By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CORALVILLE — Author Mary Potter Kenyon stirred up tears among retreat-goers at St. Thomas More Parish with her story of loss and redemption, but the words that seemed to inspire the crowd most were not her own.
Instead, they belonged to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering,” Kenyon quoted to attendees of the April 26 mini-retreat, which focused on finding hope in a discouraging world. The quote summed up Kenyon’s message of the universal nature of grief, and the opportunities for renewed purpose and faith that can come from it.
About 85 people attended the annual mini-retreat. Through presentations, personal reflection, small group discussions and a question-and-answer session, attendees were invited to reflect on their own stories of sadness, gain perspective, offer support to others and grow their faith.
Parishioner Judi Weihler, who attends the retreats yearly, planned to use this one as an opportunity to be supportive of others and grow her faith. Instead, an unexpected family death the week of the retreat put her into the role of support-seeker. “I’m at peace, knowing God has a plan, but it is still raw,” she said before the mini-retreat, which features a unique topic each year.
Weihler and the other attendees started their day listening to presentations by Kenyon and retired diocesan priest Father Thomas Doyle.
Kenyon spoke first, explaining the ways in which personal losses — including her husband, mother and young grandson — led her closer to God and helped her learn to assist other grieving individuals. For example, she began writing as a way to de-stress and now has written two books on the gifts that can come from life’s challenges. “(I contemplated) how my grief might be able to help someone else,” she said, adding that people shouldn’t wait for a tragedy to inspire a renewed purpose in life and a stronger faith. “I’ve managed to find meaning (in my heartbreak), but you don’t have to wait to turn to God.”
Fr. Doyle explained that even those who haven’t experienced a significant personal loss such as Kenyon still are vulnerable to despair. He said, “We look at the breaking news (and ask), ‘How are you going to break my heart today?’” He cited as examples recent disasters such as the South Korean ferry sinking and the Malaysian airplane that mysteriously vanished.
He urged the audience to keep in communion with others and support them. “Be present with each other,” he said. “Share our good times that happen, our sorrows, our hopes… share the love of Jesus Christ.”
In small-group discussions, retreat participants had the opportunity to share their own faith journeys. Veve N’Duhirahe, a lifelong Catholic who grew up in Congo before immigrating to Iowa City to live the “American dream,” talked about the struggles she has faced since losing her 22-year-old son to lupus four years ago. “I was bitter, mad and discouraged,” she said of the loss, adding that for two years she could not bring herself to go to church. Now, her focus is reconciling with God, and she has been “looking for anything and everything” to aid the process, including attending the mini-retreat.
In the question-and answer-session, Kenyon responded to a participant asking about proper use of Scripture in consoling a sick individual. She encouraged the crowd to refrain from telling someone that they’ll be healed if only they pray harder. She said God does not promise to heal followers physically, but does promise to heal the heart.
Despite the somber nature of the event, organizers had reason to celebrate. Event originator Mary Humston, who believes God inspired her to initiate the event in 2005, said this year’s mini-retreat drew a record crowd. She attributed the success to listening to attendee requests, and praying about what topics to cover. Although a different topic is covered every year, attendees of the event have long requested a mini-retreat on the subject of grief.
“Those of us who coordinate (the mini-retreat) are blessed by the people who attend,” said Humston.