By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
The “rock bottom” for Katherine Madere, a cradle Catholic, came in 2015, when she could no longer, on her own, put together the jigsaw pieces of a cratered life.
Madere was newly sober and had been living for two months at Grace House, a long-term residential treatment center for women who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse.
The Grace House counselor mentioned something about a fairly new “Ignatian Spirituality Retreat,” and what Madere heard was that it was scheduled to be held during the week at Manresa Retreat House in Convent, La., which has a history of offering silent weekend retreats for men.
“How surprising that my rock bottom would bring me the opportunity to visit that sacred place,” Madere said.
After that first 30-hour retreat, Madere said she felt “washed clean.” She made her first confession since the one she had made before her high school confirmation.
At some point during the retreat, Madere heard something astounding – the retreat had been underwritten by the Vatican. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, had been briefed on the power of the Ignatian Spirituality Retreat, based on the spirituality of the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and decided to help defray some of the costs.
“I got to write a thank-you note to Pope Francis,” Madere said.
Such was Madere’s crisis during her active alcoholism that, she says, “as so many do, I lost my connection to the divine. I never really stopped believing in God, but I thought surely God had stopped believing in me.”
Madere’s experience of feeling incapable of being forgiven for her alcohol abuse is common, said Susan Rodriguez, who has co-directed the Ignatian Spirituality Retreats in the Archdiocese of New Orleans with Charlene Rovira since 2010.
Rodriguez was an affiliate of the Cenacle Sisters in 2010 when the Ignatian Spirituality Retreats, which began in Chicago, were offered for the first time at the Cenacle Retreat House in Metairie.
“The sisters very generously and very wisely agreed that their retreat house would be a great place to bring the women together,” Rodriguez said.
The retreat moved temporarily to Manresa after the Cenacle Sisters sold their retreat house to the archdiocese, and the retreats now are offered both at Manresa and on the grounds of the former Cenacle (the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center) in Metairie.
If there is something that distinguishes the agony of a woman going through addiction and recovery from the experience of men going through similar circumstances, Rodriguez said it is the woman’s common experience of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
“Women have been the victims of terrible abuse, sometimes by family members, sometimes by strangers,” Rodriguez said. “This is not anything but my opinion, but the harm that’s been done to women has led them to self-loathing, and using drugs and alcohol is their way of making the self-loathing stay at bay. I can tell you, for the most part, women have not had an image of an unconditionally loving God.
“So, our primary goal during the retreat is to model for them that unconditional love that God has for them, to love them and for them to see themselves as worthy, strong, courageous and loved.”
Within the 30 hours of the retreat, Rodriguez has seen incredible transformations.
“We know it has to be the Holy Spirit working within these women because we couldn’t have caused this,” she said.
Some of the reflection exercises include picking up a stone – “just to transfer some of the hurt and pain from the past into that stone – and dropping it into a bowl of water for cleansing,” Rodriguez said. “As simple as that may sound, it’s very powerful.”
Participants are asked to write down one of their fears that they continue to deal with and place the dissolving paper into a bowl of warm water.
“We have lots of prayer and lots of Scripture, although it’s not strictly a Catholic or a Christian retreat,” Rodriguez said “People of all faiths are welcome. The team members are all Christian, so we bring our spirituality to it, but we invite the women to speak to their higher power in whatever way is comfortable and authentic.”
The focus of Ignatian spirituality is to encourage individuals “to find God in all things and all people, and Ignatius encourages us to be in right relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. God has been with these women, even though they may not have recognized God’s presence. God is still with them and will never leave them.”
Madere felt so moved by the retreat that she is now a member of its core team, sharing her personal testimony on at least 10 different occasions with women sitting in the chairs where she once sat.
“It brought me back to the idea that we are all deserving of forgiveness and capable of change,” Madere said.
Like St. Ignatius, who found God in his own woundedness, Madere said following a daily “examen” of conscience allowed her to “lift my head to the light and rid myself of the mantle of shame I had carried for so long.” Madere is now a development officer at Grace House, sharing her story to anyone who will listen.
“I am happy, I am free and I can reach my hand out to help the next woman up,” Madere said. “What could be better than that?”
There are six Ignatian Spirituality Retreats each year. Participants must be in sobriety for at least a month to attend. Women in recovery from the community, especially from the archdiocesan Substance Abuse Ministry groups, are also welcome on the retreats. Toiletry and other items for the retreatants are needed. Several women gather to knit shawls for the retreatants. Contact Susan Rodriguez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-8183.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.