Sitting cross-legged in a wooden spindle chair, Meyer begins a personal revelation that most 20-something college students could never fathom. With a blanket draped across the seat, her bare feet emerging from a pair of worn coveralls and her long, thick red hair brushing her shoulders, Meyer looks very comfortable-both in her coveralls and in her mood-as she bares her soul before a group of 35 fellow students and adult leaders. “When I turned 21, I decided to find my biological family,” she says. “I learned my mother was 17 when she had me, and my father was 24. I contacted Catholic Social Services and learned I had grandparents and a 16-year-old half sister. I was on top of the world, but then I learned my biological mother had died in 1990. She committed suicide.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon in February 2004 at the Milford Spiritual Center 30 minutes outside of Cincinnati. Meyer, a senior, is part of a group of Xavier students on the Approach Retreat. Together, they are nestled comfortably in easy chairs or sprawled with their friends on the carpeted floor of the center’s great room. The light, even on this gray winter day, seeps in around the furniture, washes across the bookcases and fireplace, and wraps around the students. It’s enough to brighten any sour mood. The music plays, Katie talks and everyone feels something-closer, happier, connected.
“I never knew what a punch in the stomach was until I heard those words,” she says. “Then the tears came, the sobs came. I could not speak. I would never meet my mother or laugh with her or joke with her or tell her, ‘I love you.’ My grandmother wrote, ‘She loved you as only a mother could love a child.’
“But I was pissed off at God. He took away the love of my birth mother. He didn’t ever let me see her. I wondered how could a mother feel so low that she takes herself from those who love her the most? It was a huge blow to my faith life.”
The students soak up the painful revelations and incorporate them into their own lives. They’ve been here since Friday evening and spent most of their time listening, talking, reflecting and writing. They keep journals of their thoughts. They meet in prayer services where they hear directives from a Jesuit priest. They go through a process of discernment that walks them through a series of topics: self-awareness, faith, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.
They eat together, play sports and take walks along the Little Miami River. They make new friends. In the end, it is hoped, they have a better sense of themselves, the people they love and their own spirituality-and they have enhanced their college education with a learning experience they might not have received at another university.
While most college students spend their weekends working, studying, partying and playing, a steady number are eagerly devoting 48 hours of their valuable time to spiritual reflection. The popularity of retreats on campus attests to a growing realization among young people of the need to feel connected to a greater community and a greater power. “When life gets so busy, it’s just so beautiful to be able to step outside and focus on what’s going on and what you need,” says Bill Schwarz, a junior last year, who served as one of six leaders on the retreat and has been on five others since coming to Xavier. His favorite was a three-day trek on the Appalachian Trail with nine fellow students.
“A retreat focuses on the wholeness of a person, and I felt by hiking and reflecting with friends I was able to grow more,” he says. “I was in the greatest church in the world, the Appalachian Trail, and it was so easy to see God all around me. As I leave college, it will be one of my favorite memories.”
Schwarz, like Meyer, is a retreat junkie. He can’t get enough of them. He thrives on the feelings he gets from retreats-feeling connected to others, feeling a part of a community, knowing himself better in relation to God. It’s a sense of security knowing you can rely on others.
“As college students, we see a world so crazy and bombarded by popular culture, and we have a sense of information overload,” he says. “A retreat is a great opportunity to reflect, take that in and grow from it, sort it out and figure out how you’re being affected.” B.J. Gall skipped work and homework to attend the retreat at Milford.
“I’m missing two days of work,” Gall says. “I have a seven-page paper due Tuesday and 500 pages to read by Wednesday. It doesn’t matter. This is totally worth it, because for me, it’s an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and contentment. I feel better by coming here. Every once in a while your vision is skewed, and this retreat puts it into perspective and you can see straight.”
Retreats weren’t always so popular among college students. Always a fixture on the campuses of religious schools, they used to be mandatory at all 28 Jesuit colleges. The Jesuits viewed them as part of the whole educational experience-intellectual, moral and spiritual-and students were expected to attend retreats just as they were expected to complete so many credit hours to earn a degree. “You had to make a retreat every year in order to graduate,” says Leo Klein, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry. “If it was not documented, you didn’t get your degree.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, he recalls, classes were canceled for several days and “every mother’s son” would come to the Fieldhouse and silently listen to talks by the retreat master. Spiritual life then was part of the Catholic culture, and most Xavier students were Catholic.
By the time Klein came to Xavier as a professor and pastor of Bellarmine chapel, it was 1970, Vatican II was five years old and the world had changed. There were fewer Catholics on campus and retreats had withered. “Kids were paying someone to sign their names at the retreat,” Klein says. “The obligation had come down to you could go for an evening. I saw that keeping this obligation going was just silly.”
So Klein told the faculty he wanted to end the mandatory retreats and replace them with something else. They agreed, and he never regretted his decision. What took their place was a slowly evolving system of voluntary retreats, attractive to a handful of committed Catholics, that really took off in the mid-1990s with an initiative to open them to the wider Xavier community. “Xavier does a great job of creating community, but what was lacking was building community that was faith-driven,” says Megan Halverson, associate director for campus ministry.
By 1997, the University offered eight retreats that served 361 students. By 2001, it offered 12 retreats for 588 students, a number that remains steady today.
Despite the growing numbers, the fact that campus retreats reach only a fraction of the undergraduate population troubles Klein. He takes seriously the spirituality leg of the three-pronged mission of Xavier-to educate students morally, intellectually and spiritually-and feels the University is not challenging students strongly enough in that arena.
To that end, he’s looking into raising the spiritual bar for students by offering-and maybe requiring-their attendance at a series of orientation programs during the freshman year for a full exploration of the Jesuit values.
“We need to do a whole lot more for students in the freshman year to raise the questions for them of moral, spiritual and intellectual values,” Klein says. “We don’t want to have obligatory retreats again, but we want to add the moral and spiritual dimensions of our education and make sure they’re more sewn together with the intellectual.”
All retreats, no matter their design, have one thing in common: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola are at their core. The ideal retreat is spending 30 days following each step of the exercises, which are a series of prayers and reflections designed by Ignatius to bring the individual closer to God. Students, however, typically spend two days pondering a selection of the exercises. They break into small groups for discussions throughout the weekend, leaving their meeting rooms littered with candles, matches, crumpled tissues and lollipop wrappers.
Each year, campus ministry considers what new kinds of retreats should be added to meet the needs of the ever-changing student population. The newest one is the Discover Wilderness Retreat for students who are more comfortable seeking spirituality in nature rather than a retreat center.
Such efforts to offer a wider variety and different styles of retreats to attract more students are a trend seen at most Jesuit campuses, says Charles L. Currie, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and a former Xavier president.
“The growth in retreats has been an increasing interest in the last 10 years at least, and I think it’s related to an increased realization on our campuses that if we really are to keep the Ignatian spirit alive, we have to get back to the roots of that tradition in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius,” he says. “It’s a combination of an increasing desire by students for these retreats and an increasing effectiveness on the part of campus ministry in offering these retreats.”
Greg Carpinello, campus minister and retreat leader, says the students themselves are the program’s best salesmen. “Word is getting out that our retreats can be beneficial for you no matter where you are in life,” he says. “Students leave these retreats energized to live passionately and in community with each other at Xavier. When others hear they had such an incredible experience, they want to experience that, too.”
As she talks, Meyer tells how she shifted from being angry about her mother to searching for her dad. Between the Internet and her own determination, she found him, and with trepidation gave him a call. So much was at stake-maybe love, maybe rejection. “Hey, how’ya been?” he asks, as if it had been only a few months. They arranged to meet. It went well.
“Without their patience and love, I would not be heading back to the top of the world,” she says of her new-found family. “I can close myself off to new relationships and ideas, but when I follow my heart, things just seem to fall into place.”
It’s become her mantra for living.
Flushed with the excitement and fulfillment of their new discoveries and new friendships, she and the other leaders hug everyone goodbye and hop in the van for the trip back to campus. The students spend a while longer writing in their journals and discovering surprises in their rooms before they head back to resume their student lives.
But at one point before she leaves, Meyer reflects a little longer on her experience.
“What do I get out of retreat? What don’t I get out of retreat? The chance to reflect on my personal life, myself, my faith in God and others, the opportunity for me to connect with people, myself and God,” she says. “I feel more balanced, more assured. I’m headed in the right direction, and even if I’m not having that relationship with God, I’ll be OK.”