Illustration of praying hands by Sophia Maggio/SpokaneFāVS

SEARCHing for Meaning: A Reflection on the Spiritual “Retreat”

By Sophia Maggio

Recently I rode on a hot, stuffy bus packed with anxious college students to Bozarth Mansion, a sprawling estate owned by Gonzaga. For the next two days, the space would be filled by GU students participating in the infamous SEARCH retreat, a program run by Gonzaga’s University Ministry. For the sake of preserving its mystery, I can say very little about my weekend on SEARCH, other than to say that it was varied parts joyful, emotional, overwhelming, tiring, yet also restorative, leaving us — as one of my peers put it — “emotionally hungover” by the time we returned to campus on Sunday. As an agnostic, I was curious and, appropriately, a bit skeptical about religious retreats. Despite my reservations, I hoped to leave SEARCH with a clearer understanding of my current relationship with God, even if the relationship itself remained unclear.

After returning from SEARCH, I’ve continued to wonder how we might find appropriate times to “retreat” from our daily lives and narratives without necessarily holing away in a mansion for three days, speaking vulnerably in small groups, and journaling reflections while sipping Craven’s coffee. This is a privilege unique to my identity as a college student at a Jesuit university, which is partially why I chose to go on SEARCH. Approaching the end of my senior year, I sometimes worry about recognizing and utilizing opportunities to “retreat” and momentarily reflect on my life and the world, as both an individual and as someone necessarily in relationship with other human beings (and perhaps God, too).

Retreating Vs. Escaping

Here, I think it’s important to differentiate the act of retreating from the act of escaping. Having returned from SEARCH a little under a week ago, the discussions, questions and connections I experienced there remain in my conscious awareness (who the heck is God? Why can I not just “believe” in something? Why do I seem to battle or challenge the idea of an all-loving higher power, even though I – sort of – want to believe it’s true?). Going forward, my intention is not to elude or escape these questions, which I have certainly done in the past. The conscious (and sometimes spontaneous) act of retreating reminds me to not avoid these tricky, often sensitive topics, but rather find moments throughout the day when I can at least consider them, however briefly. In lieu of Bozarth Mansion and guided 30-minute reflections, sporadic journaling here-and-there, insightful podcasts, and late-night/ early-morning couch conversations with my housemates qualify as moments of “retreat”, when we momentarily shift from the frenetic daily grind into a quieter, more contemplative state.

Praying hands illustration by Sophia Maggio

Not Accessible To Everyone

As much as I’d like them to be, physical, 3-day retreats are not accessible or even appealing to many people for a battery of reasons: time, finances, familial obligations, qualms with spirituality or religion, or even the fear of sharing one’s beliefs and doubts with questionably receptive strangers. In my upcoming role as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member next year, I will embark on more retreats in a twelve-month period than I’ve experienced in the almost 22 years of my existence. While I cannot yet tell you what impact these retreats will have on my life and the lives of those around me, I would endeavor that the literal teachings and words exchanged during these retreats will quickly become hazy. This is not to diminish their importance or memorability, but to instead shed light on the lasting impact of the community facilitated by retreats. Similar to Thanksgiving dinner, I find that the actual words spoken during these communal events are less memorable than the feeling of being surrounded by people who care deeply for others, and who ultimately strive to love and connect to other people.

Life is nuts. People — myself included — are often too busy to be bothered with philosophical questions about the meaning of God and the intrinsic goodness of humanity. But I would argue that life is that much richer when we choose to mull over these questions, even two minutes at a time, in solitude or, in my case, in the company of an equally confused agnostic. Among other things, SEARCH will continuously remind me to question and delight in the mundane – the running theme of my life – and to retreat into moments of reflection and rest, when I feel most attuned to my thoughts and my relationships with other people.

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