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Published in Culture Wars October 2004
The Anti-assimilationist Retreat:
How to Become Spiritually Inoculated Against Americanism

By Rosemary Fielding

In 1978, Rosemary (Hugo) Fielding, reared and (somewhat) educated as a Roman Catholic, was initiated into an Indian mystical sect called Ruhani Satsang or Sant Mat and became a disciple of Master Darshan Singh.  She was living at an ashram in Delhi at the time.  Master Darshan Singh claimed to be the “Living Master,” essentially “God.”  In 1980, after living in the United States for two years, she made a retreat under the direction of her uncle, Father John J. Hugo, a diocesan priest in Pittsburgh, whose retreat figured largely in the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, and in many of her other tracts and books.  The retreat caused Fielding to return to the Faith. 

Fielding writes, “This retreat, phenomenally overlooked in the Church, could be a powerful tool to help resolve the crisis in the Church today. The retreat—now called An Encounter With Silence—united its attendees both around the Truth and also against the enemies of Truth, which would also be the enemies of the Church. It united its attendees around the conviction that Christianity had to be practiced in the real world.  It united its attendees around acknowledging that two of the main seducers of Catholics today in the industrial world—affluence and consumerism—must be resisted if their faith was to survive.  

The retreat was given by the late Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, of Canada, and, of the Pittsburgh Diocese, Fr. Jerome Dixon, and the late Frs. John J. Hugo, Louis Farina, Joseph Meenan, and Francis Ott. Currently, Fr. Frank Erderljac of Pittsburgh gives it.

This account of the retreat is part of a chapter in Fielding’s book-in-process.. The quotes from Fr. Hugo’s writings are taken from his books Your Ways Are Not My Ways, Volumes 1 and 2 (1986) and A Sign of Contradiction (1947).

On a hot, sunny January day in 1979 on the plains of the Punjab in India, I sat in a large, hangar like building, watching the dust motes dance in the air, and was initiated into the eastern mystic sect of Sant Mat.  I chanted with hundreds of Indians the “five holy names” on which we were told to meditate every day for the rest of our lives.  I sat crossed leg chanting and waiting for hours for Master Darshan Singh, the Living Master, to come to me and touch me on the forehead so as to open my “third eye” and give me the preternatural ability to embark on astral travel through the astral planes.  I waited in expectation and trepidation, for the gurus of Ruhani Satsang promised that upon initiation the Master would give each initiate an outer body experience. We would hear the sounds and see the lights that were the essence of the Sant Mat spiritual experience.

I was deeply disappointed.  When Master Darshan Singh touched me on the third eye, nothing happened.

I had traveled to India from Afghanistan two months previous to the day of initiation.   In both countries, I was working for Seven Seas Trading Co. exporting clothing.  Upon the recommendation of a Peace Corps volunteer I had met in Kabul, I had decided to visit the ashram of Master Darshan Singh while in Delhi.

Although in retrospect it seems amazing to me that I had just wandered into this ashram and this strange, foreign mystical religion without giving a thought to researching it before hand, at the time, I was simply doing what I had always done:  Experience.  For Boomers, experience was the teacher.  We learned it in our childhood with television;  our youth with drugs—especially the psychedelics—reinforced this attitude.  To think or to reason or to judge was to be “uptight;”  just experience life.

And so I went to a religion that promised, guaranteed a religious experience.  Master Kirpal Singh, the founder of Ruhani Satsang and the “Living Master” who preceded Master Darshan Singh, claimed that he could give direct, personal experiences of inner light and the sound current to his followers during their very first meditation sitting.  So the selling point of the particular tradition I had latched onto was that it provided the experience of higher states of consciousness. No need for faith or reason—the experience of enlightenment was guaranteed through the power of the Master.   I was sold on that particular point.

I spent a great deal of my time at the ashram reading the Masters’ books.  These instructed us in the philosophy and theology of Sant Mat. In a nutshell, this was the art of slavishly following a guru. The books I read were full of stories of out-of-body experiences, sounds, lights and beautiful, other-worldly visions, psychic knowledge, mind-reading etc., paeans to the Master, and instructions in living a moral life (Indian-style) and how to be dutiful to the Master.  One relinquished a great deal of psychic control to the guru. "If one is coerced to begin this journey physically and mentally unprepared," writes David Christopher Lane, a former satsangi, and author of a book on the Sant Mat tradition, "one can get into deep trouble, even losing what is left of one's mind."  The first step in this journey was to jettison one's reason.

Following gurus appealed to massive numbers of spiritually-minded Boomers.  Somehow, we had grown up and decided that our religion was spiritually bankrupt.  Perhaps it was because we had never seen the supernatural aspects of it—they had all been drained out when it was taught to us and when we saw it practiced.  Guru-following, like the later false Marian vision-cult of Medjugorje and other sites, promised lots of spiritual fireworks—signs and wonders. This was the supernatural aspect of religion that we were longing for. 

The writings of the Masters also promised us the gnostic delights of finding a godhead in ourselves, and told us we were right in being profoundly alienated from an evil world.  It offered us a promise that we could escape from the constraints of the social control we sensed was growing to gigantic proportions in our culture.  The escape that we sought in drugs and other ecstasies to our detriment was now promised to us through the simple process of self-transcendence: get a guru and look within ourselves.

The Master was also a very good father-substitute for the absent G.I. father so many Boomers had experienced in their homes.

We drank up what these sects offered us.  

But I also had my doubts.

Basically, I doubted that this small, bearded, twinkly-eyed, turbaned man was God. 

First of all, he did not seem all-knowing.  "What is uppermost in your mind, Sister? Are you a student of Urdu?  Are you a student of mysticism?" he asked me upon meeting me, even though Sant Mat taught us the Master chose each of his disciples,  not vice-versa, and even though if he is omniscient, he should know why I was there.

Secondly, there were often times when Master was explaining some esoteric point of alleged great spiritual value, and I had no idea what he was talking about. 

Thirdly, I had no experience of sound and light when I was finally initiated. Since this was the guaranteed promise of having a Master, and the guarantee that the Master was indeed God, I thought it was important that I have some experience. I asked Master Darshan to initiate me again, and then with a great deal of concentrated effort, I thought I saw some lights and heard some sounds.

Fourthly, some of the other Boomers at the ashram seemed have completely given up any critical reasoning.  Anetta told us that the Master had organized everything in her life.  "The Master knows," she said constantly.  Katy told me her attitude was against goal setting.  "I've avoided ten years of guilt and depression by letting the Master take care of everything." I saw quite a bit intellectual zombie-ism, and also a lot of Uriah-Heep-type "humility," which is, of course, false humility.

Finally, I couldn't help but notice that something was wrong with the way things were explained.  David Lane calls this method of explanation "the write up," which is a spin on behalf of the Master.  "If the Master gets sick, it is 'written up' that this is because he, although perfect, graciously took on the 'karma' of his students and therefore is not feeling well.  If a student gets sick, it is written up that he is a bad person or has bad karma and is a sinner etc."  He concludes that "as a master you can do whatever you want and it is fine.  You can seduce women, molest the children, kill the unborn, break any rules you made up for the students to follow and essentially anything else your little heart desires and the role model write-up will justify your action."

Only later did I find out that the so-called Living Masters of the Sant Mat tradition were simply the members of a family business who received the highest promotion.  They were the CEO’s of a spiritual enterprise.  Master Darshan Singh was the son of Master Kirpal Singh.  When his father died, he became the Living Master. When he died, his son became the Living Master. If I sniffed out at all something ludicrous about the whole Ruhani Satsang enterprise at the time, this was probably the rotten core that I smelled. As David Lane documents in his book, the whole procedure of becoming “God” is tied up in the politics of “guru succession.”

Though I never saw Master Darshan Singh act with any impropriety, information about the coercive cults was beginning to trickle into the public's consciousness, especially after Jim Jones' cult committed mass suicide. Given that awareness, I couldn't shake my suspicions about the above, no matter how much I wanted to experience the sensational out-of-body experiences and the soothing divine love of the Master that the ashram visitors were constantly talking about.

Returning to the United States did not help my faith in Sant Mat to grow.
I found upon my return that the currents of my old life continued to exert considerable influence upon me, and "the path" was having considerable difficulty holding me to it.  This was not surprising considering one prime fact: the claims of my utterly-unspiritual friends seemed much more powerful than the claims of this mystical religion that just didn't grip my mind or my emotions.

Sant Mat advises its disciples to find a satsang to meet with in the United States.  I returned to Pittsburgh, where there was no satsang.  It advises you to be around other ascetically-minded persons.  But I was ultimately far too insecure to be able to say to my friends—still smoking pot, boozing, sleeping around, and thoroughly uninterested in spiritual matters—“I can’t associate with you anymore.”   To whom would I go?…

…Meanwhile and slowly, in the materialistic and hedonistic world of the United States, the spiritual focus blurred in my life.  I could sense that I would soon be totally outside the path of Sant Mat if I didn’t do something. 

Then, I did a strange thing.  I signed up for a seven-day silent retreat to be given at a Catholic convent by a Catholic priest.

The expressed purpose was to renew my devotion to the Master and to revitalized my following of “the path.”   But certainly a more reasonable and mature way to do so, as I said earlier, was to move to an area in which I could find a vigorous satsang and make a life there. But to do this would mean I would have to contend with an exogenous factor that thus far defeated me: supporting myself while living alone.  So in a diversionary tactic that Adler says is the hallmark of the neurotic—avoiding pressures to mature—I decided to practice Indian gnostic mysticism at an orthodox Catholic retreat.  Once again my emotional immaturity contributed to following an indirect and ineffective path to a stated goal solely because it was an “easier and softer way” emotionally.  What seemed like an illogical decision to others made perfect sense in the context of what I was trying to avoid, i.e., the requisite separation from my parents’ home that all adults must undergo.

But something else inspired me to make this retreat.  I simply had not, and could not, accept that kindly, gentle Darshan Singh was God.  At times during the two years, when I struggled to follow “the path,” when I really needed divine guidance, I would pick up the Bible, and usually turn to the Psalms.  (Writings which certain “Living Masters” often quoted to illustrate their gnostic “science of spirituality” for Westerns.)  When I petitioned God, I could not pray to “the Master,”—I prayed to God the Father of my childhood Catholicism.

One night at dinner with my mother and father, I talked about the ascetic path that Master Darshan taught, and how I wished I could follow it better, and my father said, “You should make your uncle’s retreat.” (Fr. John J. Hugo was the retreat master.)

My father had come through again.  Something about living alone with him and my mother gave him an opportunity to hear me and to be a father to me.  He was taking an interest in my life, talking to me about things, helping me with my tasks, showing love and affection and respect.  And it made a profound difference in my life.  The retreat would be a turning point.

And so God used all elements of my life to bring me to Him.  He used my weakness—the fact that I could not face leaving the security of my parents’ home in order to follow the path of Sant Mat—and he used my strength—the fact that I could see through the fraudulent teachings of Sant Mat enough to make me somewhat skeptical about the whole thing. 

Mostly, I think, He used the grace that I received in the sacraments of initiation to attune my inner ear to the voice of the Holy Spirit, for once my father made the suggestion, I determined to make the retreat.  I felt drawn to it strongly.  I had to take a week off work without pay.  I had to endure the friendly teasing that my spiritual quest drew from the largely agnostic newspaper staff.  But I was determined to make the retreat.

I had read about the retreat in 1978 when I was 23 in The Long Loneliness. I had found the book one weekend at my parents’ house, and knowing of my uncle and aunt’s friendship with Day, and remembering my own childhood meeting with her in my grandparents’ garden, I picked up the book out of curiosity. It caused me a moment of an intense examination of conscience—but not about my relationship to my religion or to God.  Day’s life of poverty and her dedication to the most destitute poor is what struck me at the time.  I was very much a hedonist, and her life of self-sacrifice made me afraid that God might call me to the very same life.  I thought I had escaped my Catholic childhood, but Day’s book brought back some of the moral obligation I had once felt.

However, in 1981 I was firmly back in the saddle as being opposed to any type of formal Christianity, especially Catholicism.  My lifestyle for the past 12 years—including my initiation into Sant Mat—had created an internal electric field that resisted Catholicism.  And so my determination to make a Catholic retreat remains somewhat mysterious.  Someone’s prayers, perhaps Dorothy Day’s herself, helped to get me there.

My situation was somewhat analogous to my uncle’s when he first made the Retreat in 1938 as a newly ordained priest.  Even though, he, unlike me, was a devout Catholic at the time, he writes that “I was then what I would now describe as a ‘pagan’…I was prone to regard this world as a pleasant place and thanked God for the capacity to enjoy it…I now believe the Providence of God had been leading me along all the time. I was under a sort of spell.  Only thus was I drawn—perhaps kidnapped or shanghaied would be better words—into going where, had I been fully aware of what I was doing, I would almost certainly have refused to go.  And I would have refused in spite of my spiritual needs.  For I did not yet appreciate the gravity of those needs nor did I even realize that they were spiritual.”  I could have said the same about not realizing my needs, except my need was to hear Truth, and not the various lies to which I had been listening the last 12 years.

The Retreat

On the evening of April 25, 1981, I drove my old Toyota to Mount Nazareth, the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family, in the North Hills of Pittsburgh.  My uncle, Fr. John J. Hugo, was a chaplain there.

Mt. Nazareth was surrounded by woods.  This was a couple years before the Interstate 270 would destroy those surrounding woods and the silence that enveloped the convent.  The hills and valleys were filled with blossoming trees, and the forest grounds were blanketed with flowers, especially long-stemmed violets.

It was a beautiful, quiet setting for a silent retreat in 1981, before the Interstate.

The little pamphlet that came with the retreat instructed us to bring an alarm clock, a notebook and a Bible.  It specifically requested that we bring no other reading material.  My uncle had sent me a little note telling me that he had paid the cost of the retreat.  I was the only one of his 16 nieces and nephews to thus far have made the retreat he had been giving for some forty years.  He was quietly overjoyed that I was doing so.

Practicing the Boomer “I am a law unto myself” mentality, I disregarded the instructions and brought a suitcase full of Sant Mat books that I planned to read instead of the Bible.  I was going to use the retreat time to rediscover the wisdom of Indian Eastern mysticism and get back on “the path.”

As was often the case for me, I had the haziest idea of what I could actually expect to happen on this retreat. I knew I would have silence and solitude. Therefore, I could meditate and read.  “Seven days of silence and no work is a long time,” I thought.  So I packed some embroidery projects as well, a box of stationery and a list of people I had to write.  I also packed a Bible.

This was the retreat that Dorothy Day had written about in The Long Loneliness.  Dorothy wrote that she made the retreat every year because “I too am hungry and thirsty for the bread of the strong.” According to her biographer William Miller, one of her handwritten notes from the retreat says, “I think to myself with a touch of bitterness, the ordinary man does not hear the word of God.  The poor do not have the Gospel preached to them. Never have I heard it as I hear it now, each year in retreat, and with the sureness that it is indeed the Gospel.”

I was, in fact, walking into a presentation of the Gospel that was rather quietly earthshaking.  It would affect some as the Good News had affected the “rich young man,” and some as the Good News had affected St. Mathew, but nobody who made the retreat would forget the tremors it sent through their understanding of life and particularly, of Christian life.  The retreat was a powerful call to conversion.  Except this time, the Gospel was preached not to the Jews and the Gentiles, but to the already Christianized.

My uncle was part of the reason for the retreat’s power.  I knew as soon as I heard him that I was listening to one “who spoke with authority.”  In the quiet spring Sunday evening as we sat in the convent library and he instructed us in the demands of silence, I thought I had never heard anyone speak so clearly, simply and more powerfully about the spiritual life.  My plans to read Sant Mat and do embroidery withered in my mind as I sat there.  His words inspired in me a great desire follow the path he traced before us.

“We are to share in the divinity of Christ,” he said.  “This is the Incarnational Mystery of our Christian faith…God has sought us first, but he wants us to find him.  We have to put other things aside to encounter God…Silence builds a wall around us. I ask you to observe outward silence. Refrain from talking to each other. No conversation, don’t walk in pairs, and avoid eye contact. No talking at meals. Use the telephone as little as possible. We are to form a community this week. But we form it by moving towards the center together, towards Jesus Christ.”

Simply put, one knew immediately that this retreat was serious—far more serious than other lay retreats--because of the demands of total silence for seven days.  No priest could make such a demand of ordinary lay persons over and over again for forty years without the sure knowledge that he would deliver something into that silence, something wondrous and new.  And Fr. Hugo did just that.

A little historical background: The retreat was a recasting of the Ignatian Exercises, and it had been originally recast by a French-Canadian Jesuit.  The intensity, the silence and the life-changing conversion it wrought flowed from the original shoot on which it was grafted, which was the Exercises.

Fr. Hugo had first made the retreat in 1938 under the direction of the French-Canadian Jesuit, Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, who had been giving the retreats to fellow priests since 1931.  Fr. Hugo traced back the theology of the silent retreat to the theology of the Exercises as it was understood by the Jesuits before their suppression and Reconstruction.  In doing so, he eliminates the influence of modern commentators on the Exercises for this reason: the modern Jesuit preaches truth as “a natural theology and a natural religion, that is to say, …a natural philosophy.”   Fr. Lacouture alone recognized that a “supernatural goal [i.e. heaven] demands the use of a supernatural means.” Fr. Lacouture, whose powerful conversion in the wilds of Alaska led to the retreat, “alone among [the Jesuit “Philosophers”] offers a theology instead of a philosophy, explaining the reductionism of his colleagues by the spirit of naturalism which arose with the Renaissance and reached its climax in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when the Jesuits were suppressed.”

Before the French Revolution, the Jesuit’s “spirit” had been “thoroughly supernatural.” After the Reconstruction, however, the Jesuits compromised with the Enlightenment “spirit” so as to avoid further troubles, persecution or suppression.

Fr. Lacouture did not compromise with the spirit of Enlightenment, which is naturalism, which is the negation of the supernatural.  Because of this,  Fr. Lacouture  departed not from the Exercises of St. Ignatius, but from their “misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as he maintained, by practically all the modern commentators and their followers.”  Unlike these Jesuit philosophers, Fr. Lacouture “catapult[ed]” his retreatants “into the supernatural.”

I did not know this history when I made the retreat, nor did I need to.  Neither Fr. Lacouture nor his successor, Fr. Hugo, ever pretended to teach any new doctrine or new way.  They set out to give a “panorama” of the Christian life as it had always been understood by the Church.  They simply presented “applied Christianity”—Christianity as it is to be practically lived to its deepest implications—in such a way that modern Catholics could grasp the reason Christianity is truly a radical way of life.  “Fr. Lacouture’s unique contribution to the Church at this time was his breaking out of the shrunken universe of a merely humanistic philosophy and entering with his retreatants in tow, the ‘new creation’ opened up by the New Testament, to live and think and love God freely and all else in God.”

Contrasted to the heresy—Americanism—that was active in the Catholic Church contemporaneously with the retreat, the retreat was a theological nuclear weapon against the policy of “assimilation.” It charged Catholics with following the very teachings of Christ that would spell doom for many things in their 20th century “American” way of life. The Gospel has no room for consumerism, upward mobility and the relentless pursuit of amusement.

Thus, it was not surprising that both Fr. Lacouture and Fr. Hugo suffered for preaching to lay Catholics that they are called to holiness.  The hierarchy of the American Catholic Church may have wanted, at times, to nurture and protect the Catholic ethnic ghettos struggling to survive in American cities where Catholic life centered around the parish, but many of them saw no need to nurture and protect a corresponding Catholic theological “ghetto-of-the-mind” struggling to survive in the midst of a dominant American Enlightenment philosophy. 

Short History of the Opposition Against the Retreat

A discussion of the retreat is incomplete without some explanation of the opposition to it.  That opposition signals both the power of the retreat—and the Gospel—to challenge lukewarm Christian faith and the way in which some in the institutional Church responded to that challenge.  When Fr. Hugo rebounded from the retreat in 1938 (two years out of seminary), he joyfully offered an apostolate to his Church—to evangelize the laity.  Instead, he found that many colleagues and superiors rebuked him.

He and the other priests who gave the retreat were called ‘Hugonuts’ or “Lacouturmites.’ At times they were called ‘Holy Rollers’ because of their insistence on the scriptures’ daily application to the Christian life.  “It was a painful time,” recalled one of the fellow retreat priests.  “Suddenly you realize you are a member of a small minority; you’re isolated and friends distance themselves.  We were looked at as kind of extreme.  There was witch-hunting in the hierarchy; our careers were damaged.”  The extremism charge centered on their teaching the laity “holiness.” Many objected not so much to the worthy goal of holiness, but to the way the retreat did not simply mouth the word, but taught very concretely the practice of holiness.

Because Fr. Lacouture had not published any material on the retreat, the charges and suspicions were often based on a retreatant’s misinterpretation of it, either in word or action.  Though a few of the retreatants may have overreacted to the teaching of holiness—saying ludicrous things like “eating gravy on ice cream is a form of recommended mortification”—most likely any signs of zealousness among Catholics in the area of mortification and contempt for the world probably alarmed the clergy at this time.  For many clergy, this was the time for American Catholics to “fit in,” and that meant, in practice, to be “regular guys,” not zealous.

Many, if not most, American clergy were certainly giving more and more of an example to the faithful in “fitting in.” They enjoyed the better things of life, in keeping with the rising standard of living all around.  For that reason, what often most upset clerical critics of the retreat were the concrete and discomfiting actions of fellow clergy who had made it.  Priests began to throw away their cigarettes, to stop drinking, to give away their golf clubs, in a word, to practice Christian detachment, and to teach it as the normal outlook of the Christian.  When religious live a rather worldly life, they rebuff these and other challenges to live simply and the charge to teach laity to do the same.

“Father Lacouture’s undoing was his condemnation of worldliness, especially the worldliness of the clergy,” wrote Fr. Hugo.  “They had to silence him at all costs, this traitor to the fellowship, and they did so with a barrage of irresponsible accusations published only in the name of an anonymous ‘Censor.’ That ‘crazy Jesuit’ had to be stopped, at once, and by any means available.”

My uncle wrote that Fr. Lacouture was “a teacher and spiritual guide of the most outstanding ability, a man unique in his day—in short, a spiritual genius—a master of spiritual doctrine, perhaps the first such master on this continent…I have never heard of any teacher of spirituality in American to compare with him in excellence of doctrine, clarity and vigor of presentation, and extent of influence.”He noted that some Canadian clergy reported that one of their cardinals told them: ‘Never since St. Paul has any priest had such influence over other priests!’” Msgr. Philippe Desranleau, Bishop of Sherbrooke, Quebec, described the retreats at the time as “’The most supernatural and most efficacious awakening of Christian and priestly life ever recorded in the history of Canada.’” (From a history of the retreats written by Abbe Anselme Longpre, Un mouvement spirtuel au Quebec (Monreal: Fides, 1976)

The problem with Father Lacouture, from his Society’s point of view, was that his retreat was gaining popularity every year.  If he had not been successful, they would have let the retreat “die the death.”  But since it was not dying naturally, someone better do something to stop it.  The Jesuits saw their brother priest’s phenomenal and growing success and the “edifying lives that the priests lived” after the retreat as “a reproach to many of the clergy.” In addition, two Canadian prelates in particular also were applying pressure to have Fr. Lacouture “silenced”—Cardinal Villeneuve and Archbishop Antoniutti, Apostolic Delegate to Canada. On the other hand, several other bishops defended him and his retreats.

After allowing the retreats for ten years, his Jesuit superiors forbid Fr. Lacouture to give the retreat. “Yet once more,” wrote Fr. Hugo, “the powers of darkness prevailed and one of the most wonderful spiritual enterprises this continent has ever witnessed came to a stop.”

Ultimately, the Superior of the Society in America took away Fr. Lacouture’s faculties, and he lived out his last years on a Canadian Indian reservation, where he was procurator. This was the “thanks” he received from the Society for giving the retreat. “Without any canonical or moral justification, the superior sent Father Lacouture into exile,” wrote Father Hugo.  “No doubt he was under heavy pressure; so was Pilate.  And another character from the New Testament, Caiaphas, provided a model for resolving matters: it is better that one man should perish rather than that worldly clergy should be embarrassed.”

The reservation was, my uncle noted, “an excellent place for exile.” It was extremely difficult to get to, and Fr. Lacouture was forbidden, under pain of sin, to communicate with any of his former retreatants by letter. While there, he had befriended Bishop Alfred Langlois of Quebec, under whose jurisdiction he lived out his last days.  “Bishop Langlois loved and admired Father Lacouture, desiring, but vainly, in the circumstances of the time, that all his priests and seminarians would make the retreat,” wrote my uncle, who had visited with the bishop.  Bishop Langlois had said, “’The spiritual movement inaugurated by Father Lacouture, a Jesuit, has been the greatest spiritual movement of our century.”

Though, originally, Fr. Lacouture and most who knew of the opposition against the retreat assumed the “exile” would be temporary so that misunderstandings could be laid to rest, the controversy could “cool down,” and World War II resolved, Fr. Lacouture was never allowed to give the retreat again.  He died, virtually abandoned by his Order, in 1951. “Bishop Langlois, ‘his best friend and dauntless defender’ celebrated the solemn requiem liturgy. Dorothy Day…was also there, the only mourner from the States.  She noted the small crowd and reported the comment of another: ‘It was a small funeral, considering how great a man Fr. Lacouture was. Just a few years ago he was famous. Now he is anonymous.’”

“If the Jesuits had given ear to their brother Onesimus,” wrote Father Hugo, “they might well have averted the disasters and scandals that have sullied and plagued them, as well as other religious communities and the diocesan clergy, for the last twenty or more years.  In fact, as Abbe Longpre reports verbatim, Father Lacouture, who died in 1951, prophesied clearly that just such disasters would occur if Catholic preachers would not preach a practical theology and an authentic spirituality.” 

Fr. Hugo differed from Fr. Lacouture in that in 1944 he wrote and published a book on the retreat, Applied Christianity. (It received the imprimatur of Archbishop Francis J. Spellman.)  Therefore, the attack on him was carried out in print.  Condemnation of the retreat came from high up, e.g., from theologians at the Catholic University of America.  Clerical and lay academics focused on the retreat teachings on the “two ways” (natural and supernatural) and detachment from God’s creation.  They compared these retreat teachings to Jansenism and Manicheanism.  These are serious allegations, indeed.  Father Hugo wrote extensively to show the error of these charges and to prove that the teachings on the “two ways” and detachment from the world are at the heart of Catholic doctrine. 

However, the Catholic “elite” had learned from their WASP elite counterparts, in that they used devious means to “blacklist” the retreat and the priests.  They never issued formal charges of the heresies, thus, they were never required to prove the charges.  They repeated the charge as though it had been proved.  In short, they simply created in a print a dark cloud of suspicion that settled over the retreat, Fr. Lacouture and Fr. Hugo.   It was, in common vernacular, a “smear job,” and a very effective use of “spin.”

Fr. Hugo called the murmurs and writings against the retreat a “phantom heresy.”  “I was stunned by the false and unjust charges made by scholars who (whether they would acknowledge it or not) were older brother priests and teachers to whom I looked for encouragement in what I had considered a common apostolate,” Fr. Hugo wrote of this period. His opponent’s tactics, of course, effectively prevented him and his fellow retreat priests from formally rebutting the criticism. “From 1940 to the mid-fifities, five major attacks, with others less notable, were launched against me by high-placed scholars, theologians, ecclesiastics, and popular devotional writers.  Only in one case…was allowance made for a reply of proportionate length; one influential journal, under pressure, magnanimously permitted a reply of three hundred words in the correspondence column.” So severe did the blacklisting become that at one point Fr. Hugo and Fr. Louis Farina traveled to Rome to plead their case, but were denied an audience with the Cardinal Prefect.

For some 15 years Fr. Hugo, like Fr. Lacouture before him, was, in his words, “exiled.”  Forbidden by Bishop Boyle of the Pittsburgh Diocese to give the retreat without express permission, he was abruptly reassigned in 1944 from teaching at a Catholic college—“diverted from my original hopes”—to begin a series of short-term, small-church assignments as an assistant to the pastor.

Fr. Hugo practiced patient obedience to his superiors throughout.  In 1947 he wrote and printed himself a book on the history of the retreat that was critical of the clergy who quashed it and of worldly clergy in general (including his younger self).  He circulated it among the clergy until his bishop told him to destroy the book.  “We drove out to the dump,” my aunt, Cecilia M. Hugo, recalled. “And he threw away all the books—hundreds of them.  When I asked him how he could do that, he said, ‘Cecilia, when I became a priest, I put my hands in the bishop’s hands and promised my obedience.’”

That period of “exile” ended in 1957 when Bishop John Deardon assigned Fr. Hugo his own pastorate in a large suburban parish south of Pittsburgh.  (“It was even rumored” wrote Father Hugo, that Bishop “Iron John” Deardon had been sent to Pittsburgh by the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Amletto Cicognani, to “quash ‘Lacouturmism.’”)  At St. Germaine’s, Fr. Hugo put into practice his oft-stated principle that a church should be built and supported on the preaching of the Gospel.  He proceeded to construct the new church without running the gambling games that he believed had no place in the Church.  (This conviction didn’t help his popularity among fellow priests.)  He was a beloved pastor there, mostly for his preaching the Gospel with the same fire and brilliance he had preached it at the retreats and for his practice of charity to the families that he came to love.

The “phantom heresy” was banished when Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh began to quote from Fr. Hugo’s writings and then nominated him to collaborate on the writing of a new adult catechism (The Teaching of Christ).  Later, he commissioned him to write a book on St. Augustine in defense of Humanae Vitae (St. Augustine on Nature, Sex and Marriage) and praised his scholarship in a preface to that book.   He wrote homily keys for his brother priests, and served as chairman of both the Worship and Theology committees of the Pittsburgh Diocese.

The doctrines of the Second Vatican Council gave further support to the retreat when the Council affirmed that the laity and not just religious were called to holiness.  Vatican II emphasized that the liturgy is “centered and rooted in the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection.” Fr. Hugo had contributed precisely that emphasis to Fr. Lacouture’s original retreat.

Renowned Jesuit scripture scholar, the late John L. McKenzie, who made the retreat in 1987, said this about the controversy: “I affirm flatly that the criticisms leveled against Lacouture and Hugo arose from an incredibly vast ignorance of the New Testament, the classic spiritual writers, ancient, medieval and modern, an ignorance which is frightening when it is manifested by bishops, higher level Jesuit superiors and professors of theology at the Catholic University.” (From manuscript sent to Cecilia M. Hugo)

(Fr. McKenzie also wrote of Fr. Hugo’s books on the retreat, Your Ways Are Not My Ways, Volume I and II, “By chance I recently came across a book  [and its companion volume] which you will never see reviewed in a journal. You will not see the review because respectable journals as a matter of policy do not review books which are privately printed.  In general I agree with this policy; but in this case I think an exception should be made.”  Unfortunately, respectable journals never did review the books.)

All of which begs the question: as Fr. Hugo himself asked, “[W]hy were so many Howitzers trained on one country curate?”  Why did the Catholic “elite” work so hard to silence through the treacherous practice of “blacklisting” this fervent and obedient priest?  Fr. Hugo answers, “Could it be…that the one whom Jesus called ‘the prince of this world’ was still active on our planet and fiercely determined to crush even the tiniest uprising against his enslaving power?” 

In this case, the prince of this world was fighting in defense of  “pious naturalism.”  Pious naturalism, wrote Fr. Hugo, was “a term that Frederick William Faber, a disciple of Newman described unforgettably as ‘a supernatural formalism outside, perfectly natural principles of action inside, and a quackery of spiritual direction to keep everything safe and comfortable.’”  Pious naturalism, in other words, was a substitute for supernaturalism.   As such, the “prince of the world” had called upon it many times in his battle against true faith.  It is the “religion of the natural man in every age and place;--often very beautiful on the surface, but worthless in God’s sight,” wrote Cardinal Newman. 

Pharisaism was its form in the time of Christ.  In twentieth century America, pious naturalism took the form of the “assimilationist.” This was the Catholic—lay or clerical—who drove the Church to assimilate into the American culture.  In its most-often evoked use, what it meant was that no Catholic principle must stand in the way of the Church’s financial gain, whether in money or property, at the hands of a benefactor who desired a less rigorous, more moderate Catholic Church.  “The philosopher E.I. Watkin,” wrote Fr. Hugo, “wrote of what he called ‘ecclesiastical materialism,’ a spiritual malaise endemic to the clergy of institutional religion whereby, neglecting still the weightier matters of the law—peace and justice and faith—they spend whatever zeal they can muster on institutional building and management…[and] even devoting themselves to ‘liturgy for its own sake,’ as Dom Aelred Graham observed.”  With pious naturalism, Catholics could be friends of the world.

The retreat’s most powerful weapon against pious naturalism and therefore against assimilation into the American culture was the teaching of detachment from worldly goods.  “I was a priest for two years before I ever heard of the Catholic teaching of detachment,” my uncle said in one of the retreat conferences.  “It was never taught to us in any of my thirty years of Catholic education.”

The retreat inoculated individual Catholics against mindlessly assimilating into a consumerist and comfortable culture.  In retrospect, it was for that reason that it had to be stopped.  Since many of the Catholic intelligentsia were striving mightily for assimilation, they in particular waged a war against the retreat. And the bishops listened to them.

The Catholic Worker

Within the Catholic Worker, the retreat has always had its supporters and detractors.  Sister Peter Claver and my aunt, Cecilia Hugo, both friends of Dorothy Day, told me of Day’s consistent requests that the Catholic Worker members make the retreat, and her sometimes meeting resistance from them.  In The Long Loneliness Dorothy Day chides one group of Catholic Workers “who did not want to make the retreat because they lived a retreat—they were superior.”  She continued that though they came to the treat “after imbibing at a few taverns along the way…the important thing is that they came.” 

As Day goes on to note, the Catholic Worker has always had its share of members who practice a “Bohemianism of the religious life” which was to live so much like the “guest from the street” that the religious Bohemian ends up “participating in his sin from prideful humility…it smacks of sentimentality,” she writes, and “this is self-deception indeed.”

Father Hugo was not Bohemian, and since his retreat would have thrown cold water on any Bohemianism, it is not surprising he was avoided and criticized by the Bohemian strand within the Catholic Worker.  In the same way, the Catholic Worker today is divided between those who dissent against Church teachings and those who do not. In 1994, Ann O’Connor, a Catholic Worker, wrote in the New Oxford Review an article entitled “The Catholic Worker: Is It Still Catholic?” about “Dorothy Day’s Crumbling Legacy.”  O’Connor gives plenty of instances of the rejection of Catholic teaching among Catholic Workers—for example, Catholic Workers serving as pro-abortion escorts, escorting women to an abortion clinic—and writes: “The Church in America has, for some time, been in de facto schism.  There is WomenChurch, gay church, married priests, New Age church, etc.  Many Catholic workers reflect these schismatic directions.”  In 1989, I struck up a friendly acquaintance with members of a Catholic Worker house in eastern U.S. that was certainly prone to these kind of “schismatic directions,” and especially those associated with radical feminism.  Those Catholic Workers heading in the “schismatic direction” would not like Father Hugo or the retreat, although that is not to say that all those who have problems with them necessarily do so for that reason.

In 1997 Patrick Jordan, a former editor of the Catholic Worker, wrote an article on Dorothy Day for Commonweal that prompted some protests from those associated with both the Catholic Worker and Father Hugo.  “Reading Hugo in the collection cited above [Weapons of the Spirit, an collection of Hugo’s selected writings edited by David Scott and Mike Aquilina], I felt I had fallen into a time warp. What comes through is certain rigidity and literalness,” Jordan writes, and also characterizes Father Hugo’s writing as “steeped in the formalism of post-Tridentine spiritual theology” and “lacking in the expansive catholicity of Dorothy Day.”   He also writes that Nina Polcyn Moore, an old friend of Dorothy Day,  “recalls [that] the retreat was ‘harsh’ and ‘wooden,’ and that it was Day herself who made it ‘more livable and lovable.’”

In a letter-to-editor of Commonweal, Mark and Louise Zwick, members of the Houston Catholic Worker house, Casa Juan Diego, criticized Jordan’s article for his comments on Father Hugo and his relationship to Day.  “[I]t puzzles us,” they write, “how he could write so well on Dorothy and so poorly on Father John Hugo.”   Jordan’s article “trivialized” Father Hugo, the Zwicks write, and, contra Nina Polcyn Moore, they assert that Father Hugo and “the Hugo priests” were “profoundly spiritual, full of wisdom, holy and holistic, totally unwooden and unrigid; we have not seen the likes of them since.”

Since Commonweal is well-known as a “liberal” Catholic magazine, and Father Hugo, though holding some views in line with liberals, also upheld many doctrines against which liberals dissent, it seemed reasonable to me that perhaps Jordan was put-off by Father Hugo’s orthodoxy (i.e. he did not dissent from Church teaching) or his defense of certain Church doctrine, and, in a letter, asked Jordan if this were the case.  However, Jordan wrote back to me that, “as far as I know,” he did not disagree with Fr. Hugo “on some unspecified doctrinal matters,” but that the book “did not ‘speak to my condition.’”  Since he never explained it in his article or in his letter to me, I never did get clear what things Jordan found to be so “rigid,” “literal” etc., if these things were not related to doctrine. 

In 2003 a friend attended a university-sponsored conference on the Catholic Worker. After one of the talks, my friend approached a “Catholic Worker priest” to talk about Fr. Hugo.  The priest told him that no one was giving the retreat, that Dorothy Day had changed her mind about the retreat later on, and that my uncle had changed his mind about his own retreats.  None of this is true.  Dorothy Day went to Pittsburgh to make her last retreat with Father Hugo in 1976, four years before she died.  At that time, she asked him to give the homily at her funeral. (A priest at the Catholic Worker house actually ended up giving the homily.) When her friend Sister Peter Claver visited Dorothy Day three weeks before Day’s death, the two of them reminisced about the retreat as Day sat with the retreat conference notes on her lap.  In 1985, Father Hugo was killed in a car accident. He had concluded one of his regularly scheduled retreats only two days earlier. He had completed his two-volume book on the retreat Your Ways Are Not My Ways on the very day he was killed. And at least one priest is still giving the retreat. So all this talk about “change” was transmitted to my friend in complete contradiction to the facts. But as my friend said after attending the conference, “No one seemed to address the idea that the CW might have changed.”

It would seem that, along with several points of Church doctrine, Father Hugo and the retreat continue to be a point of contention within the Catholic Worker movement.


The First Lesson of the Retreat: Natural and Supernatural

The retreat worked to dislodge that “comfy” feeling that Christians have with the world.  The retreat, wrote Dorothy Day, was like “a shock treatment…putting the ‘old man’ to death, bringing us to new life.” 

The first lesson of the retreat was that of the “two ways.”  In keeping with orthodox Catholic doctrine, Fr. Hugo emphasized that God created two planes of existence, the natural and the supernatural—each part of His plan, but radically different from each other, and leading to different destinations.

The natural existence is good and virtuous, and is lived by pagan and Christian alike. It consists of the seen world, known through the five senses and human reason. Pleasure is its goal, and reason is its guide.  It seeks happiness only in this present life, and is thus leads to a “dead end” at the end of this life.  For this reason, though the natural existence is necessary for Christians, it is not sufficient for them.

The supernatural is divine and holy, and only those who follow Christ receive the grace to live on this plane.  It consists of the unseen world, known to us through divine revelation.  Love is its goal, and faith its guide. Unlike the natural plane, the supernatural has an ultimate destination beyond this life—heaven.

Sin was never part of God’s plan, and it operates in the level below both the natural and the supernatural, a constant pull to “sink” us below both our human and divine destinies.  Sin leads to a destination—hell.

The “front line” battle for the Christian, Fr. Hugo said, is not against sin, but against the natural inclinations that neutralize our supernatural motives. If we loose this front line battle, we will inevitably loose the rear guard battle that we must wage against sin.  

This simple presentation, which Fr. Hugo illustrated with an equally simple chart, resounded profoundly and powerfully in the hearts and minds of those that heard it.  For many of us, it was the first time we had learned that the “two ways” were not as we had always thought, i.e., the choice between the forbidden and the permitted.  For many of us, it was the first time we understood the true challenge of Christianity, ie., that it asks us to choose between pagan goodness and Christian holiness. For the first time, we saw Our Lord as beckoning us to the supernatural path set high above the natural way. And for many of us, the presentation of the “two ways” was the first theology in many years—perhaps ever—that ignited a burning desire to follow Him. 

Only through the power of grace—a grace for which we must constantly petition and to which we must always respond—can we live the supernatural life.  This is because our natural inclinations are constantly demanding that we deny the claims of supernatural inspirations; and the natural inclinations were, well, natural. They were as close to us as our own skin.  “Scratch a Christian,” Fr. Hugo said, “and there’s a pagan underneath.”  

The retreat made clear that God’s plan confronted us where we felt most comfortable in this life—in our good, virtuous lives.  Moderate, law-abiding, middle class respectability looks like Christianity, but Fr. Hugo called it something different—“good paganism.”  It is not sinful, but it is insufficient for eternal life.

Herein lay the punch—or, in Biblical terms, the “scandal of the Cross”—in the retreat’s teaching—what provoked the unease and outrage in his opponents.  In following Jesus Christ, we give up not only our sin, but more importantly our love affair with worldly goods. Simply put, we must turn from the love of the goods of this world, which are so familiar and comfortable to us, in order to love and receive the goods of the supernatural world, which are often initially strange and even distasteful.

The comfortable and worldly Christianity that is so acceptable to modern culture, and so entrenched in our parishes and charitable associations—though not evil—was not enough.  It was the reduced Gospel that proclaimed a merely natural philosophy, that of the “good pagan”: “Eat, drink and be merry—as long as you avoid mortal sin.”

“In proving their love by the fact that they have not committed a grave sin,” Fr. Hugo said, Christians “resemble a man who proves his love for his wife by the fact that he does not murder her.”  Or, “Telling God you love Him more than sin is like telling a beautiful woman you love her more than toads,” was another of his memorable analogies. 

Fr. Hugo went on to develop the “two ways” presentation throughout the retreat.  The Bible was his ready source of supporting evidence, but he used other sources such as Rosalind Murray’s The Good Pagan’s Failure; the sermons of John Henry Newman, and the writings of many of the saints, and in particular, those of St. John of the Cross.

He turned to the Sermon on the Mount to show that supernatural goods were often the reversal of natural goods.  Man naturally rejoices in prosperity, power, dignity, erudition, fame, mirth and honor.  But Christ teaches us to rejoice in poverty, meekness, humiliation, simplicity, obscurity, mourning and persecution.  “The Beatitudes are the values of God,” Fr. Hugo said.  “We say, ‘Blessed are the rich.  Blessed are the strong.’” To the world, he said, the Beatitudes are either hogwash—“Blessed are the poor? Are you kidding?”—or beautiful, poetic sayings never to be applied to our practical, workaday world. “But Jesus says this is the way to live,” Fr. Hugo reminded us.

The Sermon illustrates “God’s reversal of purely human values,” he said.  It is, he wrote in a pamphlet, “the Manifesto of the Christian life; it outlines the practical program of Christianity.  And we never attempt to imagine what would happen if we really lived according to these truths—the sudden and sensational change would make us dizzy; our lives would certainly be transformed…Behold. All things would become new.”


God’s Love for Us

Fr. Hugo inspired us to hunger for the supernatural life in the same way that Jesus Christ inspired his disciples to do so—by showing us the love of God.  By giving retreatants the full meaning of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the retreat endeavored to help Christians rediscover the depth and breadth of God’s love for them.  The supernatural destiny—yes, hard to follow—was, in fact, given to us because of God’s great love for us.  In baptism we are made His sons and daughters.  The gift of supernatural life cost the life of His beloved Son.

The insight—both emotional and intellectual—into God’s love became the moment of real conversion at the retreat.  The corresponding insight was just as powerfully offered: that we must respond to this love with the same kind of love.  Fr. Hugo made it clear that Jesus did not invite his disciples to live on the supernatural plane, he required them to do so.  Love demands it.

Love is demanding.  All Christians are called to holiness.  His retreatants could no longer ignore the personal implications of this call.  Nor could they fail to acknowledge that the natural comforts of the natural world were often much more important to them than the supernatural rewards of the supernatural world.

For the Love of Jesus Christ

The first night of the retreat I made a choice: to commit fully to it.  It was my first lesson in detachment.  After the introductory conference on Sunday evening, I stood in my echoing convent cell, and, sweating in the early warmth of the April evening, I packed all my books, magazines and stationery in my suitcase and shoved it under the bed.  Wooed from my security blanket, I entered the wilderness, alone, silent, unencumbered.

During the rest of that week, as the air conditioner hummed in the library, I listened with a budding sense of destiny while Fr. Hugo spoke of the “two ways,” God’s way and mankind’s way.  These were the very roads through life that I had been trying to find as I had stumbled about. 

I underwent a profound mental adjustment and hungered to hear more about this purpose in life.  How do I live a supernatural life and do what is impossible in the natural: pray deeply, love my enemy, turn the other cheek, be joyful in all circumstances, including, if need be, poverty?

Throughout the retreat I was reading the Gospels.  After each conference, I would take my Bible outside into the warm April air and sit and read the life and words of Jesus Christ.  Here, in Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, was the heart of the retreat—the beloved, yet commanding, person of our Lord.  We were to come to know our Lord, and in coming to know him, we would love him. The retreat’s purpose—that of allowing us to move toward Christ—was working in my life. As I read the Gospels, I felt an intense, interior excitement.  This was the truth.  “Why didn’t I know you before, Jesus?” I asked many times in the silence.

One night I wrote in my journal, “My love for Christ our Savior grows.  I feel his love for me.  And I truly love him.  My heart knows I love him; it feels at home.  He is the Crown of Creation, and my heart knows this.”

The struggle to follow Christ was, I wrote, “the only struggle that ever struck me as worthwhile.  For money or fame is attractive, yes, but not the worth the trouble, is how I’ve always felt.  And now I know why. Because my Creator and my Brother is calling me to my Home.”

Later in the week, I wrote, “Suddenly I know why God gave me an imagination and a love of literature.  He was preparing me for the understanding and love of Jesus’ life and words.  To picture them, to see his suffering, to see him surrounded by the poor, the ugly, the diseased, the dirty, the foolish. To see his majesty, his heroism, his strength, his goodness. So often in my life I would read a story and I would become so enthralled that I would never want it to end. So entranced and caught up in the people, the plot, the clean, beauty of a good story, I would populate my own world with the characters and thoughts in the book.  And soon I would find myself wishing to “climb into” the story, to be there.  How strange, I would think, to want to leave my life.  But now it isn’t.  For here is a book which asks me to leave my life and “climb in,” to “take on” the character of the hero.  A book which pleads for involvement, and which will open its door to eternal involvement.  Such is the New Testament, the words of Christ, the Good News.”

On Wednesday afternoon, half way through the retreat, I knelt in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.  My Catholic identity awakened, I believed Jesus Christ was truly present there, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  In a whisper, I said, “I believe you are God.  I will follow you for the rest of my life.  My life is yours.”  His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament was an embrace.

The Brilliance of the Retreat

The brilliance of the retreat began with the conditions it set that allowed a retreatant to feel the love of God, and to realize and deepen his love for God. These conditions included both the silence and the teaching conferences. It followed up on this quietly profound spiritual and emotional experience with a further exposition of the divine mentality of Christianity; the divine reasoning, so to speak, behind Christianity.  Thus the retreat appealed to the mind, the spirit and the will; it evangelized fully.

The gnostic teachings of Sant Mat seemed utterly unsubstantial, irrational, and fraudulent compared to the heart and mind of Christianity that was presented to me in the retreat.

A brilliant presentation followed on the practical life of the Christian; Fr. Hugo termed this part of the retreat “applied Christianity.” Building on the love that we experienced in the meditative silence of the retreat, Fr. Hugo moved to the crux of Christianity—the “folly of the Cross.”  “The cross is thought to be one of the less pleasing parts of Christianity,” Fr. Hugo said, “ But the cross is the most positive part of Christianity.  Because Jesus died out of love.”

Two images that Jesus used became the focal point of the practicable way to follow Jesus.  These were “sowing” and “pruning.”  Sowing is rooted in the idea of detachment from the love of worldly goods: the decision to let loose the goods of this world in order to clasp the love of God.  The retreat treated Jesus’s parable of the farmer to show this.  We are like the farmer sowing wheat. The wheat is good, just as many of our possessions and activities are good. But the farmer must still throw away the wheat in order to gain a harvest, and the seed must die to bear fruit.  Just like Jesus, we must “throw away” or “lay down” the good things of our lives in order to gain something better: divine life.  “It is the law of life,” Fr. Hugo said.  “To gain life, you must first lose it.”

If sowing is our work, then pruning is God’s work.  But its principal is the same: life lost, good things trimmed away, in order that new life can grow.  The concept of pruning illustrates the problem of the apparently unjust suffering that God’s children undergo.  “I am the vine, and my Father is the vine dresser,” Jesus says.  “Every branch in me that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes it that it may bear more fruit.”  The righteous are pruned. Though the shears hurt, the “vine dresser” acts out of perfect love.

Our losses and afflictions become the very portal through which God’s life enters the world, just as our Lord’s passion and death became the portal for redemption.   For us to live according to these beliefs would bring about the death of the natural man just as the crucifixion did.

In sowing the good and in accepting the Vinedresser’s pruning, we orient our every action to God. But only if we do so, not because we think the goods of the natural life are bad, but because we love God enough to let go of even the good things of creation in order to have the highest good, God HimselfThus, the retreat focused on the crucial element of the motive in every action.  God looks at the motive as well as the action. Love is the motive for Christian action, “and all natural good words can be elevated to the divine order by doing them for the love of God,” said Fr. Hugo.  “Everything, no matter how small, everything except sin, can be consecrated to God.”

Christian action performed without the supernatural motive of love is pharisaism. It is done in order to appear good or for some other ulterior natural gain. Without the motive of love—a sacrificial love--our religion falls into pious naturalism.

Recognizing that we are still in the world, the Church has always taught her children the proper use of the necessary goods of the world. In this tradition, Fr. Hugo taught that if we use creation with the proper motive, it could become a ladder leading to God. The goods of creation are not ends in themselves, but are only to help us appreciate the attributes of our Divine Lover, God, who gave us creation out of love. The goods of creation are merely “samples” of the eternal Good that awaits us in the Beatific Vision. “We learn who God is through these natural samples,” said Fr. Hugo.

God wants us to use these “samples” and enjoy them.  But He wants us always to see beyond the pleasure to the Giver—God Himself.  “God doesn’t want the pleasure, He wants the love.”   Though God’s creatures give a taste of the Creator, like samples, they leave us unsatisfied. Only God satisfies.  If we get stuck in the samples, we will miss God.  “And therefore,” writes the author of The Imitation of Christ, “all is too little and insufficient, whatever Thou bestows upon me, that is not Thyself; and whatever Thou reveals to me concerning Thyself, or promises, as long as I see Thee not, nor fully possess Thee: because indeed my heart cannot truly rest, nor be entirely contented till it rest in Thee, and transcend every gift and every creature.”

At this point, Fr. Hugo drew on the teachings of St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystical doctor of the Church.   St. John of the Cross taught detachment toward the samples of the world; St. Ignatius called the same mentality “indifference.”  Both stressed that it was essential for Christians to develop this attitude toward creation, as they battle, not against sin, but against their natural inclinations. Christians win the battle by practicing abstemiousness and mortification—with each act thereof done for the sole purpose of disposing oneself to love God more.   “[I]t is true that God is exalted by fixing the soul’s rejoicing upon detachment from all things,” writes St. John of the Cross. 

Social Justice

Fr. Hugo always extended the Gospel message to its social implications.  In particular, the retreat emphasized the need for simplicity in Christian living.  It took seriously that most practical of Gospel truths: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  The comforts of life, Fr. Hugo taught, can stifle divine grace, deafening us to God’s call.  He read from John Cardinal Newman’s sermons, “The consciousness of wealth, if we are not careful, chokes up all the avenues of the soul through which the life and breath of heaven may come to us.”

In fact more Christians than not depend more on their possessions, incomes, and status than on the Lord—and many would sit in the silence of the “famous retreat” and, like the rich, young man, finally weigh the cost of following Jesus.

Fr. Hugo examined the way our possessions seduce us from a truly faith-filled, counter-cultural Christian life.  He would always extend the Gospel message to its social implications.  In this case, he denounced the way our un-Christian consumerism strains the world resources and destroys the lives of the poor.

Like many of my Boomer peers, I had been drawn to the ideal of simplicity and been repelled by the consumerism of the G.I.’s.  But Boomers, over time, had simply metamorphosed into another version of self-justified Babbitry, beginning with the Yuppie and moving onward into more complex realms of ostentatious self-indulgence.  In the end it was just too hard to turn away from affluence. 

The retreat showed why the Boomers failed so miserably in their pursuit of simplicity.  They had relied on natural abilities only, when, in fact, it is only with grace that one can persevere in detachment from wealth while living in a culture that is obsessed with acquisition.

The retreat convinced me that “progressive” concerns like working for social justice, opposing war and violence, and voluntarily choosing simplicity in the midst of a materialistic society are grounded in the Gospels and the teachings of the Church. But Father Hugo also spoke out against such liberal issues as abortion, contraception, radical feminism, disobedient religious, experimental liturgies and inclusive language.  He often paraphrased an observation of Dom Aelred Graham:  “Christianity is neither liberal nor conservative; it is either superficial or radical.” Considering the muddying of the waters caused among Catholics by the new American ideology of “neo-conservative/neo-liberalism” that supports the idea of an American empire, this aphorism about Christian social morality was somewhat prophetic of the way Roman Catholicism would be the casualty in the hardcore partisan battles among Catholic thinkers at the turn of the millenium.  The Retreat took arms against the reductionism that is forced upon Roman Catholicism by Americanism, the Procrustean bed on which American ideologists, liberal and conservative, repeatedly dismember the Church. 

Return to the World

The retreat ended with Mass followed by a Sunday breakfast at which all the retreatants could once again return to the world of conversation.  After the meal, the retreatants would all be invited to make some comment about what they had experienced or learned at the retreat.  There were many tears of joy, many persons who could not finish their sentence because they were overwhelmed with the feeling of God’s love that had penetrated into their lives during the retreat. I was one of them. (In four retreats—and this was after seven days of silence, not seven days of Pentecostal revivalism—I often saw these powerful emotions of gratitude and exultation—very different from one arising from a “wooden” and “harsh” retreat.)

As with my uncle some fifty years earlier at the close of his first retreat, I left the retreat joyful and changed.  Through the retreat, he wrote, and “through the mercy of God, the mists were raised, and I stood amazed and breathless before a splendor that had been there all the time, but unsuspected by me, looking ahead into the long beautiful vista of the Christian life.  Now at last I could see.”  I, too, returned home with a new vision of my life.

As with him, the unthinkable had happened to me.  In 1947 he had written about his turning from “good paganism” that a “friend said of me, ‘I can imagine it happening to anyone else in the world except to him.’” 

My friends—heretofore, the center of gravity in my life—also would be astonished. In addition, they would be put out that I had become a “Christian.”  In high school, we made fun of “Jesus freaks.”  They could accept that I had “experienced” the exotic and fashionable Indian mystical/yoga religion, but Christianity was so “right wing,” conservative, and completely out-of-step.  And Catholicism? Forget it.  A reactionary, laughable religion. 

 As I walked into my parents’ home that hot April weekend, I had the curious sensation of knowing I was profoundly changed inwardly, but not knowing how or what to change outwardly.  Here I was back in the pagan comfort of my parents’ home.  We were just about to open the swimming pool for the summer.  I was surrounded by the usual ebb and flow of the house—concern for good food, work, clothing, current opinion on any number of matters, fashions and fads, fun and pleasures, and all the rest of the material world.  The distractions and sensual allurements of this world piled high in this household as in most households in which the spiritual had long been relegated to the lowest priority.

So how would I fit into my old life with this new love and conviction?  On the other hand, how could I just walk away from it?  I couldn’t see my way.

“It takes time,” Fr. Hugo had forewarned us. “God gives us our lifetime—and much grace to bring our conduct perfectly into line with our spiritual ideas.”  He warned us not to overthrow our old life in one dramatic heave, but to change things slowly and prayerfully.   And so I went back to work at the paper and continued in my daily routine.  Only in my prayer life did I make major changes.  Out went the Sant Mat books.  Forget the “five holy names.”  I arose early, as always, and sat in mental prayer, (a term I would use instead of meditation that had come to imply transcendental meditation), but this time I used Scripture as my “prayer word.”  I continued to read the Bible.  And I began to go to Sunday Mass. 

As for the rest of the many and dramatic changes that the Lord required of me, if I could have seen five, ten, fifteen years into the future, I would have seen that He would lead me through them for many years to come. As John Cardinal Newman wrote, my heart would be prepared to change when it was “ploughed by…keen grief and deep anxiety.”  Then the word of God would begin to bear fruit.  The Lord would teach me using his favorite teaching program, sowing and pruning.

The Retreat and the Church

The Retreat addressed the main problem of the Catholic Church today.  That is, how can the Catholic faith survive in a prosperous culture.  Money has ever been the great corrupter of faith.  In the modern world, its corruption is massively pervasive. Ireland would cling fiercely to its Catholicism under the threat of persecution; but it would begin to give it up after receiving the financial benevolence of the European Union.

The Church in the United States has shown that prosperity will corrupt the Church with a speed and thoroughness that persecution will not.  When the Church faced similar corruption in the 13th century, the two men who saved it, St. Francis and St. Dominic, were both mendicants.  The Retreat offers the essence of their teaching as it could be lived by the secular clergy and the regular laity.  It offers a remedy to save the Church from the corruption that affluence and consumerism bring, a remedy that is past due in the Church in the United States.

Furthermore, wrote Father Hugo, the Retreat “unveiled a Catholic model for evangelization, which Pope Paul VI in 1975 would inaugurate as a world-wide program.  That program, however, has failed sadly and, although it should be an unceasing effort in the Church, is already all but forgotten, without doubt the major spiritual casualty of the post-Vatican II period.  Yet the failure was inevitable for want of the needed model. Evangelization, abandoned to others, had indeed become strange, shadowed by heresy, and therefore suspicious to Catholics…Catholic evangelization starts rather from the intense and joyous realization that, ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Mt. 25:34), God’s human creatures have been destined to be ‘like Him,’ to share in His nature by grace, to grow in holiness, to become His children in Christ, and to extend the Incarnation and multiply its fruits.”

The Retreat is a model for Catholic evangelization that has proved itself to be an extraordinarily effective tool of “self-evangelization” for thousands of priests and laity over 50 years. Why has it not been used by the Shepherds of the Church?

Father Hugo died in a car accident in 1985.  Until that time, he gave the retreats in Pittsburgh.  Two other priests who most recently gave the retreat have also died.

© Rosemary Hugo Fielding 2011

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