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Homeless and on Retreat

“Do people really stay here?” asked a visitor while on tour of St. Norbert Abbey’s retreat rooms. Tony Pichler MTS ’94 looked warily around a room he describes as “very Spartan” with just a “bed, desk, chair, sink, floor and ceiling.” But the woman – a guest at St. John the Evangelist homeless shelter – seemed thrilled. “It was like she thought she had entered the Taj Mahal, with the possibility of getting a bedroom of her own,” recounts Pichler. And that’s what sparked the idea to begin St. Norbert Abbey overnight retreats for people experiencing homelessness.

For the past two years, Pichler and a group of six others involved with the abbey’s Norbertine Center for Spirituality (NCS) have facilitated these retreats under the title Finding Our Way. They take place at the abbey in January for women and February for men, with a maximum of 15 participants at each. Retreatants have the chance to explore their relationship with themselves, with others, and with the Divine. Activities include plotting out a timeline of one’s life and a “Healing of Memories” prayer service in the form of a guided meditation. Because of the participants’ challenging circumstances, the retreat also, intentionally, features much time for rest and reflection.

Pichler, co-director of the NCS, keeps in mind the day-to-day realities for most participants, who typically spend their nights on a mat in a room with up to 49 other people each night – some of whom may be snoring, restless or “carrying on.” In contrast, Finding Our Way offers each participant a room of their own at the abbey. “These are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our community,” says Pichler, so having a room of one’s own means a lot. And each retreatant is able to attend free of cost, thanks to the abbey’s provision of programming, space and food.

“The Norbertine Center for Spirituality, in particular, takes the notion of spirit-uality as active service and reflective prayer seriously,” says Pichler. “Especially when it comes to serving the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.”

It’s an understanding of spirituality that is reflected in feedback, says Sister Judy Miller, who helps to plan the retreats. “I have learned there is hope for me,” one participant stated, while another wrote: “I have learned that spirituality is not some esoteric endeavor carried out by a few. Spirituality is useful to everyone, even the homeless and poor.” Miller says, “It’s nice to know there is a place one can go without being judged, and instead being embraced for who one is.” Several participants have returned to the abbey – some to participate in spiritual direction with her.

Most important, say both Miller and Pichler, is what can happen when people are allowed space to take a step back from the shelter or streets and reflect on their lives. This retreat may be a contributing factor in enabling some participants to change their situations: Several who were homeless at the time of their retreats are now holding steady jobs and living in their own apartments. 

Nov. 14, 2016