A few months ago I went on retreat with the Kairos School of Spiritual Formation in Eastern Pennsylvania. Kairos has an office in Lancaster, Pa., while holding many of its classes and retreats at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pa.
The Jesuit Center is a beautiful location, with rolling hills and paths, surrounding a castle-like main building. It is ideal for contemplation, away from the rush and noise of everyday life. For this reason, the center was built in the 1920s for Jesuit novices, for $2 million. The benefactors, Nicholas and Genevieve Brady, were a wealthy Catholic couple from New York City. At that time, Jesuit leaders believed students would learn best in a place secluded from the world.
No women were let into the complex beyond the foyer. Iron gates, the barrier between the foyer and the rest of the building, still remain. But today they are open.
From 1930 to 1966, the Jesuit Center functioned as a Novitiate, training men as teachers, priests and chaplains. Then, with changes in the Catholic Church and society, the number of novices dwindled and the center took new forms. It became a place for spiritual teaching based on the work of St. Ignatius Loyola. It opened its doors and gates to those seeking spiritual direction, including women. By 1993 the center welcomed ecumenical groups for retreats and teaching. Kairos began a relationship with the center around then, holding retreats and classes on the campus most months of the year ever since.
My experience at the center was transformative. In addition to praying, journaling and walking through the grounds, I participated in a Saturday workshop led by Susan Classen. It was especially meaningful to engage with Susan since her parents founded the church I grew up in near Springfield, Ohio. She is the director of Cedars of Peace, a retreat center of the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky, a Catholic religious order.
While experiencing the beauty of the weekend, I also reflected on the fact that not so many decades ago I could not have walked past the iron gates. What does it mean to experience the Spirit in a place originally built to exclude me?
I wondered if some of the elder Jesuit fathers living at the center were glad for my presence. Perhaps they merely endured the non-male and non-Jesuit people who roamed their halls? Or, most likely, they all experienced the changes in different ways.
I noticed that the grand front entryway is no longer used. A sign is posted on the door that says, “This is not an entrance.” Now everyone enters through a door around back that is handicapped accessible.
Often in my work with Mennonite Church USA I have reflected on the relationship between institutions and movements. The Jesuit Center was built as a magnificent institution of Catholic learning. Kairos was founded by a small group of Anabaptist-minded people who wanted to deepen their spiritual life. My retreat allowed glimpses into this movement-institution interplay.
Currently Kairos plays a crucial role in keeping the Jesuit Center operational. A Mennonite teacher of contemplation lives and works at a Catholic retreat center. The practice of spiritual disciplines, deeply rooted in the Jesuit tradition, is now equipping Mennonites for ministry. I find myself praying for vocational direction in a room built for a soon-to-be Jesuit priest. Throughout the weekend I was aware that the Spirit repurposes our institutions by moving in ways we can’t often foresee.
Joanna Shenk is associate for interchurch relations and communications for Mennonite Church USA.