It was a series of strange and wonderful moments which led my husband and me to sign up for our first family retreat. Our inspiration was our upcoming tenth anniversary and the hope that the perfect retreat for us might fall out of the heavens and fit perfectly with our summer family schedule. Asking for God’s will, I reminded myself that we would have to be open to whatever outcome happened in the end.
After searching fruitlessly for a few months for something and feeling slightly defeated, I opened the bulletin on the car ride home from Mass one day and saw the Mariapolis family retreat posted. With a hint of reluctance, I pointed it out to my husband, and he said “Oh…we should really think about that!” He had attended years ago as a teenager, and this retreat had truly helped to form his spirituality. I took it as a sign, and I sent a note asking a coordinator for more information. A few days passed, I didn’t hear back from them, so I said feebly to myself “oh well, I tried, it probably wasn’t our time to go.” Still having a host of hangups about the idea, I was looking for reasons for it to not work out.
Later I ran into a member of our parish who casually mentioned something about the retreat in the midst of doing a task, and before I could stop myself, the words spilled out “yes, we are interested!” With the speed of an emergency room nurse, she connected me immediately to another parishioner, who called me the next day. The call came when neighbor kids were over playing, and more specifically, hollering through the house. I almost did not pick up the phone because of the ruckus, but again, something out of my control picked up the phone and answered the call. And from that point forward, I felt like I was being gently carried by a current.
This is remarkable because I’m not typically a person who spontaneously gets carried away by currents. I like to think I’ve set the course of my future. I plan, I discern, I decide the why, the what, and the where of my life. But living like that for so long had left me feeling weary, and laying back in a gentle current was a refreshing change. Looking back, I realize I had not been ready to attend a retreat such as the Mariapolis in the past. God’s timing is always perfect, and it felt like we were cooperating with God’s will for our family.
And laying back in a current is what led us into an encounter with Love which we will never forget.
The Focolare movement was founded by Chiara Lubich in 1943 during the second world war, as an initiative to bring about social and spiritual renewal in a divided world. Chiara describes the people in the movement as being born of the Gospel, whose purpose is to build a more united world as Jesus asked in John 17:21 -“may they all be one.” The way to build this unity is by living fully the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Small communities referred to as “little cities” have formed all around the world, in which people live each day with only one law – to love. In the summer, retreats called “The Mariapolis” are offered to people of the movement to renew them in their vocation to love and be strengthened by the reciprocity of people living out this Gospel message. Many people are consecrated (the Focolarini), but anyone is welcome to attend, of any age, culture or faith. The word Focolare itself means “the family hearth.” During the retreat, children are placed in groups with other children which are led by Focolarini, where they receive the Word of Life through various activities, and prepare together a special production for the final evening of the retreat. The adults attend talks and participate in sharing groups, and Mass is celebrated each day. My favorite time on the retreat was listening to the experiences of people who put love into action and how it transformed the people around them, even in the littlest of ways.
My first experience of this “little city” was when I showed up on the campus saddled with bags and pushing a stroller, and four people, complete strangers, rushed to help open doors and move things into our room for us. With smiles. In the heat of summer. People everywhere welcomed us warmly, asked for our names, took interest in our children and offered us help before we could ask . There were multiple priests and deacons in attendance, sisters, elderly people, newborn babies, singles, young married couples, families, grandparents and teenagers – many being reunited from years and years of meeting on this same retreat.
I have been on retreats before, and tend to prefer the ones which offer peace and quiet, solitude, time for meditation, reflection, writing and prayer. From what I heard of the Mariapolis, it sounded a bit like a non-stop party, and I was humorously warned that my face would hurt from smiling so much. I honestly didn’t think I had what it took to go on a retreat like this. Historically, I’ve probably spent my entire life in denial about my need to accept help and love, and I was worried I was going to disappoint the people on this retreat.
But there is no secret council measuring spiritual success at a Mariapolis. No one is in competition with one another to be the best at this or that, the most noticed, the most recognized, well spoken or witty, the best dressed, the most attentive, funny or accomplished. None of these external things matter. Not how much money you do or do not make, the kind of car you drive, how many trips you’ve made to Rome or the quantity of theological books you have on your shelf. People want you to just be yourself, the essence of who God created. Love is the only agenda, and in every moment one is aware that “it’s not about ‘us,’ it’s all about ‘Him.'”
One of the most powerful lessons I brought home with me from the Mariapolis retreat was shared by Deacon Jesse Garcia of Houston. He talked about how all Christians are called to lay down their lives for other people. He used the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe and how he knew his moment to lay down his life had arrived in the concentration camp, as he took the place of a young father in the death chamber. Standing in this man’s place was not an impossible act of love for St. Maximillian Kolbe, because he viewed everything he did in his life as a daily laying down of his life, so that he would be prepared at any moment for the ultimate sacrifice.
What a different idea of love this is from how it is defined in the world’s view. It’s not about being the bubbliest, happiest, most effusive and energetic person in a room. It’s about being real, pure and simple. Laying down our lives each day is being willing to be like Jesus, accepting ridicule, pain and suffering – and striving to love your enemy. It’s about being the first to love, when no one else will budge, and not having the last word. It’s about sharing people’s joys, and carrying their sorrows. It’s about thinking less of yourself, and more of the person in front of you…your child, your spouse, your student, your co-worker, your neighbor. It’s about letting go of pride, letting go of your agenda, letting go of your desire for approval or attention, letting go of what you felt you did not get. It’s about suspending your fears, building unity, and evangelizing to the world just by loving. And expecting nothing in return.
As someone shared with us, the secret to loving without burning out, is to look at love as its own reward. And if we do this well, we may likely feel bumped and bruised at the end of a day of interacting with the world. But that is how we know we’re getting it right, living the Gospel and loving one another as God asked us to do.
Upon first glance, our children were not levitating and radiating with holiness when we came home from the retreat. But something definitely took root, the idea that our choices in life can be intentional acts of love. We have a point of reference and a language we can build upon with them as parents. We talk about loving the Jesus inside one another, and working towards building peace and unity in our family by the choices we make. Such simple terminology has opened up a new dimension to our family.
When I first got back, I understandably felt a renewed sense of purpose. I was smiling at people passing me by in the grocery store aisles, volunteering myself as an elevator attendant at the doctor’s office, picking up other people’s children who fell at the park, profusely thanking the puzzled pizza delivery guy for “just doing his job,” even telling the police officer who pulled me over on the way to Mass “have a nice day” – and meaning it with all my heart. I’m not going to say people didn’t look at me like I was crazy, but I am going to say that it didn’t bother me if they did. 🙂
Chiara Lubich once said “As the roots grow deeper, the plant grows taller.” The more we love our neighbor, the more our love for God will grow, as the two are inseparable. Love shall conquer all.