When I was a teenager, I lived in my own world - as many teens do. I wasn't a 'bad' kid, but in reflection, I admit I was selfish and took things and people for granted - especially my parents and sisters.
They worked so hard to keep a roof over our heads and food in our mouths. I didn't understand or appreciate the fact that my father, who was a musician, worked three jobs most of the time to give us what we needed. We had plenty of love and never were hungry.
I was raised a Catholic and my parents were both organists and choir directors in the church of our small town- population 5,000. Many times, long after dropping out of the choir because I thought I'd grown too 'old' for it, I'd lie to my parents, saying I'd gone to church when in fact, I'd simply grabbed a bulletin from the back to bring home as my 'proof'. I never thought about what God must have been thinking as I lied to the people who mattered most to me.
One day, while skipping church as my father was inside playing the mass, I sat in his car with my girlfriend and smoked cigarettes. Not thinking that he'd ever see us, we laughed and had a grand old time.
Well, my father did see us. Often, in between songs, he'd step out into the rear entrance of the church and look out the window. Right outside that window was where he parked his car. I can't imagine his heartache - seeing me, far too young to smoke, in his car skipping church and lying about it.
He never yelled or screamed. That wasn't his way. He simply talked to me in private later that day and reminded me of the little 'breaks' he often took while playing. That was all he had to say. The look in his eyes was punishment enough. I felt like crawling under a rock.
Around that time, a retreat was planned for the teen members of the church. We had a priest who was new, refreshing and made the kids feel comfortable. His approach to life and to us was not distant and foreboding. It was real and heart felt. So, when the opportunity for a weekend retreat came, many of us gladly signed up.
My younger sister was one of them. We loved each other, but being so close in age, (less than two years apart), we often bickered and argued. She was a slob, according to me, and I was too bossy and thought I knew it all, according to her. Even our shared bedroom had an invisible "line" down the middle. I wanted my half to be all mine and she could do whatever she wanted with hers - as long as she didn't cross the line.
The day of the retreat, about fifty of us gathered in the church parking lot and waited for the bus to arrive. Father Barry tried to keep our excitement under control! I didn't view this as something spiritual. I looked at it as a weekend away from my parents at a campground. I thought of all the fun we'd have sneaking out at night and just kicking back.
Boy, was I wrong.
We arrived and got settled into our respective cabins; boys in one and girls in the other. We then had to congregate in the recreation hall for our very first 'meeting' and of course, some dinner.
There were talks about God and our lives as we prepared to embark into the world of adulthood. I wasn't very engrossed, but I listened. The more I listened, the more things subconsciously registered and my thoughts about why I was there began to change.
Yes, it was intended to be a 'good time' for all of us. But, much more was to happen than I expected.
I was about to be introduced to God and his power of forgiveness and love.
By the next day, we'd had our group discussions and one of our exercises was to tell someone how much we really loved them and why. My sister and I were paired up. As we stood in our pairs in God's beautiful forest my sister and I joined hands and shared a moment of silence.
Yes, I loved my sister, but I never told her. All I ever did was argue with her. There we stood, face to face, and it was time to 'tell the truth'.
Suddenly, the fights seemed petty. Looking into her eyes, the words slowly formed - "I Love You. You are special to me." My heart filled with warmth and I know now, that it was the first time I ever felt, really felt, the Holy Spirit working inside of me. She spoke the same words to me and we found ourselves in an embrace of love, tears streaming down both our faces.
What an incredible feeling. I realized that she was a gift from God - in fact, my whole family was and the love I felt for all of them was the most powerful thing I'd ever felt in my fifteen years of life. My entire perspective changed in an instant.
In the early evening, as the sun set and the skies above filled with twilight, small campfires were lit. It was probably one of the most beautiful things I'd seen. All of us were given candles and were to sit in silence - reflecting.
One by one we were called into a small area where Father Barry was. Before him and God it was a time to confess our sins. I'd been to confession before, but it never really meant more to me than a closed up room and some prayers when I was done. My heart didn't feel connected to God's.
This time, it did.
When I felt ready, I went to Father Barry and sat in front of him. He just smiled. There were no walls, no curtains, no church. For the first time, I felt naked and fearful in front of God. I now understood that He was part of me and knew of my lies, my shortcomings, my selfishness - yet he loved me anyway.
How could he love me? After all the things I'd done? Hurting my parents, my sister. Telling my mother that I was embarrassed because my clothes were bought from a consignment shop. Oh God, how could I have hurt her that way? Not thinking there were enough presents under the tree on Christmas and feeling cheated when I opened a box to find a sweater in it that I knew was used. How could I have been so selfish? What must the look on my face have done to my mother? How could I have been so wrapped up in- me?
I cry now, as I write this. I cried when I confessed to God and to Father Barry. I cried when I left with my small candle and sat, alone.
It took a retreat for me to retreat into the depths of my soul. My life has never been the same since. Oh, I've made my share of mistakes. I've acted selfish and I've done things that I know the Lord wouldn't approve of. But, by the grace of God I know I am forgiven and I try, with every passing day since that retreat twenty years ago, to be the person that God wants me to be.
It's been a journey with hills and valleys. I expect there will be many more, but the lessons I learned on that retreat have grown as I have; and have carried me through some of the most difficult times of my life.
God loves you, me- everyone! We are all His beautiful creations. If you want to feel that in your life; in your heart- no matter what you've done or how you feel about yourself - all you have to do is ask Him to come into your life, forgive you for your sins, (He will), and begin a new journey with God by your side.