ONCE a year, for the last 30 years, I have had the good fortune of attending a spiritual retreat. A traditional annual practice of piety highly recommended for every Christian, good retreats help those who make them replenish their spiritual -- at times, even physical -- strength, as they reflect on the eternal truths and see life in its proper perspective. Oftentimes, it's not a matter of discovering new things, but of seeing old ideas in a new light. This year, for example, one of the main insights I received was this: belonging to the Church is both blessing and responsibility. Old message, I know, even hackneyed. Yet it came in the fresh, new form of "mercy," in circumstances that can only be described as "dramatic," and suddenly, everything was totally "new."
The time and venue of the retreat surely had something to do with it. Just in time for Lent, my retreat was held in a quaint, little Italian town north of Rome called San Felice d'Ocre. It's a beautiful place where tall and erect pine trees surround the retreat house, and from which one sees a majestic range of mountains partly covered with snow. It was then early February, but it seemed that winter had left, the first two days being quite sunny and pleasantly cool.
But in the morning of the third day, I woke up with my room much colder. In fact, I desisted from opening the bedroom window. On my way to the chapel, looking out the corridor windows, I saw that it was snowing. But it wasn't the snowfall of anyone's dreams, unless one refers to a nightmare. It's not one of those that end up in a soft white mound from which one would make a jolly Frosty, the Snowman. Instead, this was a swirling confusion that looked like it was belched by the gray, angry-looking clouds above. Or the leavings of a tepid, indecisive winter that was rushing to the bathroom on its way out, but didn't quite make it. What ended up on the red concrete was messy slush, the perfect representation of everything that was outside that morning: cold, wet, and gloomy.
"How different it is inside," I thought, as I entered the chapel. The low, curved ceiling that smoothly made its way down and eventually became the wall made one feel like one was in a catacomb, but a warm and pleasant one. The warmth came mainly from the very efficient heating system, of course, yet I felt there was more to that here. It was definitely not a cozy place, as no place of worship should be, and the heavy, brown wooden benches, made less austere only by the thin, green seat and kneeling cushions, were there to tell you that. But one immediately felt that in this place one's soul could rest. It was a place like home.
The general color of the whole chapel was off-white and beige, brought about by the clean walls, ceiling, and floor made of marble and white-painted cement. But what could have been very drab walls was given life by a charming salmon and sea-green ginkgo-leaf pattern. From the ceiling hung two gigantic bronze chandeliers with yellow LED lights ensconced in transparent sea-green diffusers.
However, even at the threshold of the heavy, oaken door, one's eyes were invariably riveted to the sanctuary, as if by necessity. One had to be unconscious for one's attention not to be immediately caught by the spectacular and massive gold-leafed reredos. Scenes from the life the Blessed Virgin were woven, as it were, into this wooden tapestry of red, blue, and gold with elegant splashes of green. Exquisitely integrating them into a whole was the imposing figure of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, in the middle. And right below the painting, was the real focal point of the chapel: a golden tabernacle lined across the middle with semi-precious stones, holding within it the Lord of Heaven and Earth. This was the hearth of this home.
The sheer beauty of this small church reminded me once more what a beautiful home the Church is. As a cradle Catholic, I realized, my good fortune has been that not only have I had a home which I never left, but also that this home has been(and will continue to be) kept warm by a Flame that neither burns nor dies out. Moreover, from my childhood, I have been surrounded by graces and benefits that only the Church can afford: beauty in its liturgy, consolation in its sacraments, certitude of truth in its doctrine, and the sublime example and intercession of Her saints. All that came together here.
Yet in such beauty and warmth, one can very easily stop there and be satisfied, thinking that the Church is only to be enjoyed. Or say with Peter as he stood still, stupefied by the beauty of the Transfiguration, "It is good for us to be here. Let us build three tents..." - and remain inside. Or, as St. John Paul II said, "to fold in upon oneself." But Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is a field hospital. This means that "Church troops" -- that's you and I -- must go out there in the messy slush, where it is cold, wet, and gloomy. Out of ourselves, that is, to encounter souls and bring to them the mercy of Christ.
Where to go, and as what? Each of us has a specific position and mission, one designed for him or her that no one else can replace: a calling. A professional is sent to his colleagues and place of work; the student to his classmates; Mother Teresa's Missionary of Charity to the poorest of the poor; the mother to her husband and children; the bishop and priest to their flock; the politician to his constituents; the cloistered nun and monk, in their prayers and work, to the whole Church. And the encounter with each soul is not a matter of "converting" him or her, but of being available to them as Christ was to that blind man. He asked, "What would you have me do?" to suggest to us that in the Christian apostolate it is the other person who matters, not our plans.
So this is the challenge to us who belong to the Church in this "age of Francis": to show how much we appreciate the gift of the Faith given to us by Christ by being the authentic image of his mercy to those whom we encounter. This certainly needs a lot spiritual calories. One needs to prepare interiorly before launching out, otherwise one falls either into the folly of activism or the ditch of despair. The good news is that this is not impossible to do. Pope Francis reminds us that these "spiritual calories" are nothing but the mercy we have in our soul, and "to prepare interiorly" really just means that one experience mercy oneself so that he or she can give it.
Lent is arguably one of the best moments to do that. By going confession or maybe attending a retreat, one opens himself or herself to experience God's mercy. And although your eventual divine encounter may not have the dramatic backdrop of snow-covered mountains, as with everything that God does, it is bound to surprise you.
(Robert Z. Cortes is a PhD student in Social Institutional Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, Rome. He has an M.A. in Ed. Leadership from Columbia University, N.Y. He can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org.)