Monday, May 12, 2014

Didn’t we used to call this a retreat?

Spiritual retreats were a staple of my Catholic girlhood.

When I was in high school, we had a three-day retreat every January, sometimes held at school, sometimes held at a “retreat house.” These were not sleepover retreats; we were spiritual day-hoppers.

The retreats featured prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, Mass, and sermons that were of either the hell-fire and brimstone or the hip and happenin’ variety, depending on the age and disposition of the priest conducting the retreat.

My freshman year, the retreat priest – a Jesuit named Fr. King – was an old-fashioned Fulton Sheen style clergyman.

The high point of his retreat, which we understood to be a reguar feature of the retreats he’d been running since the Great Depression (certain priests specialized in retreats) was a spellbinding (or so Fr. King supposed) three minutes when the mesmerizing Fr. King managed to convince (or so Fr. King supposed) an auditorium full of high school girls that one of you might very well die during the next three minutes, which would be what would happen if God forgot about you for even an instant. (We didn’t have nano-seconds back in the 1960’s.) From the sniffling and occasional sobs coming from the front rows, it appeared that Fr. King had some of the seniors who had, of course, begun high school in the pre-Vatican II era, scared that they might be next to go.

For the rest of us, well, the feeling was more of less that, if one of us were going to die, it would have been on the skull-crushing boredom that we’d been enduring for the past three days.

By my junior year, the natives had gotten plenty restless, enamored of the idea of situation ethics, and pushing back hard on all the mortal-venial stuff. (As one of my friends said, they lost a generation when they told us that French kissing, as a mortal sin, was the equivalent of murder.) That was the year when, as I recall, the priest who conducted the retreat – a Fr. Thomas K. – told Sister Superior (our principal) that we were so awful that he was going to give up giving retreats entirely. (Maybe this was the retreat my sophomore year, when my sister Kath was a senior. Her class seems like the type of brainy rebel girls who could have pushed a priest over the edge.)

One year, the retreat was at the Trappist Monastery outside of Worcester. That wasn’t a bad one, as I think that most of the time we either got to walk around the beautiful grounds, or sit around in circles gabbing.

Senior year, we went to a Passionist retreat house, where the young and “with it” priest told us that “having a baby was like crapping a watermelon.” We were all left wondering what he would know about either, but he was so desperately and pathetically trying to connect…

Also during my senior year, the order of nuns who ran our school shipped all the student council presidents (of their all girls schools) or vice presidents/secretaries (co-ed schools) off for a three day “event” at the order’s motherhouse. This conference was ostensibly to prepare us to be better student council officers, but once we arrived, we realized that it was, in fact, a recruitment effort to drum up postulants for the next year’s class. (Two girls in my high school class actually did “enter”, and one even lasted: she’s still a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.)

Other than the recruitment trip, my one and only “away” retreat had happened earlier, during the summer between sixth and seventh grade, when I went with my friends Bernadette and Susan to a three day retreat at something called The Cenacle, out in the wayback of Worcester County.

Sure, we had to pray, but we were pious little girls. Mostly, the retreat gave us the opportunity to fantasize about being away at boarding school. I still remember the bird’s eye maple beds in the room we shared, that one of the meals was a flavorless hamburger patty and chopped carrots with peas, and that one evening we sat around the filled-in swimming pool (The Cenacle was on the grounds of an old mansion) singing “The Ash Grove.” Also I bought some holy cards in the gift store.

Well, fast forward all these time-flies decades, and irreligious me is not apt to sign up for a religious retreat. But the idea of getting away to a phone-less, computer-less place where there was nothing to do but loll around reading has plenty of appeal. On the other hand, I can stay at home and ignore the phone and computer and loll around reading for free. Any old time I want.

Still, who doesn’t understand the appeal of wanting to get away from it all?

Well, if you want to get away from it all in South Korea – there being no “if” about wanting to get away from it all in North Korea –a couple has set up a retreat house that’s runs along the lines of a prison:

In the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Hongcheon, 58 miles northeast of Seoul, Kwon Yong-seok runs "Prison Inside Me," a stress-reduction center with a penal theme. A meditation building, auditorium and management center sit on a 2-acre piece of land.

"I didn't know how to stop working back then," said the soft-spoken 47-year-old Mr. Kwon, looking back on his life as a public prosecutor on Jeju Island in the late 1990s. "I felt like I was being swept away against my will, and it seemed I couldn't control my own life." (Source: WSJOnline)

Hoping to get away from it all, Mr. Kwon asked a prison warden he knew if he could spend a week in the slammer. (Perhaps prisons are less scary and dangerous in South Korea. Can you imagine asking to spend a week in MCI Walpole, even with its new, friendly name MCI Cedar Junction?)

The warden turned down his request for reverse parole, so he and his wife went ahead and built their own, at a cost of $19 million.:

…Mr. Kwon says the goal of the facility, which has 28 solitary confinement cells, isn't to make a profit.

On top of private meditation sessions, paying guests are helped to reflect on their lives and learn how to free themselves from what Mr. Kwon calls the "inner prison," through meditation, spiritual classes and "healing" plays in a group session in the auditorium. A two-night stay costs 150,000 won or about $146.

So far, it hasn't been as easy for the couple to run the place as they had envisioned. They had to cut the length of stays to as little as two days because people aren't willing to, or simply can't, take time off. Also the facility had to make another big concession to modernity—allowing guests to check their smartphones at least once a day.

At least one retreat-goer has found the accommodations sub-par:

While generally satisfied with the quality of programs, "it would have been more helpful for self-control if the facility had been in poorer shape like in a real prison," Mr. Park [Seong-ho] said, "it is too clean and warm to be called a prison."

And others just want their fake prison term to be short:

"To be honest, the two-day-three-night program is too short. But the reality is people complain if we make it longer," Mr. Kwon said, "I only wish people could get a rare chance, even if forcibly, to reflect on the past and take it easy."

Hmmmm. Mr. Kwon may be channeling his inner nun here a bit, but I’d like to know just how he believes that someone can be forcibly required to reflect on the past.

As I well know from the retreats I’ve been on, whatever it is that “they” want you to dwell on, your thoughts are going to be running free. It was much more fun on that Cenacle retreat to pretend I was in boarding school than it would have been to mediate on the likelihood of my death occurring during the next three minutes…

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