St. Michael’s Retreat and Conference Centre at Lumsden felt different the moment I walked in to assist at a weekend November retreat. The facility, a beautiful structure, looked much like I remembered. It is highlighted by a large circular church, and a lounge with a stone fireplace and large windows overlooking a picturesque view of a valley. There was always a welcoming atmosphere when I visited St. Michael’s. On this occasion there was a sensation of emptiness. The change in ambience was a surprise. And I knew that it came from the absence of the men in brown habits.
The Franciscan Friars of Western Canada, who built the retreat centre in 1963, left in the fall after 52 years of service to the larger community. The friars sold the facility to a private group after a decline in numbers and aging membership made it impossible to continue as owners. There were always friars at St. Michael’s when I was there and I had always felt that I was in their home.
The personality of the Franciscans continues to flow throughout the building design and art that has been left behind. Even so, I am surprised at the void left by their absence. I hadn’t realized how much the presence of the Franciscans meant. The warm greetings and friendly Franciscan smiles are now memories. Others with me on the retreat, who are familiar with St. Michael’s, felt the same way. The building is beautiful, one person remarked, but it is just a building.
The contrast between a building and home is more apparent during the Christmas season. Families gather to continue their tradition of celebration and togetherness. There is an awareness of emptiness when someone is missing and it is more evident when a person is not there because of death. A home may be beautiful and have a jolly atmosphere at Christmas, but it is not the same when someone is missing. Our homes are homes because of the people who live in them. A home is about families, the presence of our loved ones.
Services of Remembrance are held by some parishes in December to offer comfort to families who find Christmas difficult because of the loss of loved ones. The services incorporate songs, Scripture and commemorative prayers. An important part of the celebration is the writing of the names of those who have gone before us and placing them beside candles on a Table of Remembrance. During the Service of Remembrance the candles are lit and then carried by individuals or couples, along with the names of loved ones, to a table in front of the church altar.
The light of the candles symbolizes the eternal bond of love between the living and the deceased. The carrying of the candles to the front of the church represents our carrying the memories of loved ones within.
Candles are important symbols for the Advent and Christmas seasons. Their light shines forth as a visible sign of the eternal light among us. The eternal light once left timelessness and entered our time. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The divine became part of our family and joined the human family to the eternal family of angels and saints.
The birth of Christ shines forth in a new light during the Christmas season when the memories of loved ones are recalled. Memories stir our hearts and move us to wonder about the meaning of the divine being born as a helpless, poor child. We once were helpless children too. Maybe we felt a trace of this powerlessness when we were unable to prevent the loss of loved ones. But they are not gone after all. They are present in a new way. Our loved ones are at home with their new family, the heavenly family. Their memories are eternal. We carry their memories within.
Paproski is a Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey and pastor of St. Peter’s Parish, Muenster, Sask.