“To Walk and Pray with God” | Postcards from Rome 2019

June 7, 2019

Reflection on the Spiritual Retreat 2019:

The name of this summer program for diocesan seminarians led by the Saint Josemaria Institute is, “The Rome Experience”, but the truth of the matter of it all was that the first week of such program was nowhere near the eternal city of Rome as the first week was in France. If I were to summarize what my first week was like then I would dare to say that it was “The French Experience”. I am a young Latino man from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in Southern California who is studying at Saint John’s Seminary in the city of Camarillo. The only two languages that I am able to fluently communicate with are Spanish and English but being in France for a little over a week during the first week of this summer program was quite an interesting experience.

The most interesting thing about being in France was not knowing how to speak the French language and yet leaving France with a great smile. The French language was not easy for me like Italian where some words are somewhat alike to that of Spanish, so whenever the French would speak to me, I could hardly make any connection to English or Spanish. I must admit though that not being able to speak the language truly allowed me to experience our retreat in silence at the John Paul II International Center for Priests in a whole other deep way because I actually felt as if silence was my only choice. I must note though that by “deep” I am referring to in a serious way for finally being able to take an actual retreat in silence. The people in the small town of Ars-Sur-Formans spoke French and those that could speak English or Spanish were seminarians from the United States who were not supposed to speak because we were all on a silent retreat. The silence allowed me to do one thing and that was: explore nature and enhance my gratitude towards God for it. I know this may seem a bit odd to say exploring nature was the highlight of my first week but nature is not a common thing for a young man born and raised in a metropolitan city like Los Angeles. I love everything about my city but I have never experienced nature in such a way and I believe what truly allowed me to explore nature was not having any sort of internet data or cell phone signal. I can truly say that I had nothing to distract me on this retreat and nobody to distract me because I could not speak the language.

My first day in Ars-Sur-Formans was very interesting for I got lost and I did something that I never did in my life and that was do what Mr Bean in his movies would do when he would get lost or tired and that was hitchhiking. I am not a big fan of such but I saw the presence of God or at least the peace of mind knowing that He had my back when I needed Him the most. Our Program Director, Reverend Eric Nielsen, had given us what seemed at the time as simple and obvious instructions returning from the Shrine of Saint John Vianney to our retreat center. I clearly recall him saying, “There is no way you can get lost here for this is a small town. Go visit the shrine to pray and when you want to return to the retreat center simply follow the street going down when you pass the river and the bridge then take a quick left and keep on going straight until you see the retreat center”. I had such instructions memorized and I thought I knew what I was doing.

So, I did as told, which was to pray at the beautiful Shrine, explore the small town, and then make my way back but I kept on going down the road bearing in mind that I had to see a river and a bridge so that I can make a quick left. It turns out that I began to question myself when I noticed that I had already walked nearly 1.5 miles down the road waiting to see a river or a bridge to return. I was so tired for I had dress shoes at the time and I sat down for a while trying to look at my phone for my location to see how far this bridge was but I had no data signal whatsoever. It was then when I realized that perhaps I missed the turn since there was one point when I had to choose between three roads.

So, I began to head back and as I would head back it began to rain. The rain in France is no simple sprinkling as it is in Los Angeles. So, here I was in the middle of nowhere to my left was a wheat field and to my right was another wheat field with no tree to cover myself from the rain. I had no choice but to continue walking and get somewhat soaked until I saw an elderly man driving a car from a distance and I thought it would not hurt to give it a try and raised my thumb for a ride, like Mr Bean would do in his movies. The man was so generous to let me go in but I went in only to realize that my inability to speak French was going to be my greatest challenge to explain myself as to where I needed to go but he saw the Roman collar that I was wearing and he took me back to the Shrine where I first began. A random person was walking by that could speak English and I explained that I was looking for a retreat center at a local seminary and the person was able to give the directions to the driver. I was surprised to have made it to the communal event with one minute on in the midst of this “French Experience”. The retreat in silence officially began shortly after this experience.

The next day I decided to see for myself how or why I got lost but it turns out my expectations of a river and bridge were not what I expected for the bridge was something tiny and small and the so-called river was actually a creek, not a river. I made it a goal for myself to go around from town to town thinking about Saint Vianney when he would walk the roads that I was walking on many years ago. I used my free time to walk around from town to town to pray and think about my discernment journey and life in general. I am a person so accustomed to the city-life and I truly never had the experience of walking through wheat fields or among farm animals. I found myself walking and simply sitting down to examine and appreciate what was in front of my eyes. This time I did all of this with an extra waterproof jacket to cover myself, just in case it began to rain. I had a better sense of where I was at because I spent some time the night I got lost to look at the maps.

I found myself in Ars-Sur-Formans doing things that I would never do in the city, which was simply to walk with my own legs and appreciate the sights as I would walk. I must admit that I am a person who quote-on-quote is so used to always being “on-the-go” in the sense that I am always ready to do something or accomplish little tasks but this retreat experience allowed me to put everything to the side and dedicate some intimate time with the Lord to truly look at my discernment, especially now that I am set to begin my parochial year as a seminarian intern from August of 2019 to June of 2020. I had no emails or assignments to distract me. It was nice to be able to spend a couple of minutes at the Shrine of Saint John Vianney every day to pray before going on my adventurous walks. I found myself during these walks trying to put myself in the shoes of Saint Vianney.

To conclude, it was a tremendous honor to be given such an opportunity to be at the site of the great patron saint of our Church for all priests. I cannot recall the last time when I ever got lost in my life but I will forever carry with me that experience of getting lost as an adult and yet knowing how some random person showed up to help me. I can honestly say that God was in all of this. I think the lessons to learn from this experience is to not be afraid to ask for help whenever we are lost and to learn to take pauses in our busy lifestyles to find ourselves. I must admit that walking past the tiny bridge and creek on a daily basis to go to the Shrine would always bring me a smile ever since I got lost the first day because it showed me that no matter how old I may get or how “street-smart” I may think I am that there is always room to learn more. I was humbled and learned how to have fun by appreciating simple sights. I must admit that my lack of French, lack of cellular signal, lack of permission to speak at all, in essence, allowed me to truly give myself the time to “walk and pray with God” along the way.

Guillermo Alonso
The Rome Experience Class of 2019
Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo