This past weekend was busy. My new squadron celebrated the Marine Corps’ birthday on Friday night, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The celebration takes the form of a Formal Ball, except when Marines are out in the field. Then, I am told, it is usually celebrated over an MRE (or whatever chow is available). Regardless, it is a big deal, and tradition dictates that we follow a specific procedure: first we read the original birthday message from General Lejeune (the 13th Commandant), then we read the message from the current Commandant, then we cut a cake with a sword. The first piece of cake is given to the oldest Marine present, who takes a bite and passes it to the youngest Marine present to symbolize the passing on of tradition. The ceremony this time was followed by a pretty good dinner and dancing, and everyone got pretty convivial. I stayed as sober as possible, however, for I had to drive out of town the next morning.

During the same weekend, my church’s young adult community held it’s annual retreat at Whispering Winds Catholic Retreat center in Julian. If you followed the wildfire saga here in San Diego, you know that Julian was hit pretty hard. It sits up in the mountains east of the city (elevation some 5,000 feet), which is where all the fires start when the Santa Ana winds blow. Fortunately, though, the campus was unscathed, and the utilities were restored mere days before we arrived.

The retreat started on Friday night, and that was when everyone did the icebreaker-type events and made “affirmation bags” where other people could leave them encouraging messages of faith. Saturday morning they heard the first of several talks aimed at young adults–the one I missed concerned Theology of the Body–and had some reflection time followed by lunch. That’s when I arrived.

I showed up in an enthusiastic mood. The road up to Julian winds through narrow canyons, over knife-edge ridges, all in a glory of tight turns and sudden views. My car got quite the workout–I must have taken 10,000 miles off my tires. There is something wild and relaxing about the mountain scenery, the clear sunlight, a zipping car, and solitude. A kind of reflection occurs at such times, unconscious and unintended, driving focus to the immediate present and pushing away external and extraneous worries. It was providential: I arrived in Julian freed from the burdens of everyday life and ready for the retreat.

I know a fair number of the church’s young adults by now, and it felt like ‘going home’ to meet with them–they make up my core friends here in San Diego. But there were also many new people to meet. Fortunately the retreat schedule offered “free time” in the early afternoon where people could go to confession if they wanted, and also participate in any number of social or religious activities. One guy organized a football game; another a hike. I chose to make my confession and then participate in the Rosary walk. This may seem like a silly thing to do, since it involves praying a notoriously “rote” prayer in a group, but for me it brought back sweet memories of my pilgrimages to Medjugorje, where the Rosary and it’s focus on the life of Jesus was second only to the Mass, and nearly always prayed/celebrated as a community. There is also an additional measure of accountability and support when praying as a community, which prevents any worries or whims to distract from the prayer itself. Furthermore, the rosary only occupied a short amount of the “free time,” so I also got to play in a touch football game. Like the drive up, there was something clear and refreshing found in that time spent outside in the sunlight, amid the smell of pines and the thin mountain air. The advantage of the football game over the drive, though, was that I got to share it with others.

Later that afternoon we heard a talk on vocation, and how vocation isn’t necessarily a job, a call to religious life, or a call to marriage; rather it is a responsibility to do God’s will in all the small acts of our lives. As I write this I am shocked to see how obvious it appears, baldly contained in one small sentence. But like many people I am victim to the temptation of focusing only on the big things in my life: my career as a Marine and an Aviator, my important relationships, my spiritual life. I find it easy to overlook what God’s will might be for me when I do a specific thing, like go to a church function, or drive to work, or undertake a job around the squadron. But the speaker explained that making our entire lives a prayer depends on the holiness we exhibit in all our actions, not just the big decisions. This lecture was the first of several events at the retreat which thus far have subtly began to change my life.

After dinner we headed down to the chapel for adoration and confession. Though the team had priests offering the sacrament during the free time, this evening event was much larger in scale. The intent, I think, was to gently remind us that there is an immense acceptance of grace found in the act of adoration and the receipt of the sacrament. Both were once cherished elements of Catholic faith that seem to have fallen off recently (especially among young people). Though I am a rather conservative Catholic myself–and therefore quite open to such practices–it was good to hear again the dogmas and teachings behind the Catholic framework of worship. Because I had gone to confession earlier that afternoon, I prayed silently for a while and left the chapel to pray another rosary with a close friend of mine under the chilly stars.

What a night it was! In an earlier post I talked about suddenly discovering stars, and the impact of that experience was no less in Julian. Ringed by mountains, undimmed by human lights, the stars above us that night shone forth in pre-industrial splendor. The Milky Way and the familiar constellations stood out clearly among thousands of stars I had all but forgotten. The crisp still air seemed to sharpen my senses and evoke a sense of exhilaration. I spent little time examining the panorama above, but its presence seemed to infuse the conversations that evening with a excitement and wit and laughter that I seldom experience, even among my closest friends.

During one such conversation a fellow retreatant told me that because I had no “affirmation bag”–I didn’t arrive until Saturday, so I wasn’t around during their creation–he made one for me. It may seem a small thing, but for me that represented the ultimate act of kindness. Having something kind to say, and guessing that others might as well, this friend out of charity decorated a paper bag so that I could receive notes and small gifts. I was humbled. I took about an hour and a half that evening to sit and write notes to all the people at the church who meant something to me, and it was a cathartic experience. I have found kindness, hospitality, challenges to be a better person, support, and companionship among this community, and it felt right and satisfying to thank each and every person for what they gave me. When I first heard of the concept of an “affirmation bag,” I cringed inwardly. Here, I thought, there would be sentimental, yearbook-style, banal notes that would sound the same for everybody: “so nice to meet you, hope we see more of each other, you’re so cool.” But as I wrote to my friends I found I had something unique to say to each of them. I realized then that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was part of a cohesive group of friends, where I could appreciate them individually and collectively, not just as my personal friend but as friends of each other too. I have much to be grateful for.

The next morning started with Sunday Mass, then ended with breakfast and the pack up. An easy camaraderie had formed among us that made the worship and the meal a simple and penetrating joy. In its closing the effect of the retreat is hard to put into words. Long had I known the right spiritual steps to take in my life, regarding both my personal prayer life and my interactions with others. But long had I put off taking those steps, due perhaps to fear that I would find spiritual dryness, or to my own selfish clinging to a comfortable routine, or even simply to a kind of spiritual apathy. But since I’ve returned I’ve discovered a subtle inspiration born of gratitude and humility. Perhaps that is the manifestation of accepted grace, brought on by the constant prayer at Whispering Winds. I write this more deeply grateful for all that the church community has given me; I am humbled by the good and virtuous company of my friends. I have received a great gift.