by Mark Lauer – firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes a learning experience can turn out a little different than what was planned. Take the 2013 Senior Retreat at St. Cloud Cathedral High School, for instance.
The retreat is an annual event for the senior class at CHS, planned and implemented by the school’s campus ministry. During the past years, Cathedral seniors have met at different locations for the retreat, which is designed to provide them with a chance to bond as a class. It also gives them a chance to begin to say goodbye to one another.
Last year’s retreat was held at St. Benedict’s Monastery on the campus of the College of St. Benedict. The 2012 event was so well received by last year’s seniors this year the class of 2013 decided they wanted the same experience. So on Jan. 9, they boarded a bus, preparing to experience the retreat for themselves.
But what began as their attempt to get to know the nuns better turned out to be a kind of awakening for their hosts, too.
Sister Lois Wedl, OSB, is the director of vocational ministry at St. Benedict, and she was also the overseer of the day’s events. The retreat did provide the Cathedral seniors with a first-hand look at what monastery life is like. But they weren’t the only ones who had their eyes opened that day.
The nuns ended up receiving a gift from their guests, too.
“I think the Sisters got just as much out of interacting with the high school students,” Wedl said. “It was refreshing to have those young people come into your life again. It was definitely a mutual situation.”
When the CHS seniors arrived at St. Benedict’s Monastery, there were almost as many visitors on the scene as there were hosts. About 120 seniors made the trip, and there are 135 nuns at St. Benedict. There are an additional 132 nuns from the Benedictine community serving the outlying area in various capacities.
The CHS retreat began with a brief orientation period, and then the seniors split into five groups to take part in the day’s events. The theme for the senior retreat was “The Journey,” and the time spent at the retreat was meant to be a chance for the students to look at the people who had been important in their lives, in shaping who they are and what they have become.
Many of the exercises held during the day’s retreat were focused on quiet reflection and meditation. One was called “Walking the Labyrinth,” which is a slow, quiet walk around a circular path outside the campus Spirituality Center. It is intended to quiet the mind while thinking about the path that one’s life is taking. It’s a practice that dates back to ancient times.
“It’s a time for contemplation,” Sister Lois said.
Students also spent another 45-minute quiet session inside the Eucharistic Chapel in absolute quiet. No talking. Quite a contrast to the lives most young people lead during their school day and other social activities.
How often do teens spend 10 minutes without talking to one another?
But Sister Lois is not surprised these young people seemed to embrace the more contemplative lifestyle, if only for a day.
“I believe there is a spiritual hunger out there,” she said. “And I think a lot of young people are looking at the world and wondering what’s going to feed that hunger.”
The students’ physical hunger was satisfied in other ways. Last year’s seniors came back from the retreat with fond memories of the food they were served at St. Benedict. The cheeseburger soup, homemade buns and Special K bars were all rated very highly. And from the sound of it, the class of 2013 enjoyed them very much, too.
“Hospitality is one of our Benedictine values, one of our intentional values,” Sister Lois said.
Sister Lois joined the Order of St. Benedict in 1949 and taught classes at CSB until two years ago. She still lives in a residence hall on campus. Wedl said she thoroughly enjoyed those many years of teaching college students from CSB and St. John’s University, and she loves being around young people so much she makes it a point to get to as many CSB athletic events as she can.
“I am a huge Blazers fan,” she says, referring to the CSB athletic nickname.
Sister Lois noted with some irony in her voice that many of their visitors from Cathedral, a Catholic high school, had never spent any time with nuns before. There are no longer any nuns teaching classes at CHS.
“At one time there were more than 1,600 students at Cathedral, and they were primarily taught by the Sisters,” Wedl noted. “They were some of the key people who began the school.”
Cathedral’s current enrollment is 439 in grades 9-12, with another 215 in grades 7-8.
“This was a chance for them to get to know the Sisters a little bit, and see what the monastery experience is like,” Sister Wedl said.
And that experience, Wedl says, was generally perceived as a positive one.
“They (the students) liked being in an environment where spirituality is the norm,” she said.
Before the day’s events were over, before the closing mass at Sacred Heart Chapel, the seniors had one last chance to get to know one another a little better. There were 120 large paper plates set on a table inside the monastery Gathering Place. Each plate had the name of a CHS senior written on it. The ‘task’ was to find the plate of someone you knew and write an appropriate message on it. When the retreat was over, each student’s plate would have messages on it from many of his/her classmates. The plates would be delivered back to the high school to be distributed to their owners, presumably by placing them on the student’s locker. It was a way for the seniors to connect, like signing a yearbook.
“This was one of the last times they would really be together as a group until graduation,” Sister Lois said. “They have to learn to live with various types of people, and to get along with other people.”
Wedl thanks the Cathedral class of 2013 for one important gift they left at the monastery that day. That was the gift of themselves, the gift of youth.
“They were just an exceedingly wonderful group of young men and women,” she said. “They gave the Sisters a new hope.”