Many years ago I can recall sitting in my classroom having just completed teaching for the week. In Perth, during February, summers are hot and trying. During that particular summer the ceiling fans struggled to cycle the oppressive air. The boys had left the room now, and I lent back in my chair, put my feet on the desk, my hands behind my head and let out a sigh that blended: exhaustion, achievement, and relief. The hustle and bustle of the boys racing home to begin the weekend, was the soundtrack to the beautiful view I had of the Canning River that frames the School, on two sides. One of my pupils, a young man in his final year, looked up at me as he walked down the hill to the shore, he turned, smiled and waved. He unhitched his aluminum boat, and started his outboard motor to make his way across the wide river in order to go home. There were a half a dozen boys in that year who came to school the same way. Peter, the name I will give this young man, had in his boat a fishing rod, and some 200 metres off shore, stopped his motor, sat back in his boat and began to fish. That to me was the life! To be a boy again, and have Peter’s life, that would be something indeed. My daily routine as a boy had been the smell of a congested diesel bus. Most days Peter would follow the same routine. What a lucky boy. It was my first year as the Spiritual Director of the College, and as I was soon to learn, came to know that a Doctorate in Mystical Theology, sounds impressive, and certainly can be useful in this role, but it is nowhere near the most integral part of a complex series of skills, required of any individual willing to run a successful Retreat programme for boys.

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The time came soon for choosing Year Twelve leaders for the Encounter Retreat programme, a three day residential Rites of Passage Retreat comprising Year Eleven students, who are led by members of the Graduating class. Peter volunteered, and I happily selected him. Off Peter went to be guided by my Assistant Spiritual Director, Br. Brian Clery cfc, a very wise and immensely experienced Retreat Master, who in our now thirteen years of working closely with one another, has taught me more about Practical Spirituality, and the education of boys, than any text book or any university course ever did. Thirty years separate the two of us, but if one listens closely, and is willing to learn, the wisdom that can be imparted to improve one’s own spiritual direction (and self) is vast. Br. Clery, spent many hours helping Peter with the lecture that he was going to deliver at the Retreat. Peter’s directive was to open the Retreat by explaining to the boys were his life was at the moment, and some of the joys and sufferings of his life thus far. As I have come to understand, the first speaker so often sets the tone for the rest of the Encounter Retreat, for by being open and honest, they can indeed, give their younger peers, the courage to do the same. So the time came. In a hall, in a semi-rural location, the excited chat of fifty adolescent boys was brought to a close as Peter took his place at the lectern. He looked toward me, beamed that smile, that expressed the effervescent nature of his good soul, looked at the audience in front of him, and said: “Hello, my name is Peter, and this year I have had to save my father’s life three times.” We were all gob-smacked as Peter, the young man who seemed to have no care in the world, aside from the size of the fish he sought to catch, and how he was to cook the catch, proceeded thereafter to explain a home situation, so painfully tragic. It was gut-wrenching. Thus the first series of lessons that I learnt about Directing Retreats: First, appreciate and be prepared that you will most likely learn more from those you are leading than they you. Second, the task of the Retreat leader is to facilitate, rather than dominate. Third, the greatest heroes you meet in life, are not to be found in encyclopaedias, but in the faces of those you sit beside, and share a life with each day. Fourth, as a Retreat leader, you must do everything possible as you prepare the Retreat to come to understand those for whom you are preparing your Retreat. Fifth, never presume that you know too much about your subject matter, nor about life. Be prepared to be surprised, and always to learn, from others and from mistakes.

Be prepared to be surprised, and always to learn, from others and from mistakes.

That Retreat experience I have just described, was my first at the College, and since then I have continued to learn and deliver, over now more than 250 Retreats, to boys from the ages of twelve to eighteen, as well as to fathers and their sons. As you may appreciate from what I have just written, experiences such as Peter’s, although of course not precisely replicated, are matched frequently in the depth of tragedy that many young people today face. School teachers are now at the forefront of the pastoral face of the Church, where the clergy once stood. The reticence of many youth from attending mass regularly, and thus from being engaged with the Sacraments and the clergy, has meant that the teacher in a Catholic School, is aware in an only too real way, as to the joys and sufferings of their students. The Retreat programme brings these experiences and emotions out.

The particular Retreat experience that the Encounter Retreat offers is cathartic, not only for the students who participate, but for the staff involved. When you sit in small groups and share details of one’s life journey, others are empowered to do the same. The tough, sun-burnt faces of young Australian men, are soon covered with tears, as their mouths tell the tales of absent fathers, and stresses related to family break-up, illness, incident and accident. I can recall one of the toughest young men I have ever met, delivering the opening address, in which he spoke about the recent death of his grandfather, the patriarch of a family of Australia beef-cattle farmers, who lived out in some of the harshest country in the world. He gripped the podium, his knuckles were white, as he struggled to tell of his sitting beside his grandfather’s death-bed, being there as he passed away. No one had ever seen this young man in any other light than an Achilles, minus the vulnerable heel. The podium shook, as his voice broke. I walked up to him, and told him that it was not necessary for him to continue. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and in broken voice said: “I will be right, Sir”. He continued, and gave one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard delivered, by anyone.  No one applauded. What they had heard was too profound for applause.

When you sit in small groups and share details of one’s life journey, others are empowered to do the same.

On another occasion during the Encounter Retreat programme where we collect and collate ten letters from each participant’s family and friends, (without the participant knowing), I received a phone call from a grandfather in New Zealand. He had received a copy of my instructions inviting people to write letters. He was eager to write, but needed more time. I told him to take a few extra days, and to fax his letter to me. Four pages of a fax arrived, and I folded these pages and placed them in an envelope to give to his grandson on Day Two of the Retreat. The Retreat was a few weeks away. In between the day I received the fax and the Retreat, the grandfather passed away. The boy flew to the funeral in New Zealand. A week later, during the Retreat, the young man in question, opened the letter in the silence in which all the participants are asked to read, and was told from the grave, how much he was loved by his grandfather. This Day Two experience is a highlight for many boys; and I have found it curious, that the hardest of men, are reduced to tears the quickest. No one is laughed at by their peers, for we encourage the young men to understand that they are males by gender, and men by choice; and by that we mean, that to be a man one must have a sensitivity of heart, and deep concern for others. It is a painstaking task to collect and collate such a vast volume of letters. But the rewards are of course immense. Every family is sent a letter; a reminder SMS, and if there are issues with mail not coming in on schedule – phone calls are made; local, national and international, if need be. Rarely do I struggle to gain for each student a fairly sized number of letters; but if so, persistence succeeds.

To keep this flame alight take time to go on your own Retreat in daily life, keep reading, experiencing and learning.

As part of our Retreat programmes we offer the Sacraments of the Eucharist, and Reconciliation. It would seem that those priests who serve Christ through our programme, also have profound experiences. Oftentimes when I go into the rooms that are used for Reconcilation, I find priests faces wet with tears, some even profusely weeping. One priest said to me: “These boys are so honest!” On another occasion, an elderly priest looked up to me, and said with tears covering his face: “This is why I became a priest.” Such an atmosphere can only be created, if the participants are unequivocal in their belief that those who lead the Retreat are authentic. Authenticity is the key for any Retreat programme and leader. Once people know that you indeed care for them – and that you are committed to what you are teaching; then they will come along with you. Thus my second series of lessons as a Spiritual Director: First, if you don’t believe in what you are doing – leave. Children and young adults are the best judges of hypocrisy. Second, you can only light a fire in some one else’s heart, from a flame already burning within you. To keep this flame alight take time to go on your own Retreat in daily life, keep reading, experiencing and learning. Third, everyone wants to be listened to, once a person knows that they are being heard, they will respect you. You can then speak and be heard.

Experience in teaching boys has also taught me that critical also for the successful running of a Retreat are three other characteristics, without which, even the greatest planning will not help. First, the ability to tell a story. Boys love stories. In addition, oral tradition within a school is vital. The boys love to hear that you knew this student or that student. They want to know, as they can place themselves in context of a bigger picture. Second, boys love a sense of humour, not a contrived joke, but a dry reflection or quip – or a humorous tale of the past. It breaks the monotony. It also gives them an appreciation of you as a human being. Third, when you teach boys, follow the general rule of one eye open, the other closed. I don’t mean be slovenly in discipline or control, but understand that they are probably not as eager to hear you, as you are to speak. The best planned Retreats can fail if a Director seeks to find fault in their audience, at every perceivable moment. If the programme is good, and the delivery also, the Retreat should function with the audience coming on-board like a wave.

When you teach boys, follow the general rule of one eye open, the other closed. I don’t mean be slovenly in discipline or control, but understand that they are probably not as eager to hear you, as you are to speak.

Finally, the most critical component of Retreat work – is prayer. Without the support of prayer, or focus on the relationship with God; a Retreat turns into a camp, or an excursion. In everything that is done to create and deliver a Retreat, allowance should be made for the participant to speak to God. All activities should lead to this point, that coming away from the Retreat, the individual, now continues the Retreat in their every day life richer for the insights with which they have been provided.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania is the Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College in Manning, Perth, Western Australia. Dr. Kania oversees a Retreat programme from Year Seven (12 years of age) through to Year Twelve (18 years of age). Every student must attend a Retreat annually. A component of Graduating from the College is completion of the Retreat commitment.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, April 2018