Photo: Felix Carroll
Opportunities for spiritual renewal abound year round at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy on Eden Hill, even during the winter months. In fact, winter is the perfect time for spiritual renewal. "One of the best things a person can do is to go on a spiritual retreat before Lent," says Fr. Anthony Gramlich, MIC, Shrine Rector.
A Place for All Seasons
Eden Hill, a Year-round Site of Pilgrims' Progress
Father Anthony Gramlich, MIC, invites all to visit the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, located in the historic town of Stockbridge, Mass.
The tall shadows of dawn on Eden Hill.
That is the accepted shorthand for an activity or process that continues throughout the year. Life is like that, until it is over. God's mercy is like that forever, for it is never over. The proper notation for mercy is 24/7/365/∞ — twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to infinity.
Spiritual renewal is also an ongoing matter. We strive for perfection, to be good as God is good, but we do so in the context of limitations imposed on us by original sin, the crack in our souls through which we exercise the spiritual flaws that come from human desires, actions, and omissions. These are the sins we choose. They burden us, wrap themselves around our good intentions, and often choke us off from living grace-filled lives.
Perfection is a moving target. We can strive earnestly and stride with steady pace to move closer, but the journey, at least on this good earth, never ends. We can keep getting closer to perfection, but we will never get there until we come home to heaven.
It reminds me of the mathematical conundrum that used to fascinate me in my school days. Take two points, A and B. Connect them with a straight line: A----------------------------B.
Beginning at A, travel halfway to B. You're halfway there. Halve the remaining distance again. You're three-quarters of the way. Do it again, and you're seven-eighths there. The question is: As long as you keep halving the remaining distance, when will you arrive at B?
The answer is never.
Now matter how small the distance left to B, you'll only be going half way. That's how our pursuit of perfection is in this phase of life. Even full-time efforts yield halfway results.
The life of the soul, though, is eternal, and that is our faith, hope, and joy. God, through His mercy, gives us the means to prepare for a perfect future in heaven. We only have to cooperate through our assent and our action. The "secret" is full surrender to God and His saving grace — He perfects us as we allow Him to do so. Those "perfections" are the purgations we run from like a child that hates to take a bath or clean his room.
Retreat into Winter, Advance into Mercy
One of the best actions we can take is to perform works of mercy. This we do for others. Another great act of preparation, which we do for ourselves, is to engage in spiritual renewal.
The opportunities for spiritual renewal never stop at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., the home of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. They are a 24/7/365 deal. Eden Hill is truly a place for all seasons.
Pilgrims may first think of visiting the Shrine during spring, on Divine Mercy Sunday, for example. Or they may associate a pilgrimage with summer and the vacation season. Many come here in the fall, when the foliage of the Berkshire Hills is at its peak.
Yet in many ways, winter presents the best time for renewal and growth. Eden Hill is quieter and it lives in repose, usually under a blanket of snow. There is breathtaking beauty and a palpable manifestation of the Holy Spirit, who waits in the peace and silence of a season calmed down.
"Our spiritual lives can learn from nature in winter," says Fr. Anthony Gramlich, MIC, Rector of the National Shrine. "I have a friend who's an arborist. He says that even in the dead of winter, a tree is very active, very much alive, but in a different way. The tree directs its life force internally, sending its sap to the roots so it can survive the cold months. When the weather gets warmer, the sap gets lifted back into the rest of the tree. It reflects what God does in our life. In winter, He helps us feed our spiritual roots so we may grow in faith. That's what Lent is for — to prepare us for the 'new growth and warmth' of the Easter season."
This is also what the dark night of the senses and soul is for — to get down to the roots and refresh the life.
The 'JPII,' Home of the Spiritual Makeover
One excellent resource for winter renewal is the John Paul II Guest House, located on Eden Hill. Nicknamed the "JPII," the house can accommodate groups, families, couples, and individuals for spiritual makeovers. Spiritual renewal is not a vacation, nor is the JPII a resort, Fr. Anthony points out. Rather, it's a place for a person to pull back ("retreat") from day-to-day life and bathe in the inner depths of the heart's silence, where we make the deepest contact with our Creator.
To use Fr. Anthony's analogy, in winter, a tree's life seems to disappear. It sheds its leaves, and the branches look skeletal. But have you ever noticed that the buds are still there at the end of the branches? Also, the amount of sap is the same as it is in spring and summer. It's just in a different place. It's the same with us. During winter and then Lent, we recede into our selves.
Often, the best way to engage in spiritual renewal is to create a special space and time to luxuriate in God. You may need to get away from everyday life, its humdrum and its stresses, change the scenery, and take quality time with your family, your spouse, or even in solitude. The JPII is a wonderful place for that.
"One of the best things a person can do is go on a spiritual retreat prior to Lent," says Fr. Anthony. "I guarantee if someone does this, he or she will experience Lent in a new and vibrant way. It won't be about dreary self-sacrifice or a rote 'giving things up,' but about a joyful letting go of the things that distract us from God. Our guest house not only gives one peace and solitude but also a great support system through the many activities offered on Eden Hill, every day, all year."
A Support System in the Snow
Every day, year round, Eden Hill is host to a series of spiritual activities. These are in addition to the special events that occur throughout the year. Daily activities include Masses in the morning and afternoon, confession, a Rosary for Life, reciting the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, Benediction, and Adoration.
Then there's the spectacular beauty of the famed Berkshire Hills in winter. The snow caps the rolling countryside with a white frosting that looks like it's made of confectioner's sugar. When you step out of the JPII and stroll the plowed roads on Eden Hill, you feel like you've stepped into a Currier and Ives calendar picture or a Bing Crosby Christmas movie. You won't be sending a Christmas card; you'll be in one.
Father Anthony points out that God will often use the "winter" of life to do His best work with us. The "winter" can be infirmity, old age, loneliness, illness, depression — really, whatever crosses we have to bear. Out of that desolation, says Fr. Anthony, new life, harbored inside, prepares to blossom. "When you begin to see everything in terms of God's mercy for us," he says, "you will become much more aware of this inner life. Again, this ties into the concept of 'retreat.' "
In winter at the JPII Guest House, in the crisp cold and the comforting quiet, you will become aware of the great interior graces God wishes to shower upon all of us. That flow of grace is The Divine Mercy giving Himself to you, in His goodness. God will always know when we are doing our best to get to know Him better. He will reward that, Fr. Anthony says. "It may not at first be apparent, just like the tree in winter that appears dead, but there's great activity and life going on. All you need to is trust — 'Jesus, I trust in You.' "
Pilgrim Pals Pursue Providence
Many guests at the JPII are repeat customers. Mary Patten and Lorraine Romano, for instance, have made a retreat to Eden Hill twice a year for the past 16 years. The women, both from Staten Island, NY, wouldn't miss the chance.
"The first time I came to Eden Hill, it hit me right between the eyes. It was love at first sight," Lorraine says.
"Yes," Mary agrees, "as soon as you enter the grounds, you immediately feel the peace and presence of God."
The two friends, who met on a private pilgrimage to Medjugorje, both work in Manhattan. Lorraine is a secretary at Our Lady of Victory Church near Wall Street, and Mary is a legal secretary. The two secretaries love Divine Mercy, which was especially revealed by God to His spiritual "secretary," St. Faustina. Call it professional courtesy.
Whether it's spring, summer, fall, or winter, the time is always at hand. When is it best to try to know God better? Now, always now.
There is but One Constant: God
"The liturgical calendar is a cycle, just like the seasons," says Fr. Anthony. "Nature goes through seasons, and so does the Church. In each season, we can experience Divine Mercy in a different way, one that is unique to that particular season. We don't experience God's mercy one time, one way, in one place, and then that's it. Mercy is an ongoing process that lasts throughout our lifetime. That's why I say winter offers a great chance for spiritual preparation and growth."
It is true. Mercy is as cyclical and ever-present as the parade of seasons. Mercy is a pre-taste of perfection, an indescribably divine grace that culminates each year on Divine Mercy Sunday.
Winter will soon be upon us. It comes around, and we are another year older. We look back and see that much has changed in the course of a year. God has put new things in our lives — new situations, new people, new places, new joys and sorrows. There is but one constant, and that is God's continual willingness to love us, to forgive us, and to show us compassion.
That's God's mercy, there for us 24/7/365/∞.
Do your soul a great good. Consider the spiritual renewal opportunities on Eden Hill this winter. To find out more, contact Wendy Flynn, manager of the JPII Guest House, at 413-298-1117, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous online and print publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. He also writes "Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal" for this website.