Sunday, December 09, 2012

Retreats Reconsidered

We here at man with black hat have received quite a reaction to our piece entitled “Every Matter Under Heaven” from last Tuesday. We drew attention to plans underway by Michael Voris of ChurchMilitant.TV to organize a retreat, not only on a pleasure cruise line, but during Lent, and with the able assistance of Father John Zuhlsdorf, author of the weblog "What Does The Prayer Really Say?," and affectionately known as "Father Z."

We have also noticed the reaction from elsewhere, not only to this recently announced endeavor, but our reporting of it, including Catholic in Brooklyn, Abbey Roads. Even none other than The Crescat herself, Katrina "I'm not a Catholic celebrity just because I was on a short list of bloggers invited to an historic meeting at the Vatican" Fernandez, has weighed in.

But the reaction we will be reviewing more closely in this sequel to last Tuesday was found just a combox away, courtesy of one Christine Niles, hostess of the Fidelis Radio talk show "Forward Boldly" and author of the weblog Laudem Gloriae, devoted to the explanation and defense of Catholic tradition.

Sorry, but it all sounds like a whole lot of griping to me. I stand by my remarks that your complaints were "an ugly display of envy and sour grapes."

Actually, my dear, you have at least four reasons to be sorry. Since you chose to make this admonition public, my response will be in kind. I will examine your legitimate causes for regret forthwith.

You have an unnecessarily narrow definition of retreats, which come in all shapes & sizes. Some are made in absolute silence & enclosure, while others are characterized by complete freedom, conversation, and plenty of food. All a retreat means is to get away; the particulars of the retreat itself are up to the organizers.

"All a retreat means is to get away." You had best be quite sure of that, because ...

Words. Have. Meaning.

If there is one thing for which the errors of modernity have served as a cautionary tale, it is that there is an objective and precise meaning to the words we use, and that altering those words to suit our own purpose can be an insidious form of deception, one to which most faithful Catholics reading this (including you, as I would gather from reading your work) will attest. An explanation of Objective Truth requires that we mean what we say, and that such meaning is unassailable. Attempts by amateur liturgists in our parishes to alter the words of Sacred Scripture to facilitate a theological or ideological agenda, can in turn alter the meaning of the text, even to the point of heresy. Are women "excluded" when God is not redefined to suit them? Do we not, rather, "exclude" God when we address Him as "Mother," when His Son taught us otherwise? Attempts in parishes to justify a laic (as opposed to a cleric) preaching a homily by saying, "No, it's not a homily, it's a reflection," is a way of manipulating others into believing something is acceptable, when in fact it is not.

The word "retreat," in our case, is from the Latin word "retrahere" which means "to draw back." In our present usage, it is much more ...

1. a. The act or process of withdrawing, especially from something hazardous, formidable, or unpleasant.
b. The process of going backward or receding from a position or condition gained.

2. A place affording peace, quiet, privacy, or security.
3. a. A period of seclusion, retirement, or solitude.
b. A period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, or study: a religious retreat.

Nothing in this definition suggests anything other than the sort of meaning we have put forth, that it is more than simply "to get away," but is in fact doing so with a particular result in mind. Even "to draw back" is more precise than merely "to get away," as the movement implies deliberation, a purpose. The format of a retreat may vary, from a weekend in silence, to a thirty-day Ignatian exercise under spiritual direction without sequestering, but it is most certainly a deliberate break in routine for a pre-specified purpose.

Ergo, the meaning put forth here is not "unnecessarily narrow," but necessarily specific.

What you're actually doing with all this holier-than-thou griping is impugning the integrity & character of the retreat organizers, including the priest giving the talks.

No, what I'm actually doing is impugning the nature of the actions, having already drawn a clear distinction between the good character of the organizers themselves, and that which was problematic in their endeavor. Any preference toward a more severe (dare I say, "narrow") definition of a retreat, is what it is, PRECISELY because we are NOT "holier-than-thou." When we require a desert experience (as opposed to an oasis), we are obliged to follow the example of Christ, not of Mammon. I do not know Mr Voris' motives, nor those of the good Father. Indeed, I cannot possibly imagine what could possess two men of whom I have sufficient opinion that they would know better. I only know, and only submit, that their plans are terribly misguided, and I give specific reasons.

If you don't want to go, then don't. But this attempt to make attendees feel guilty is just silly.

I won't be needing your assistance to make that choice. I wouldn't go if they offered it for free. True, I would certainly want a Catholic priest along whose bonafides are in order (something which we mentioned is increasingly problematic on cruise lines), but why would I go during a penitential season, and why in the hell would I go alone? You see, my companion and best friend Sal would want to come too, and I would very much want to bring her. She studied ballroom dance for several years, and makes me look like a much better dancer than I really am. But I can barely afford one room, let alone two.

I can just hear her now:

“Ano ang ibig mong sabihin? Dahil lamang na iyong binayaran para sa aking biyahe? Tanga! Ngayon kuha mo ako ng mojito!” (“What do you mean? Just because you paid for my trip? Fool! Now get me a mojito!”)

True, I could sleep on the couch, but that assumes we don't get caught, and simply planning on that good fortune in this setting would be bad, wouldn't it? Besides, I can sleep on the couch at home, which usually happens when I watch late night movies ... but that's another story. Back to explaining yours.

Happy Advent.

Well, thank you, Christine, but I'd rather my Advent be "blessed" than "happy." While you certainly mean well, we have yet another case where the meaning of words is diluted. In the Beatitudes, certain candy-@$$ translations would say "Happy are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs." Elsewhere, the Book of Psalms would mistakenly open with: "Happy is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked ..." No, what Christ meant was "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:3) Further, the psalmist wrote: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers ..." (Psalm 1:1)

I can feel happy without ever knowing or caring whether I am blessed. I can be blessed without ever feeling happy. In fact, this is not about feelings at all, and this supposed "attempt to make attendees feel guilty," as one would learn the hard way in an introductory logic class, has nothing to do with how anyone would "feel."

What it has to do with, is our regard for what it is how we identify ourselves as Catholic, which, as is stated in our raison d'etre "... can involve more than avoiding sin and exercising virtue." We live our faith, not in a vacuum, but according to the seasons of the year. We read of this in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

For everything there is a season,
    and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant,
    and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones,
    and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
    and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

So it is with the seasons of the liturgical year, moving in harmony with those of the world around us. We know the time for planting and for the harvest. We know the time of fasting, and the time for the feast. Likewise, there is a reason that weddings were never done during penitential seasons (and still should be, in my estimation), and why funerals were never conducted on a Sunday (and, inasmuch as some things are still sacred, still are not). There is also a reason that an attempt to conduct a religious retreat on a luxury cruise line, never mind during the Great Fast, is a really, REALLY bad idea. And in making the distinction between the parties in question, and the act itself, one would hope that this has been an attempt to speak the truth in charity, whether successful or not.

We could go on at some length, Christine, about your impugning MY "integrity & character." We could also seek the counsel of those with experience in arranging luxury cruises, who could explain just how difficult it would be to isolate a "retreat" from the occasions for decadent behavior thereupon. We could go so far as to elaborate on your impressive academic credentials, and easily surmise that you should have done an infinitely better job of making your case against a yutz like me, but you get the idea. So does anyone else reading this, don't you think?

Or don't you?

(Our thanks to the unidentified "Catholic in Brooklyn" for the images of the austere conditions of the Princess Cruise Lines, ostensibly conducive to spiritual reflection, and to Christine Niles for her invaluable contribution to this discussion. May the blessings of the season be upon both of them and their loved ones. Meanwhile, there's this song that's been going through my head for the last three days. Go figure.)


Terry Nelson said...

Ha! Excellent post.

Now I know who Cristine is too.

Blog Goliard said...

Even if it were outside Lent, I'm honestly not sure when a cruise counts as a nice vacation and simple good fun, and when it's a sign of decadence and excess.

Maybe it's because I'm relatively poor and so my budget demands hard choices anyway, maybe it's because my vision of the medium-term financial future of this country tends toward the apocalyptic, or maybe I'm expecting too much asceticism out of laypeople...but in any event, I tend to believe that one of the most urgent questions that Americans of all income levels should be facing these days is: "How can we spend less? How can we get by with less? How can we indulge ourselves less and give more of ourselves to others?"

Though I suppose somebody's got to buy the cruise tickets and first-class airline tickets and five-star hotel rooms, to keep all the people employed in the travel and holiday industries employed...

Jordan Guernsey said...

I've read a few of the various posts about this cruise, and I just have to say I've been totally baffled by the whole idea. Props to you for even being able to articulate an actual argument against it while I just arch my eyebrow and leave my mouth gaping open. Wouldn't Michael Voris and Fr. Z be two people who would be up in arms about the idea, sarcastically ripping it to shreds on the internet, if it were some liberal Catholic group proposing a cruise retreat during Lent? So confused...

priest's wife - S.T./ Anne Boyd said...

Cheers for a great post...I hope Fr Z doesn't go

Forward Boldly said...

Karl Keating, president of Catholic Answers, posted this about the cruise. Since Catholic Answers has been offering cruises for years, and at far higher costs, I will defer to his greater knowledge on this.

"I hold no brief for Michael Voris, but as an organizer of Catholic cruises (Mark has been a speaker–and a very good one!–for us) I should point out that the $1,084 Voris is charging works out to $155 per day. That includes the equivalent of hotels, all meals, and car expenses for a driving vacation that visits five far-flung cities in a week. You easily could spend more than that trying to do such a land-only vacation, so in that sense Voris’s cruise shouldn’t be labeled a luxury or expensive trip.

I thought the critique at Simcha Fisher’s blog was very poorly done–so poorly that it never should have been posted.

The reviewer starts by referring to “the Michael Voris Love Boat.” That migth be acceptable if Voris were sponsoring a cruise for singles looking for spouses, but that isn’t at all what his video or ad say. A cheap shot.

The reviewer says that Voris “is going to charge the suckers who watch him thousands of dollars for a ‘retreat’ at sea. During Lent. That’s right. Thousand[s] of dollars spent to go on a spiritual retreat on a cruise ship with casinos and all night buffets.”

First of all, using “suckers” is another cheap shot.

Second, the fee isn’t “thousands of dollars” but just over one thousand dollars. (Can’t you read the man’s ad?)

Third, nearly all Catholic cruises, no matter what time of year, are held on big ships that have casinos. Big ships mean lower costs per person, and big ships universally have casinos. (On Catholic Answers cruises we just ignore the casinos and go about our own business.)

Fourth, “all night buffets”? I checked the description of this cruise at the Princess Cruises website and couldn’t find any reference to all-night buffets. Catholic Answers has used several cruise lines over the years (but not Princess), and none of them had an all-night buffet.

Granted, Lent doesn’t seem the best time of year to set a cruise (maybe Voris chose March because the rates are low then), but–unlike something claimed in the comments above–his group won’t be partying on the ship on Good Friday–because Good Friday is on March 29, and his cruise ends 12 days earlier! Still another cheap shot.

I don’t object to criticizing Voris when criticism is due (which is often enough, I’m afraid), but let’s play fair, shall we? Don’t make things up, and don’t exaggerate. Cheap shots (which are mainly plain old falsehoods) don’t bring any credit to their authors."

David L Alexander said...


Thank you for taking the time to write again. I hope your Christmastide has been a blessed one up to now.

By this point, I have probably read everything in the Catholic blogosphere on the subject of the event in question, including the musings of "The Jerk" on Simcha Fisher's blog "I Have To Sit Down," to which I believe Mr Keating is responding. I do hope you have noticed some distinctions between his and other critiques, as opposed to mine.

1) I was careful to avoid an attack on either the character or the intentions of the two principals for the event, namely Michael Voris and Father Zuhlsdorf. I have never met Mr Voris, but I have spoken at some length with two of his associates, one of whom was kind enough to convey my concerns to him personally. I have served Mass for the good Father on more than one occasion, and we do occasionally see one another when he is in the DC area. I have no wish for bad blood with him, thus you will find no "cheap shots" in my treatment of the subject.

2) I do not know how Mr Keating would surmise that March is not a peak time of the year for cruises. Quite the opposite, in fact. (When do you think spring break takes place anyway?) It also so happens that my research assistant (yes, I do have one), a third order Carmelite with a masters in theology (for what it's worth), is also a registered travel agent, and has brokered a number of Catholic tours. She assures me that March is indeed a peak travel period for cruise lines, not to mention other tourist outlets. (She also mentioned in passing that cruise lines commonly place food buffets in strategic locations throughout the ship. She did not mention whether or not they were "all-night," however.)

3) The above being said, I have never claimed, nor do I make a habit of claiming, anything that I cannot prove. I am a writer, not just a blogger, and my work is frequently referenced by research aggregators. For this reason alone, I would have had no issue with the cost, which from my limited experience is reasonable. I would also remind you that I actually supported the idea of a Catholic group taking its own chaplain along for a cruise, and stated the merits thereof at length. My sole concern was, and remains, the conduct of a spiritual retreat on a cruise line, especially during a penitential season. I submit that both the timing and the setting are entirely unsuitable, and went to great lengths to state my case.

In all humility, my piece on this subject stands above and beyond most of what is written thereupon. It is the purpose of "disputatio," not to win an argument, but to engage in a mutual search for the Truth.

(By the way, Christine, the next time you sing and play guitar on a Facebook video, please angle the camera to include your playing. It is impossible to follow your chord progressions up the neck, in a performance which I found most enjoyable.)