The No. 1 rule for men attending a weekend retreat at Manresa Retreat House 40 miles upriver from New Orleans is to keep the mouth shut for 3 1/2 days, long enough to calm the heart so that it can listen and respond to the whisper that is always there but rarely heard.
The whisper of God is drowned out by life – by talk radio, by the barking heads on CNN and Fox, by the click bait of the internet and by the temporal concerns of maintaining a modest house overlooking a huge mortgage.
Bob Stern, a financial advisor who also runs an insurance business in Metairie, grew up Jewish. He attended Touro Synagogue with his family, and even when he married a Catholic girl 34 years ago, he would go to the synagogue. On High Holy Days, his wife Charlene and their two girls accompanied him to the synagogue. Twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – Stern would join Charlene and the children for Mass.
Although he was surrounded by Catholic friends and business associates all of his life, he never recalled any of them trying to proselytize him, not even a “nudge.”
“When I met my (future) wife, I told my dad, ‘So, Dad, I met this wonderful person and she’s Catholic. So, what should I do?’” Stern recalled. “He said, ‘As long as her belief in her God is as strong as your belief in your God, it should be fine.’ So, we got married. We’ve had arguments like everyone else about everything under the sun, but we never, ever, ever had any disagreements about religion.”
Unsettled – and searching
About three years ago, Stern, 59, had a gnawing feeling.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to go to temple this year. I’m just not getting it,’” Stern said.
One of his good Catholic friends, Greg Raymond, had always invited him to make a Manresa retreat, which while catering largely to Catholics attracts men of other faiths. In fact, Stern’s father had made a retreat there decades earlier and came home telling his family it was “a peaceful time with God.”
Manresa is crowded, so when Stern submitted his name for Weekend No. 42 in October, the house was full. He got two calls from the retreat captain telling him not to come because there was no room.
As a veteran of Manresa, Raymond told Stern simply to show up at the Manresa library, where the retreatants check in, and see if a room might shake free.
“I told them. ‘It’s no big deal. I’ll go home and get my tent and I’ll go pitch it under a tree. It’ll be good,’” Stern said.
Stern got the last room.
He had decided before the retreat that he would not make the Stations of the Cross or pray the rosary. Like his father, he wanted to experience the peace and quiet and begin to talk to God.
“I had never even read the Bible,” he said. “I heard a few stories in the synagogue. That was about it. To me, Jesus was a prophet.”
At the first retreat meeting, he was told by Jesuit Father Jack Callahan, the retreat director, that one method of prayer is to place yourself in the Gospel story as a bystander and imagine what it would have been like to hear Jesus speaking directly to you and the other disciples.
Walking with Jesus
“That sounded good,” Stern said. “So, I went out to the levee and started walking and I said, ‘Hi, Jesus, here I am … and I’ve got a lot of questions.’ I went walking and asked some questions, and I came back to my room and opened the Bible. I’m reading about Moses – a familiar story, like Charlton Heston, right? That was pretty cool. Then I opened the Bible to another part, and man, it was weird. I got the answer to the question I had when I was out walking.
“The next time I went walking, I asked a question, and when I opened up the Bible, the answer was there.”
By this time, Stern said, he was on fire. He knew he was not supposed to talk, but he pulled a good friend to the side before lunch – Deacon Paul Augustin – and told him: “Paul, I need to talk to you. I have a new best friend.”
In a brief time of spiritual direction with Father Callahan, Stern said the priest told him: “The Holy Spirit’s got a hold of you. Just enjoy it. God will tell you what to do. Just follow whatever God tells you to do.”
What you talkin’ about, Bob?
A few days after the retreat, Stern had a vivid dream about walking by the levee and seeing driftwood. He called Raymond and asked him, “Is there any significance to driftwood in the Catholic religion?”
After telling Raymond about his dream, Raymond replied: “You’re messing with me.”
“Bob, did you see me out on the levee?” Raymond asked.
Stern said no. It turned out Raymond had been walking the levee picking up driftwood from which he would fashion a cross for a Manresa retreat he would be leading in the future.
After the retreat, Stern began attending Mass every Sunday with his wife, and he’s never missed since. “Every time I go to Mass, I feel God’s presence,” he said.
After his Manresa retreat last year, Stern made a decision. He was entering the Catholic Church.
He decided he would “do something absolutely out of the ordinary” and not shave until the Easter vigil in 2017, when he would be welcomed into the church at Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street. As Stern’s beard began to grow fuller, he took on the appearance of a rabbi.
“All he needed was a little black hat and a shawl and he could have been praying at the Wailing Wall,” Deacon Augustin said.
He met his financial clients looking like a rabbi.
“I decided that as a Christian, you’re supposed to share your faith,” Stern said. “Whenever anyone asked me, ‘What’s with the beard?’ it was going to give me the opportunity to share my conversion with them. I would say, ‘I can tell you, but look, do you want to know the story?’”
“I call it evangelization by beard,” Deacon Augustin said.
A mission to the lukewarm?
Stern entered the church in April, and he has never looked back. He is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a lector at Immaculate Conception. He doesn’t know why, but many times when he is talking to clients, Jesus just comes up.
“When I shared the story of my conversion with one man, he started crying,” Stern said. “He told me, ‘You can’t begin to understand what you’ve just done to me. I’ve been struggling over my faith, and sharing that story has changed my life.’
“I didn’t go looking for this – that’s the weird thing. I didn’t expect to find Jesus going to Manresa.”
Jesus found him instead.
This weekend – Weekend No. 42 – Stern will make his first Manresa retreat as a Catholic.
“I hate the words ‘born again,’ but I was,” Stern said. “My life, for me, started this year. My Catholic friends have told me, ‘Maybe you’re supposed to bring us closer to our Lord, people who might be going through the motions.’ Maybe people will see my excitement and enthusiasm, and I can bring them along.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.