A mansion of 87 rooms, built on Long Island in the 1920’s, surrounded by spacious grounds—hardly the kind of setting in which you might expect to find a gathering of mostly middle-aged Hispanic men and women spending a weekend in prayerful silence. And yet there we were, a group of 14 making a Spanish-language retreat focused on Ignatian themes. I was there to accompany two parishioners from my Manhattan parish, and while far from fluent, my Spanish sufficed to keep me afloat.
The mansion was built by Nicholas and Genevieve Brady. Both died in middle age, so their life at Inisfada, the name they gave their estate (Gaelic for “long island”), was relatively brief. With no children, and out of great love for the Catholic Church, the widowed Mrs. Brady gave her home to the Jesuits before her death. Since then it has been a retreat house.
But the presence of Hispanics at the St. Ignatius Retreat House, as it is now called, marks something of a departure from the kinds of primarily English-language retreat groups that have found spiritual respite there over the past six decades. Our own little group from various parishes had come to take part in a retreat sponsored by EPNE (www.nysj.org/epne.html)—a program begun in the late 1990’s by the Jesuits of the New York Province.
Its acronym can be translated, somewhat vaguely, as Pastoral Studies for a New Evangelization, but its focus is clear: leadership and development for the growing Hispanic Catholic community. Although leadership training is part of the program, retreats play a role too, using aspects of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The central theme of our own retreat, called “How to Listen to the Spirit,” centered on Ignatius’ concept of discernment—the process through which, by relying on the Spirit, we can find the peace that allows us to make decisions leading to a deeper relationship with God and thereby to a greater commitment to the community.
Using as examples biblical figures who had listened attentively to the Spirit in reaching their own important decisions—people like Abraham, Esther and St. Paul—the EPNE team outlined six classic rules for discernment. These concern the responses we make to our deeper feelings. When we are down, for instance (intranquilo), we should make no significant life decisions. The same would apply when we are inordinately “up” (muy animado). The important decisions of our lives should be made, instead, when we sense the deep peace that comes through reliance on the Spirit—even though such decisions may involve grave risks. Thus Esther, endangering her life, dares to appear before the pagan king to plead that her people be spared annihilation.
Our group gathered in a once-elegant parlor whose windows looked out onto the December beauty of the grounds. The room is now sparsely furnished in the manner you might expect for retreat conferences. Around its walls, though, hang photographs of the various rooms with their original appointments. One shows Mrs. Brady seated in the two-story high Great Hall with the future Pope Pius XII, who used Inisfada as his headquarters during a long visit to the United States in 1936. The great hall is now the main chapel, where we celebrated Mass. Some rooms still have their original oak paneling and massive stone fireplaces, and thus an aura of grandeur remains.
Our small presence at one end of the house might easily have been overwhelmed by such surroundings, but these same surroundings were now being made available for prayer by the very kinds of people Jesus would have encountered in his daily life—people who to this day continue to be marginalized by the dominant society. Some had made EPNE retreats before, and when I asked two women who resembled each other if they were sisters, they smiled and said: “We are sisters in Christ.”
They had become so partly because of EPNE, in a house that had once stood as a symbol of wealth and privilege but that now stands as a symbol of prayer and inclusivity.