by Elizabeth Buckley
I recently completed my eighth silent retreat in the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. Its most famous monk was Thomas Merton, and aside from the appeal of silently praying among the same trees he did, I have been drawn there for the immensity of God’s presence I find there. While God is certainly everywhere, I think he vacations in Kentucky!
Each year that I go on retreat, I set a goal for myself: Decide what you want to do with your life. Get over that failed relationship. Get closer to holiness. Think about how you can help others.
Well, this year it was a much simpler goal: get to know St. Raphael. I’ll admit this was a goal that sprouted from my pastor, Father Jerry Jecewiz of St. Raphael’s, Long Island City. In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of our parish, he gave us a bit of homework: get to know your patron saint.
And so I sat comfortably in my modest retreat room, which had a window overlooking the cemetery of monks’ graves, including the dear Merton, or Father Louie as he was known, and got to reading the Book of Tobit. What a page-turner it was. Filled with deceit, a long journey with uncertainty, husbands ending up dead on their wedding night, an illness, a cure, a truth uncovered … I felt as if I stepped into an episode of an HBO series.
In a very abridged version of the Bible story: God sent St. Raphael down to earth to care for Tobit’s blindness and his daughter-in-law who was plagued with a demon. It got me thinking: Did I ever have a Raphael in my life — someone who God sent me to help me realize something? I most certainly did, and the coincidence of the timing of my realization was that the Raphael of my life was at this same retreat in August 2014.
I remembered everything so vividly upon this realization: It was a hazy, hot and humid end of the day on the feast day of the Assumption. Compline, the last of the seven Liturgy of the Hours prayed by the monks at the abbey, had just finished, and keeping with my tradition, I climbed to the top of a hill across from the retreat house to watch the sunset.
The hill overlooks the rolling blue hills and the neighboring farms. Sunset is such a special time on this hill as you get to hear all of nature preparing for the night ahead: the cows being herded, the geese flying overhead, the bird calls increasing in volume to gather each other. Everyone’s nighttime ritual amplified in the silence of this place. I’ve always felt this was my special place to watch the sunset because I’ve always enjoyed it alone.
Except on the evening of the Assumption when at the end of my time there, I turned to find a man sitting praying the rosary. I was startled since in all the silence around me, I failed to hear his footsteps.
I smiled and nodded at him — the customary greeting on the retreat. He did the same, but as I walked away, he called out to me, “Beautiful isn’t it?”
I replied that it was hard to put into words just how beautiful this very spot was.
He introduced himself as Sam and this was 15th retreat at Gethsemani during the Assumption. It was his most favorite church feast day, he explained, and then told me he was retired.
I asked what he was retired from.
“I owned a cemetery,” he said. I admitted I never met anyone who owned a cemetery, and my curiosity was getting the best of me as I asked what was his favorite part of that job.
He simply said, “I got to talk to people about Jesus. I love talking about Jesus.”
Sam and I chatted for a few minutes, and during that time, he asked me the personal question of what my retreat was focusing on.
I responded, “I’m trying to figure out how I can help people. I feel such a calling to it, but don’t yet know what I’m meant to do. Sometimes I think I know, but then I suddenly don’t. I feel like I have no control over what I’m thinking.”
To this Sam responded that only God has control and that I had to listen to what He was telling me to do.
I heard this so many times — I didn’t really need to hear it again.
But as I was thinking that, he said, “You have to know the difference between what God is telling you and what the Devil is telling you!”
Ah, now this is what I needed to hear.
I responded, “If only the voices didn’t sometimes sound the same.”
Sam nodded in agreement and said, “Listen more carefully.”
As I started to walk away, Sam called back out, “I’m sorry for talking to you, I just felt compelled to.”
I nodded and thought to myself that maybe he was just a chatty person who found it difficult to always stay silent.
In a retreat of only 50 persons maximum, I didn’t see Sam for the rest of the retreat weekend. I’m grateful for my chance meeting with Sam and the wisdom he imparted on me. Listening to your hunches gets difficult and trusting your instincts even more so. By spending time more time with God, it gets easier to hear His voice among all the others.
As St. Raphael’s begins its 150th anniversary celebration, I pray that everyone recognizes the Raphael in their life and the wisdom he/she is trying to share. God is always sending us people to tell us His message because we all have a hard time hearing His voice. Perhaps you feel compelled to talk to someone you’ve never met or someone you know really well — that just may be St. Raphael working through you.
For my fellow parishioners of St. Raphael’s, I’m so grateful to be a part of our parish family with you.
It is a community filled with an unwavering faith and support in one another. I hope this continues for the next 150 years. As Tobit proclaimed after Raphael ascended back to heaven: “Blessed be God who lives forever, because His kingdom last for all ages.”
Buckley is a parishioner and Parish Council Member at St. Raphael’s Parish, Long Island City.