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Building a Culture of Life

By Mary Deutscher



Former convent serves as centre for living without ‘garbage’

Last year was a rough year. Between the legalization of euthanasia and efforts to change policies that protect conscience rights, I’ve been feeling like I have spent too much time in this column describing attacks on the culture of life, and not enough time describing our continuing efforts to build a culture of life. So you can imagine my joy when one day, in casual conversation, I came across something beautiful: the Leipzig Serenity Retreat.

Feeling in need of a retreat after months of staring at my computer, I decided to reward myself with a day trip to see the retreat centre for myself. Initially, all I knew about it was that a group of people in Leipzig, Sask. had restored an old convent one room at a time to welcome people into the alcoholics anonymous 12-step program. This simple description did not prepare me for the beautiful home that greeted me when I arrived one sunny afternoon in September.

The brick building that now houses the retreat centre was originally the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame, who served Leipzig and the surrounding area as schoolteachers. It was built in 1927, but fell into disrepair after the sisters left in 1969. When restoration of the building began in 2008, the rooms were filled with garbage and debris, but the walls were still as sturdy as ever.

It took the labour of many hands to transform the building into more than just a shelter for the people who come through its doors. After years of work, each room now provides a warm, healing environment, far from the sterile spaces of city life.

As I walked through the old convent, I was struck by how much the building’s history reflected the lives of the people who now came to it for healing. As I am sure most people with even a passing knowledge of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are aware, people who enter into the 12-step program begin by stripping away all the extra baggage they have brought with them.

Their first steps are to admit that they have no control over alcohol, and to turn their lives over to a greater power. This seems to perfectly mirror the experience of the people who renovated the Leipzig Serenity Retreat: as they stripped the building down, they had to rely on something greater than any individual worker to reveal the beauty of their sacred space.

I had studied the 12-step program before, but as it was being described during my tour of Leipzig, I was struck by just how much the program demands complete honesty from anyone who comes near it. Every person who goes through this program must be stripped bare before they can begin the task of opening themselves up to life once again.

Much of our world’s heartache is a result of how good we have becoming at lying to ourselves. Humans have always been great at convincing ourselves that we are in complete control, but there is a growing trend today not only to tell ourselves this lie, but also to demand that others reinforce the lie for us.

The 12-step program breaks free of this pattern. It empowers individuals to see who they truly are, to love this person, and to re-enter the world. This is a rare gift that many people will go their entire lives trying to find. But the amazing thing is that once someone is able to tap into this type of honesty, they are able to bring it back out into the world.

I once had a friend tell me that she appreciated speaking with priests and sisters because they were so honest with themselves that it was impossible to hide from herself when she was talking to them. I believe this friend had hit on the great value of self-awareness. It impacts much more than just the self-aware person, serving as a lighthouse for anyone who wishes to find the truth.

During my visit I learned that since the beginning of its restoration in 2008, the Leipzig Serenity Retreat has helped more than 300 people on their road to recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. That’s over 300 people who have come to accept and value themselves despite the message the world is sending them. If they can bring even a fraction of their peace beyond the boarders of Leipzig, just imagine how they could change our world.

The Leipzig Serenity Retreat is a beacon of hope that is a source of inspiration for anyone who is working to build the culture of life. Our world is crying out for something more than individualism and autonomy can provide.

Self-awareness about our place in creation is the first step to reclaiming our world for life.

Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.