Thriving in Perseverance – Pastor’s Reflection
The learning demanded by these times never ceases to amaze. I agreed, well more than a year ago, to give one of the community retreats for our Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia whose Motherhouse is located in Nashville. The retreat was to begin on July 16 and conclude on July 24.
I served the Sisters as Retreat Master back in the hot August of 1996, and then again in the peaceful January of 2016. Their Motherhouse began life as an antebellum finishing school and gave birth to several high schools, innumerable parish grade schools, and a college. In God’s providence many young women have come their way, and they have had to double the size of St. Cecilia’s. It sits serenely on its hill opposite Nashville’s Maxwell House Hotel as a beacon of Christian life and religious observance. In such a place a preacher takes home more than he ever could have brought in.
Moonlighting such as this offers great returns. I have tried to preach a retreat every year. I find that developing and sustaining a theme over the course of a week enables preaching that the confines of a Sunday homily will not accommodate. At the same time the insights gained can then be embedded in regular preaching to give it richness without bursting its seams.
An added small world bonus here is that the Nashville Dominicans are great friends with our own Dominican Sisters at St. Vincent Ferrer High School. As part of this, Sr. Gail Morgan and Sr. Julia Balu of our own convent were due to travel to Nashville and join this retreat. I would have been delighted to have hometown support.
By now you know what comes next: naturally the Coronavirus trashed all of these plans, as it has countless others. The Sisters could not welcome me to their home, and further, many of them could not return themselves, remaining in their places of assignment for the school year. These problems did not deter them though, and they asked me to do the retreat as a series of videos. In this scenario I would video myself giving a talk, upload it and send it to the Sisters, and they in turn would send it to all of their houses. If someone had asked me to do this back in February I would have demurred, pleading inexperience. But the months of pandemic have left me a seasoned veteran of the live-streaming apostolate and so I readily said yes.
It came as a great gift that Sr. Gail and Sr. Julia offered to participate in person. They have given me a live, captive audience for this effort. Sr. Martha joined in as well.
As you read these lines we are finishing the nine days of talks, but as I write these lines it is only Monday, the third day. Even with streaming practice the learning curve remains high. I find that I need to match the Sisters’ determination to receive the preaching with a resolve to deliver it effectively and pleasingly. This has taken more work than I imagined.
The experience of live-streaming made some of these tasks familiar, and with these our Sisters have been a great help. We find a setting, and then place the camera and the frazzled presenter. Is the camera at the right height? Is the presenter close enough to be heard well and not so close that his facial tics distract the listener? Then we worry about lighting and ambient noise. Finally, we hope we pushed all the right buttons on the device: somehow one of my conferences turned 90 degrees to the right and I was preaching magisterially whole seeming to lie on my back
Tackling the technical challenges leads to the issue of content. We are blessed to have virtual means when personal connection escapes us. But the virtual does not replace the personal. When I physically give a retreat I can feel the rapport growing between the participants and me (or, sometimes not). The chance interchanges and asides that leaven a long presentation emerge from this connection. In the absence of this medium I must adapt to the camera. The new medium affects the length and the content, because if it is a challenge to preach to the back of a cell phone it is equally hard to receive it sitting at a screen. The method connects speaker and hearer in the service of the Gospel, but it also summons both beyond their comfort level.
Here comes the lesson of this whole COVID time for me. It has shown me how far I can venture from comfort and for how long. Many others I know have discovered the same truth about themselves. We come to perceive a strength that has lain undetected within us, a strength that does not lie in rigidity but in suppleness. In every walk of life, at every level of wealth, and in every culture, countless people are realizing their capacity to thrive in perseverance. For the preacher this discovery comes as a determination to preach the Gospel in whatever way necessary. We are like the boy who offered five loaves and two fish for the hunger of a multitude, but then God was God, and is.
Published in our bulletin July 19, 2020