Catholic Herald Staff
When parish director Michele Rein surveyed parishioners in Land O’Lakes and Phelps to ask what topics of adult faith formation they were interested in, prayer was a common theme.
Presented in a format encompassing prayer, reflection and remembrance, St. Mary’s in Phelps hosted a morning retreat on Feb. 1, “You Are Not Alone, You Never Were.” It was guided by Drs. Joe and Sheri Abel, parishioners at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander.
With ties to the area going back decades, the Chicago couple moved north after retiring from their careers in educational roles. Both Joe and Sheri have doctorate degrees in the education field and have been very involved, personally and professionally, in sharing the Catholic faith they treasure. Their background and style weaves together information and insight, creativity, communication skills and a coaching style that is practical as well as deeply spiritual.
The Abels chose the retreat topic in collaboration with Rein to ensure participants would be engaged and leave the experience with more than handouts and a time of fellowship.
“When folks participate and get involved, that’s when the Spirit of God touches them,” Joe said.
Calling it a spiritual autobiography of sorts, the morning’s theme was subtitled “A Personal Journey with God.” It has been presented by the couple for more than 20 years, as a classroom exercise and as an adaptable retreat format, but never the same way twice. They shared that the program started out as an educational activity for teens and young adults to try and get them to “think like a Hebrew and talk about your life from the perspective of what God has done for you.”
As an introduction to the journey, the Abels drew from their study of Hebrew culture and the historical context of the Old Testament.
“It’s a very narrative culture. The way they frame their history is religious,” Joe explained, adding that Israel’s cultural identity was rooted in remembering what God had done for them.
Compared to other cultures of the time, the God of the Jewish people was a radical concept. He wasn’t fickle and distant like the gods of mythology who fought and schemed amongst themselves.
“In the Hebrew consciousness, God is right here,” Joe said, with emphasis on “right here.”
“He is not out there some place, or up there somewhere, He is here with us. He is committed. He is ever-faithful. He is ever-merciful. And there is no all-powerful contender that is going to upset him.”
With a photograph of what the meeting tent, or “tabernacle,” would have looked like, starting with Moses’ leadership of the Jews out of Egypt, the Abels expounded on the significance of God literally pitching a tent among his people.
Reviewing the parallels between the Hebrew tabernacle and those in Catholic Church sanctuaries, they observed, “God was making a very definitive statement – I am with you. I choose to be with you.”
This is visible from the lit candle – fire being a sign of God’s presence – to the table behind the veil with bread of presence – sign of God’s sustenance. The bread as sign was so significant for Hebrews that, Joe explained, “They began to use the metaphor for themselves. For example, you have the bread of curiosity; I have the bread of affliction.”
“If you asked someone, ‘How are you?’ or ‘What’s happening in your life?’ They would tell you where God has been in their life,” Sherri added. “’Praise his name, God gave me the chance to talk with you today.’ And it became their cultural norm.”
This concept of personally connecting with God’s action in history is the foundation on which the “You Are Not Alone, and Never Were” exercise is built upon. The Abels’ desire to be instruments to “help people know Jesus, to meet him” is what brings the exercise off the page.
In Joe’s words, they don’t talk about Jesus as an abstraction, but “what he does for us – that he is active and powerful and present. That is what our world needs to hear today.”
They brought that message into an even more personal experience through the spiritual autobiography, almost as an extension and witness of their own individual journeys with God.
Both Joe and Sheri credit their strong Catholic upbringings in Chicago during a time when Catholic culture and identity was strong.
For Sheri in particular, the faith was integrated into daily family life. She remembers the picture of the pope on the wall, the crucifix with hidden candles and holy water above her parents’ bed. Big family gatherings, always praying before meals and going to weekly Mass, “not because we had to,” then taking her experience and sharing it as a catechist.
At 16, Sheri offered to fill the need for a teacher for the eighth-grade religious education class. Not much older than her students, she was a “marvelous success,” really felt at home and hasn’t stopped teaching the faith – in one form or another – since then.
The act of remembering played a key role in the retreat exercise.
“For God, remembering isn’t just calling to mind. God remembers differently,” Joe explained. Remembrance, for God, is an act of creation as much as it is re-membering – rejoining members in a community.
“When God remembers he acts again – to redeem, to renew and save.”
Assisted with a series of projected slides and copies of blank timelines, the presenters reviewed significant historical events from the 1920s to the present. Directions were given about how to fill in the space provided for both world and personal events.
Events mentioned covered the gamut from wars to technological advances to natural disasters and historical figures, Prohibition to the man on the moon to international conflicts, the fall of the Berlin Wall and more.
All of this was shared with the underlying framework that God acts in all levels of world and national and personal history. The review was not meant as a trivia teaser; rather, a presence-prompt to see where God acted and was present in and through each person’s life stages and story.
Faith is shaped generation by generation and families have ups and downs as triumphs and tragedies unfold day by day, year by year.
“Admire God, thank him for the presence He has been in our lives,” Sheri encouraged as she led a Scriptural prayer before starting the overview.
At one point, Joe shared an outline of ways that God communicates in a person’s life.
These included: recurring and meaningful symbols or images, actions and influences of other people, patterns of opportunities and things “falling into place,” increased desire for God’s will and action, deepening spiritual sensitivity, periods of disconnect and uneasiness feeling that God is absent or knowing we have distanced ourselves, and the tension of movement toward needed change.
Participants were invited to remember and note on their timeline moments of communication and action by God in their personal history. To record the “God moments” of peace and pain, all signs of his presence and providence. To remember and renew the sacramental graces received over a lifetime and the many, many ways and places and experiences where God’s love intersected with an individual life and family, drawing them ever close to the hoped-for conclusion.
“You are not alone. You never were,” Joe repeated throughout the morning’s reflections, “and you never will be.”