By Molly O’Neill, CharisNYC “What Next?” Retreat Team Member
At the heart of Marquette University’s campus stands the Joan of Arc Chapel: small, intimate, made of stone, strikingly beautiful in every season—a place where it’s practically impossible to not have an encounter with God. During my four years as a Marquette undergrad, it was the living, breathing center of my faith life. My friends and I gathered there for Mass regularly, where we sang, held prayer groups and went to adoration. We even stopped by between classes, for quiet conversations with God.
After college, like many a Jesuit university grad, I spent two years doing post-graduate volunteer work. The team I worked with was the center of that experience: a vibrant, tightly-knit group of young people, committed to helping one another grow in our personal relationships with Christ while together we lived out a radical example of faith.
But when I moved to New York City to pursue my dream career, after such profound early experiences of community and lived faith, I couldn’t seem to find the center. I found friends, yes, and colleagues, but I lacked community. Despite the millions of people sharing the streets and subways, I struggled to find others who lived and expressed a faith anything like my own. “Perhaps this is what adult faith is,” I erroneously thought. “Maybe it’s just supposed to be about me and God now, and about maintaining habits of faith amidst a busy professional life.” So I went to church; I tried to pray. But it was a lonely, isolated time, and slowly my faith began to feel frozen, stagnant, more something that I remembered wistfully than something active or awake or alive inside of me.
Sometimes we lose God for a little while. It’s not that we love Him, or our Catholic faith, less, it’s just that life moves us on from the known to the unknown, and away from the places where we once could know precisely where to look for Him, or from the people who always helped us see Him and His invitation in our lives most clearly. We grow up, and faith asks different things of us, challenges us to recognize and claim God in new and deeper ways.
One of my favorite parts of Ignatian spirituality, since I first learned about it in college, has always been the understanding it offers of our interior lives: that even in our times of spiritual desolation, God is quietly at work, preparing our hearts for future experiences of spiritual consolation, and planning for us to discover Him in our todays and our tomorrows as much as we once did in our yesterdays. Despite the comfort I take from the constancy inherent in the idea that consolation will always follow desolation, at times—like those early years in NYC—I can forget to trust in God’s presence. But God does not forget. And it is never His will for us to remain in endless desolation, so He calls to us in ways He is sure we will recognize.
And so a few years ago, when a friend (knowing I’d just started a new job, moved into a new apartment, and ended a relationship, all in a short timespan) mentioned that she was part of a Jesuit retreat ministry called Charis NYC and that there were a few spots on an upcoming retreat, it stirred up a quiet familiarity, a hopefulness, inside of me. I hadn’t known where to find God in the magnitude of New York City, so at last He urged me toward a place I’d be sure to recognize Him—a retreat that was, quite aptly, focused on transitions.
Walking into the retreat center that weekend, I found myself at home among strangers. Here it was, then, when I was most ready to claim it: community, connection, consolation. Charis Retreats bring together young people whose lives span all kinds of careers and backgrounds, who have come to know and understand God through an endlessly-diverse set of experiences. But the unifier is that there are common longings: a desire to work in service of others; an urge to live for something greater than themselves; a yearning for depth, for Magis, more, in their lives; the desire to find God in all things.
I first learned about Ignatian spirituality in an academic way, at the hands of priests and professors, in classrooms and from pulpits. And it gave me a grounding for which I will always be grateful; an understanding that one’s spiritual life is at its best when integrated fully with one’s daily life, orienting all of the things you have come to love best about the world, and all of your own gifts, together in service of faith. On Charis Retreats, which are by and for young adults, I was reminded about Ignatian spirituality in a personal way, as others in their 20s and 30s shared discoveries of God’s explicit work in their lives and offered examples of how Ignatian spirituality was helping them journey toward becoming the truest possible versions of themselves. Encountering the evidence of God’s work in and through others makes us more able to recognize His patterns and movement in ourselves—that’s the gift of community. That weekend, it began waking me up to myself, and to a renewed comprehending of faith.
I needed the catalyst of Charis NYC to recognize who God had always meant for me to become as an adult Catholic, and how he was calling me to live as that person. My first Charis Retreat led me to new friends in faith, to subsequent retreats, and eventually to becoming part of the Charis Retreat Team itself. It connected me to other young adults who sought the same things I did. And when asked to speak about my own experiences of faith at the following year’s Transitions-Themed Retreat, I was able to claim God’s work across every part of my life, and share the powerful understanding that even in the seeming years-long lull of my faith, God had been working toward a moment of profound recognition: returning me to a faith that looked both the same as it always had, and yet entirely different. Today, I walk in an adult faith that is rich with revelations and encounters of God, and a deepened awareness of His faithfulness and presence. And finally, I am no longer looking for my spiritual center in memories of the past, or even somewhere out in the vastness of New York City. Finally, I have realized that the center of my faith is found wherever and however I choose to actively participate in the life of the Church. The experience of that choice has looked different at each stage of my life, and I know now that it will continue to grow and evolve in tandem with me. But now that I have found the center, I hope I will never be lost again.
Molly O’Neill is a literary agent living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a graduate of Marquette University.
Since 2011, CharisNYC has been offering peer-led retreats for people in their 20s and 30s, helping young adults grow in their relationship with God, deepen their experience of Ignatian spirituality, and reconnect with a community of faith. Retreatants come from throughout NYC and NJ Metro area to learn spiritual tools to help them lead healthy, balanced lives and to make better choices. Each year, CharisNYC offers two or three different retreats on themes of interest to young adults. For more information on upcoming retreats, visit www.charis.nyc or email CharisRetreatNYC@gmail.com. The next Charis Retreat is the Still+Silent Retreat, which will take place on Nov. 11-13, 2016 at Mariandale Retreat Center. Click here to learn more.