by Fannie Dionne
As a teenager, I once went out alone in a rowboat on the lake near my family’s cottage. There, I felt a deep sense of connection to the water, the sky, and the surrounding forest. It was a moment of rest, peace, and communion with something bigger than myself.
If I remember this experience so vividly, it’s perhaps because, as an adult, being able to stop has been difficult, if not impossible. One project after another, one job after another, a master’s degree, a doctorate at the same time as having one child, then two. I had even forgotten the sound of silence. I certainly wanted to press pause to take a moment to reflect, but life happens in fast-forward mode, and I kept putting it off, mainly because I didn’t know how to stop, despite an increasingly pressing need for a break. And the thought of looking for guidance from a religious tradition? Since I had (silently) cut myself off from Catholicism in the middle of a Mass one day, and, being most skeptical of the Church, the idea had never crossed my mind.
So, how is it that I ended up writing my story within the pages of this magazine? Excellent question! To make a long story short, in the last year of my Ph.D., I had to find a source of income. A friend sent me a job offer for a communications role with the Jesuits of Canada. Reluctantly, I applied at the last minute and was accepted. But even though I was financially more stable, from then on, I was also very busy.
I needed to learn about Ignatian spirituality, for example, which has many core values similar to my own. But when my boss suggested that I go on a three-day retreat to experience this spirituality, I was skeptical, to say the least, and even broke out in a cold sweat. “What are you going to do there?” asked friends and family. “Good question,” I replied, without the slightest idea of how to answer. What was I going to discuss with a spiritual accompanier at a retreat centre? Would they try to force me to pray to God the Father? I don’t even know what retreatants eat in winter – a Quebec saying meaning how does it works (in fact, in winter and summer, they eat very well).
What was I going to discuss with a spiritual accompanier at a retreat centre?
It seems that only fools never change their minds. Nearly five years later, I’m still not Catholic, but I look forward to making a five-day Ignatian retreat every summer.
I was afraid I’d have to meet with a spiritual companion who was cold and rigid. This was not the case with the Jesuit priest who listened attentively to my fears and my complaints against the Church during my first retreat. But I particularly enjoyed opening up afterwards to women and a queer person with whom I could share my experiences in depth.
I was afraid I’d be led along a path that was disconnected from my reality. I couldn’t relate to the Bible or prayers. But I was offered texts that spoke of trees, love, and relationships—texts that resonated with my experience. I was given suggestions for reflection based on what had resonated with me.
I was afraid of staying cooped up with only the chapel to serve as an escape from my room. Instead, I spent hours on nature trails (trying to convince myself that even cursed mosquitoes have their purpose on earth) or at the water’s edge. I also spent a lot of time sleeping and reading.
But above all, I finally had some time for myself. That was … priceless. So every year, I lay my pack of preoccupations at the entrance of the retreat centre, fearing that it might collapse under the weight of it all. Not having to clean, cook, or plan does wonders for both body and soul! Underneath the mother, employee, friend, daughter, spouse, and the rest of the labels that life in society implies, I find myself.
But above all, I finally had some time for myself. That was … priceless.
Does this mean that everything is focused on the self during these days? Well, yes … but when I’m given the time and the resources to recognize the joys in my life, the moments of growth, as well as the darkness, I learn to be more open to others. I discover that relationships are what nourish me, I can set my limits, and I can be renewed in my desire for a world that is more just for humans and for the earth.
Before the last retreat, for example, I had forced myself to get involved in an ecological movement because I felt I had to. During the retreat, though, I was able to free myself (a little) from the stress of never doing enough, and it was with the desire to get involved that, after the retreat, I finally began to take small steps to become more active in the group.
It’s beautiful what emerges from these five days, but the process can be difficult. To genuinely and honestly face yourself, just like learning to love yourself and accept your wounds, is quite an exercise. I’ve become an expert at finding boxes of tissues. But even crying feels good.
When people ask me what I like about my job, which is a bit unusual in my field, I list a number of things … including my retreat week.