Priest Discovers that Pain is not Punishment
Posted February 15, 2009
(Published in the Catholic Times February 15, 2009)
As Father Bill Hahn Pastor of St Peter Chillicothe and St Mary Waverly parishes reclined in the 747 on his way to New Mexico, he closed his eyes and envisioned the retreat he was about to lead as chaplain. He knew it would be different from any other retreat. He would be in a remote part of the country, in the backwoods of the Gila National forest. He would be working along side young men rebuilding trails for the forest service. He would celebrate Mass out of doors, amidst God’s creation. He imagined himself, on the mountain, among cathedral-high trees, looking out across the landscape to see a better view of life, himself, and the future that God had in store for him. The weight of his backpack symbolized the weight of the responsibilities, concerns and distractions of everyday life, the weight that he longed to shed for 11 days so he could draw closer to Our Lord.
For those 11 days, Father Hahn and 9 men shed their inordinate attachments. To the busy life, to cell phones, to all of the amenities that we enjoy in the modern life such as delicious food, water from a tap, flush toilets. The asceticism may seem to extreme to many, but to these men it was essential to step away, like John the Baptist, to go into the wilderness and make straight the path of the Lord. It was essential for their spiritual growth.
The expedition began with 8 miles of trail that was blocked by fallen trees. The only way to get back in to the forest was to backpack and carry tents, sleeping bags and the hand tools and food and water that they would need to do the work for the US Forest Service. Not even horse packers could penetrate the forest at this location. So after being certified in cross cut sawing the men set off and hiked.
After two days of hiking and grueling work, Father Hahn felt the pain. Searing pain at his heal. A burning, raw type pain: “I found myself weak and vulnerable”, I was at a point that I could not hike or work. I felt like I, as a man, was letting down my band of brothers. I had to struggle with the masculine concept of self worth, of contributing to the team. What I thought was an obstacle was really a blessing.
My band of brothers surrounded me with support and encouragement. They had an authentic spirituality that lifted me. And when I celebrated Mass I could feel their reverence. These men are moving quite far in their spiritual path and it was a privilege for me to be able to bring the sacraments to them in the wilderness. My desire was to work side by side these men, my brothers. However, through quiet listening in prayer I discerned that God’s work for me was to be Chaplain. That in order to sustain my brothers I had to remain in prayer and the only way God could get that through to me was to allow me to have these blisters. So, I became more open to God and through the work of the Holy Spirit I was able to serve Him and the men. Not every man or priest is designed for this experience, but if you are it gives you an opportunity to retreat to the mountains, to simplify life, to get away from the artificiality of the world,to be with a band of brothers, to be a spiritual father. It also helps you grow in your own masculinity.
During seminary, you have a band of brothers that challenges you physically, intellectually, and spiritually. As a priest moves into the parish, the need for this camaraderie does not diminish. This experience was a victory. The victory of staying back and not working and staying in prayer with our Lord. And that is why my tool is the cross, it is the tool of suffering, and a tool of joy…because it is from Christ that I received the grace to endeavor in His work.”