing us:
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
That went over with a certain amount of laughter, particularly given the wry voice with which Scott read it.


I'm hazier about the order of things later on. At some point I know that Scott did readings of Tennyson's "The Poet" and #50 from his "In Memoriam",
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
but I couldn't say whether those were this night or earlier. I did very uptempo versions of my "Wish I May" and "The Right Dreams" with Michael playing leads and Kevin providing very snappy percussion on djembe and shaker. Michael sang two of his, "It's Only Me" and a tune from his Virtues CD called "Humility" that's always moving.

The whole thing ground to a halt as we started laughing during playback of a few songs because the music coming up proved to be an occasionally serendipitous bit of accompaniment to the DVD of Nacho Libre that had started up in Michael's laptop. Seeing Jack Black's antics in counterpoint to some of what we were singing about got us laughing and distracted enough that we decided to watch the movie, which we then all gave up on before too long, deciding we were way too tired to make it through the thing, and thus the night sort of clunked to its end.

The next morning was spent packing and cleaning, with a final Mass toward noon. Our hostess walked in on that, clearly mortified and probably not a little freaked out at the sight of a bunch of guys conducting a Mass around a dinner table, but let us know that our check-out time had been 10am. (We were now pushing noon). Since we had thought it was a noon check-out time, we were suitably embarrassed, but continued with our closing. This was perhaps the hardest piece of the retreat for me. I was praying over some things I was angry about, that I wanted to let go of before or in this Mass, and I was quietly astonished at the difference I felt afterward, almost as though the morning and afternoon versions of me thought entirely differently about matters.

We cleared out and hit the road, Kevin going off ahead of us in his Jeep so that he could make an appointment with clients, the rest of us dropping off Wurtz for his flight out of the Jackson Hole Airport and wishing him safe travels. Michael, Scott and I went into town, looked around the touristy center of Jackson a bit, let me mail off my buffalo postcard to my nieces, and then ended up going back for a Billy Burger lunch as Scott had not had the chance to taste them on Thursday. Scott hit the road after that, driving his way back to Saint Louis via Michael's place in Kansas City, and Michael and I ended up just sitting in Kevin and Frannie's front yard, enjoying the sun and the extraordinarily perfect weather we had experienced our entire time in the Hole, and talked over the experience of the last few days some more, as well as the story of our friendships with each other and with Kevin. After an hour or a little more, Michael had to return the Armada to the airport and catch his own flight out, so I gave him a big hug (which always makes me flash back to being in junior high, as Michael is a foot taller than me) and watched him drive off.

And that, I suppose, must be the very end of the Jackson Hole Retreat. I would simply curl up on the porch with my novel for a bit, waiting for Kevin and Frannie to come home from work, taking time to gabble with my goddaughter when her nanny brought her home, and here and there think about the past few days.
Tags: catholicism, food, friends-notre dame era, hierarchy, liturgical, musical, mysticism/spirituality, personal, photography, prayers, priesthood, second vatican council, theological notebook, travel, travel-2008 wyoming
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