I got back from my retreat yesterday (Sunday) at two o’clock in the afternoon. The reason I didn’t blog about it yesterday, while it was fresh in my memory, is that my memory had been hijacked by sleep depravity. “Retreat” is a misleading word, because I come back from my retreat more tired than I left, feeling like my body has been wrung of all its energy and movement. I walked in the door to my house yesterday and continued straight to my room, which is unusual, I usually hang in the kitchen area for a while. I dropped my bags in a very unavoidable area of my room and fell into bed. I slept from two to about six when I woke up. When I woke up, I ate dinner with my mom and dad and talked about the retreat a lot, which was really nice. Then after I went for a walk and ended up going to Fitz’s. I don’t usually take naps because they really mess with my sleep schedule, and so when I went to Fitz’s I ended up staying there till about three thirty, and I didn’t fall asleep in my own bed until about six. I woke up today around noon and immediately started baking some stuff. We needed sandwich bread so I am currently in the final stages of letting that rise. I also made a cake that I have been looking forward to making for awhile. It is a 4th of July cake, so there are few opportunities to make it. I made it today, and hopefully it will turn out well so I can post some pictures of it on my blog.
The point of that paragraph was to explain why I didn’t post about the retreat yesterday and waited until right now to start. Writing about the retreat really isn’t that big of an undertaking, because even though I am about as fresh from the experience as I will ever be, I still find that I can’t recall everything we did. A critical part of the retreat experience is the lack of sleep. Many aspects of the retreat are extemporaneous, such as writing love letters to campers, and we can’t do those things until we are on the retreat. Because of things like love letters and unpredictable things like the Agape ceremony, we get to bed very late, typically around two or three in the morning. But because of the amount of activity and discussion we have to accomplish every day, we wake up around seven or seven thirty. So all the team members and Y.A.M.S. (or at least the male ones) are running on little sleep. The retreat goes by a lot quicker because it seems like we are always moving and doing something, and so when the whole thing is finished, you’re taken back by the fact that it’s finished.
The retreat started for me on Thursday afternoon when my brother dropped me off at St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Church at one o’clock. The bus wasn’t leaving till six, but the Y.A.M.S. had to be there early to prepare. We were working on skits, typing up agendas, distributing shirts, and doing things that really didn’t take five hours to do, but that’s the amount of time we had, so we stretched the work to five hours’ worth. The retreatents started showing up around five thirty at the front of the church. It is always a little awkward for the retreatents when they show up, because typically they have been invited to the retreat by someone on the Team. However, when they show up at five thirty, the Team is already up at the Retreat Center, a forty five minute drive away, preparing everything. So the retreatents show up, only knowing one person, thinking that person will be there– and they’re not. The retreatants mill around and hopefully recognize people from their school, or a friend of a friend, but typically the Y.A.M.S. provide the breakers of ice. We gather all the retreatents up and sing, while their parents are still standing behind them (a little awkward), and we joke around the kids and act like goofs to get them to ease up. At six we load up the bus. It is only Y.A.M.S. and the retreatents–the Team is already at the retreat.
On the hour-long drive to the John Wesley Retreat Center we play games with the retreatents. We introduce ourselves and then started playing “Would You Rather,” but when we ran out of questions, things got dicey. We had printed up a set of questions from the Internet, but they ran out and so we started creating our own, inappropriate “Would You Rather’s.” Sarah (adult leader) got mad about our poop and murder questions, and got us to stop the game before we arrived at camp. We played music and did some kareoke, but in the end, the ride is just going to be a little uncomfortable for the retreatents, and that’s the bottom line. They don’t know the person they’re sitting next to, they’re wondering where their friend who invited them on the retreat is, and they’re put off by the Y.A.M.S. effervescence and bonhomie.
When the buses arrive, the Team is outside and the retreatents get their first taste of what they weekend will be like. The retreatents come off the bus and run through a human tunnel made of Team Members who are all yelling, singing, and trying to high five them. Then the Team members grab the baggage of the retreatents and take it to their cabin. An important theme of the weekend is that the Team members are there to serve the retreatents, because the weekend is focused on them. Because of that, Team members haul their baggage, feed them food, clean their rooms, and escort them anywhere they’re supposed to go.
After the retreatents put their stuff up in their bunks and see with whom they are rooming, they then head to the dining hall to eat. We sing a loud prayer very obnoxiously and then go inside to eat. I can’t remember exactly what we do after eating, but I think we go to the Stations of the Cross activity. This activity is put on by one of the Team groups. A.C.T.S. is an acronym for Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service, and everyone on Team is split into one of those groups. One of those groups reenacted the 14 Stations of the Cross behind a sheet, so that the performance was silhouetted. Then the retreatents came forward to hammer a nail into a cross, and every time they did, the Team member that acted as Jesus would yell. It was cool for a while, but it got weird after like thirty yells.
After that was finished (it was in the chapel btw), I had the privilege of praying for the group. The retreatents were challenged to not speak for the rest of the night, and so I prayed that they would find the determination to hold themselves to that promise. The retreatants then went to their cabins and probably talked. It was around eleven o’clock when they went to bed the first night, but they have no clue. At the beginning of the retreat, we take their phones and watches so they are oblivious to time. We do not give time increments, but hold our hands apart like you do when you’re showing someone how much room they have when they’re parking their car. Also, I just realized what we did after dinner. We go to a cement pavilion and introduce ourselves again. The retreatents have met the Y.A.M.S., but the Team members introduce themselves, and then the retreatents introduce themselves. You stand up, say your name and what school you attend, how many retreats you have been on, and then your favorite Sonic drink. I was the only U.T. student, and it was funny because a lot of the retreatents had been on more retreats than I had, cause this was only my second. Then I said that I didn’t drink Sonic drinks because they came in Styrofoam cups and those are bad for the environment. That stuck with me for the remainder of the retreat.
The retreatants went to bed and then the Y.A.M.S. and the Team began to rehearse some of the skits and things that we were going to be performing over the course of the next few days. After we were done practicing and rehearsing, we went back to our rooms to set up our beds and start doing guy stuff. Our room basically turned into a locker room, and I tried not to talk like we were in a locker room because it was a church retreat, but everyone else was talking about girls and high school stuff and sports. We went to bed around two thirty.
The next morning we woke up at seven and I hopped in the shower, because I had to use someone’s towel because out of the twelve guys we had in our room, we had two towels. At eight in the morning we had a Communion Service, which is essentially Mass without a Priest. The Priest has consecrated the bread beforehand, so everything is the same except that we don’t do a few things that the Priest does. After Mass we go straight to breakfast cause everyone is really hungry that first morning. After we eat breakfast we go the Activities Center, which is where we spend the majority of our time. The four teams, Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service, all are responsible for a two hour service. The service is usually an ice breaker, an introduction of the Team members in that group, a Personal Testimony (PT), reflection in small groups (the retreatents are split into eight groups that they stay in and get to know these people the most), PT, small group, PT, small group. The PT’s are occasionally heart-breaking, and really raise the emotion level in the room. After Adoration, we go to lunch. Then after lunch I think we played games for an hour or so. After the games, we went back into the Activities Center for Community’s presentation. After Community, the campers go to the pool. We do this whole schtick where we end up shoving shaving cream in their faces and it’s hilarious. Then I think there is some down time for Y.A.M.S., but for retreatents I think they go pray the Rosary together, which I remember being very cool last year.
We meet at about six for dinner, and then things start to heat up at night. After dinner the retreatents go watch one of the cooler skits, called Turn Around. The song that goes “turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely,” is plaing during the skit. It’s a girl who abandons Christ and starts getting involved with a bunch of sins. The sins are all Team members who are wearing a cardboard sign around their neck that have a sin written on them. She touches them on the back and they come alive, then they start following her around and she’s really happy. She awakens more sins and soon all the Team members but one are following her around, and then they start walking around her in a circle. As the music picks up the Team members lock hands and the girl tries to get out but she can’t. Then the lights go out except for a strobe light, and the last Team member/sin walks into the circle. His sin, instead of being on his back, is on his front side. He is Suicide, and he starts running after the girl trying to grab her. Eventually the circle gets tighter and tighter and soon the girl is on the ground. She calls out “Jesus!” when the music drops, and the actor that played Jesus walks into the circle and kills Suicide. Then he takes all the sins off the girl and puts them on himself and walks away with her. When he takes the sins, all the Team members fall over and don’t move. Then the retreatents leave the room. The boys went to the church to do Reconciliation and Prayer Circles, and the girls go on Emmaus Walks.
I explained how the Reconciliation is going to work for the guys, and then they individually go confess to Father Connor who has driven all the way up to the campsite. They confess and then come onto the stage to sit in a chair. There are three chairs on the stage and they sit and we pray over them if we know them. It’s a really emotional experience and it makes everyone feel better about themselves. Then the guys leave and the girls come in. The Emmaus Walk is where a retreatant pairs up with a Team member and talk about their faith. I really wanted to do that with a retreatent, but they had enough Team members to do it without any Y.A.M.S., so I stayed and did prayer circles for the girls. It was an awesome experience because I reallyl ike praying over people, and I felt like the Holy Spirit was really helping me speak well and share a good message with them. It was a huge blessing to be able to pray with them, and it helped me meet a lot of the retreatents, which is hard to do as a Y.A.M.
Y.A.M. stands for Young Adult Minister, by the way. It is a job for students in college who want to help with the retreat, but it’s a very small group. There were twelve Y.A.M.S., thirty retreatents, and around forty Team members if I am correct. The Y.A.M.S. grew into such an amazing family and I am so blessed to have worked with them. A.C.T.S. retreats don’t leave me with such a spiritual high as my old Methodist retreats did, but they left me an amazing community of believers. Seriously, it’s a family. You keep up with them all year and hang out on the weekends, and you grow so close to Team members and Y.A.M.S. that your relationships with them are worked on and improved almost more than your relationship with God. That sounds bad, but your relationship with God is personal and can be worked on anywhere, anytime. To grow as a community with other believers requires a special set of circumstances and that’s what A.C.T.S. provides.
Anyway, Friday night after Reconciliation and the Emmaus Walks, the retreatents went into the same room where they watched the Turn Around skit. The Y.A.M.S. then performed our signature serious skit called “Who Am I?” We wear all black except for latex gloves, and turn off all the lights in the room. Someone shines a blacklight on us and so only our hands are visible. We do this whole choreographed thing to the song and it’s really cool, not as serious as a lot of the other skits. After that skit, we went and saw a show that we don’t usually see. A member of S.E.A.S. church has a group called Drum Cafe, and he and his group came and performed for us. It’s four guys, three South Africans (one of whom is white, the other two are black and Muslim (!)) and one Latino guy who apparently had one like four Emmy awards. It was really cool because they gave the retreatents, Team members, and Y.A.M.S. congos to play, and he directed us to play certain beats and then he gave a speech. The whole thing way, way exceeded my expectations, and it was a welcome addition to the agenda because we didn’t have to do anything to prepare for it.
After that, the retreatents went to bed and everyone else began a very long night. We started writing love letters to each other and the retreatents. The Y.A.M.S. didn’t write love letters to retreatents, but we wrote them to each other and the Team members. The Team members wrote love letters to the retreatents they had gotten close with, and to some of the Y.A.M.S., and to each other. Writing love letters is a process that begins as soon as we get to the retreat center, and doesn’t end until really until we give them to the retreatents on Saturday afternoon. It’s something that we do in every minute of our off-time, and it eats up time because you can’t really convince yourself to skimp on someone’s love letter. Friday night we didn’t get to bed until around three in the morning.
Oh also, on Friday the Y.A.M.S. performed a skit called “If I Weren’t a Catholic,” which is a variation on If I Weren’t a Christian, but the idea was the same. It was really funny, and I had probably the funniest/easiest part of the whole thing. It was just good to be so involved with the retreatents, because I remember last year as a retreatent, I felt like I didn’t know who the Y.A.M.S. were at all, and I was worried that would be my fate this year. Happily though, Saturday evening the retreatents made up their own skits about funny things that happened on the retreat, and almost all of them were about Y.A.M.S. or stuff we did, which was really encouraging. Not only do I feel like I got to help them spiritually, but I think I got to make some good friendships with a bunch of good high schoolers.
Saturday is sort of the “big day,” but it starts the same way as Friday. We get up at about seven in order to wake up the retreatents and then go to Mass at eight. After Mass we go to breakfast and serve the retreatents their food again. After breakfast I think we just went straight to the Activities Center to do the Theology group’s presentation. We did an ice breaker, game, PT, small talk, etc, same as usual. Then after that I think the retreatents went to their cabins for like fifteen minutes and then we had lunch. After lunch Daphnee and I did our Time Machine skit which was hilarious, and then the retreatents went off to read their Love Letters. After their Love Letters, they came back and we did the final group, Service.
Saturday night things get pretty good though. I don’t know what the retreatents did after Service because I was writing Love Letters to the Y.A.M.S. I think they played a game or maybe they had alone time, but the next big thing was the Candlelight Service. Before the retreat, each retreatent is assigned a prayer partner who is on the Team. They call the retreatent’s parents and friends and ask them to write the retreatent Love Letters, which are on their bed on Saturday afternoon. The prayer partner also invites the parents to Candlelight. Candlelight takes place in the church, and none of the retreatents are expecting their parents to be there when they walk in. The church is dark and the parents all have glow sticks, and before the retreatents come in, we have been singing songs with the parents to get them in a frenzy. When the retreatents process in, they come in a line with their hands on the person in front of them’s shoulders. As they walk in, we are all singing this crazy chant-like song that has ends up having a very kooky affect on the retreatents. They walk around the church and finally end up on stage. There they sing our retreat song and one other song, and then process around the church in a congo-line one more time. Then they leave. It’s a surreal experience.
Also, I remembered what the retreatents do before they come to Candlelight. They do a Foot-Washing Ceremony that is very solemn and humbling. I remember it being very unique last year, but I’m afraid that I was too immature about it to get a lot from it. I worry that is the case for a lot of retreatents, but if they take it seriously, it can be a very cool experience.
After Candlelight, the retreatents go to the balcony area outside of the Activities Center. They sit down and the Team members and Y.A.M.S. do Cardboard Testimonies. We all have a piece of cardboard upon which we have written something we struggled with in our life or something that defines who we are, and then on the back we write how God has helped us overcome it. Some people have much more juicy ones than others, and some are stupid to be honest. But a few give the retreatents the shivers, and me as well. After that the retreatents go to Agape, which the apex of the whole retreat.
Agape is like PT’s for the retreatents, and it gets very emotional. Callen called it Cry Night. Before the retreatents give PT’s (they don’t know they are, it’s extemporaneous), we serve them a meal that the early Christians might have eaten had they lived in America and were replicating a meal that early Christians had eaten. The food is a farce, but it sets the mood. Then a group of girls do a cool choreographed dance in these really pretty white dresses, and the mood is very ethereal and surreal. One of the girls then invites anyone to come and give a PT, and we rely on the fact that someone in the crowd has been on a retreat before and kind of knows what we are expecting to hear. One kid came up and basically thanked the Team for all the hard work they had done, and everyone blanched because that’s not what we want from Agape. It is cathartic for the person who gives the testimonial, but it is also a blessing for anyone who hears one, and so they are a really important part of the whole process. Finally the ball got rolling, and some very heart-wrenching PT’s were told. It starts at about eleven at night, and there’s really no curfew for the last night, so we did Agape until about two in the morning. The lack of sleep and heightened emotion really makes the whole thing more inimitable, and it becomes a once in a lifetime feeling.
Everyone goes to bed very late that night and wakes up very tired.
But we don’t go to Mass on Sunday because we are getting on the buses back to S.E.A.S. where we go to Mass as a group. We wake up a smidge later, around seven thirty, and have all our stuff packed and put on the bus. Then we go to breakfast where some of the Team Leaders give a send off speech. Sunday morning kind of flies by, and before anyone knows it, we’re at S.E.A.S. going to Mass. Then after there is a reception where we are supposed to be able to watch a slideshow, but there were technical difficulties, so it is going to be posted online later.
All in all, such an amazing, transforming experience. I am blessed to be able to have another family in my Y.A.M.S., and I love all of them to death. A bond is made amongst everyone on that retreat, and if I saw and recognized any one of them on the street I would talk to them gladly. I urge you with my whole heart to go on an A.C.T.S. retreat if you can.