A Retreat In Italy That Changed Lives

Judith Valente
5 min readMay 28, 2023
One of my favorite photos of our Benedictine Footprints retreat group, taken in front of Mount Maiella near the town of Anversa in Abruzzo, Italy after spending the night at a guest house in the mountains. (Photo by Viola Marchetti)

It’s fitting for a variety of reasons that I write this column on Pentecost Sunday. This past week, I finished guiding a spiritual retreat/pilgrimage in Italy. I and the 16 other Americans who joined me were able to experience the joy of small town life (what I call the“real” Italy) while visiting many still little-known spiritual sites. Looking back on our time together, I feel we too experienced a Pentecost-like experience.

In receiving the Holy Spirit, the eyes of Jesus’ followers were opened. Suddenly they could piece together the meaning of the myriad encounters they had with Jesus. Filled with wonder, they received the ability to tell about their experience. They became keepers and communicators of a great story.

We experienced something similar. On the first morning of the retreat, I asked everyone to reflect on a passage about pilgrimage written by my friend, the Alaskan author Kathleen Tarr. “To become a pilgrim,” Kathleen writes, “is to internally swear an oath to wonder.”

Throughout our time together, many in our group referred to the renewed sense of wonder they were feeling for the world around them. Day by day, they embraced the practice of living joyfully the simple moments of daily life - something that seems to come so naturally to our Italian friends.

The members of our group ranged in ages from late thirties to 80 years old. One morning, Mary Jo, our oldest member, announced that before the retreat, she felt that her life was coming to completion, that few major events remained left to experience. It was one of the reasons she wanted to come on this journey.

After spending these two weeks in a new environment, trying new foods, seeing unforgettable sites (such as a 12th century Benedictine monastery built into the side of a mountain), and challenging her physical stamina daily, Mary Jo said she now feels that there is still much living left to do.

Mary Jo’s words remind me of the prophesy from the Book of Joel found in today’s Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours: “Your old will dream dreams, your young will see visions.”

Benedictine Footprints retreat group sharing a traditional multi-course Sunday meal at a long table Cantina Tripio in Guardagrele, Italy.
Sharing meals together, especally traditional multi-course Sunday meals, became sacred times for our retreat group. (Photo by Judith Valente)

We began our daily morning prayer with a few moments of silence and sometimes the breath prayer of the great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Present moment, wonderful moment.” Many said that being in a new environment filled with new treats for the eyes and fresh tastes, sounds and scents made them more aware of living in the now.

I urged everyone to put aside their expectations of how things should be or could be and simply put themselves “in the way of grace,” a favorite phrase of the poet Mary Oliver.

Mary Oliver’s words were very much with us, as when Jack, one of our retreat members, read to us these lines from her poem, “Lingering in Happiness,” reminding us of the blessing of rain after we had wearied from several days of it:

… Soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,

will feel themselves being touched ...

Or, when Margaret, another of our group, read these lines from the Oliver poem, “Mysteries, Yes:”

Let me keep company always with those who say

‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,

And bow their heads.

Our retreat group at prayer in the lovely Baroque chapel once used by an order of religious sisters in Guardiagrele, Italy, but now maintained by the town government.
Our morning and evening prayer often took place in this lovely Baroque chapel once used by an order of religious sisters in Guardiagrele, but now maintained by the town government. (Photo by Jessica Sciubba)

At one of our final prayer times together, Bob, another of our retreat members, reflected on how — as we prayed together in the early morning hours in a small room in Italy — his grandchildren in Chicago were sleeping in their beds and people on the other side of the world in the southern hemisphere were already waking up to a new day. Yet, we are all part of this one world.

I think of Jesus’ prayer at the end of John’s gospel: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one, just as we are one.”

Several of us were strangers to each other before the retreat. Very quickly, though, we changed from being individuals on a personal odyssey. We became a community. Each person shared his or her gifts - some by their singing, one by playing the guitar, others by sharing their photos and their insights. Many gifts, one Spirit, as St. Paul reminds us.

As the Pentecost story shows, the early disciples’ spiritual strength came — yes, from receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit — but also from sharing those gifts through the strength of community. I felt each one of us growing stronger as we coalesced day by day into a community.

As for myself, the retreat brought to the surface several of my strengths of character, but also those flaws that I need to continue to work on (my drive for perfectionism, for one!). There are areas of my life that cry out for what Benedictines call conversatio morum, the constant need for conversion. I come away from the retreat dedicated to changing those parts of myself in need of change.

Because it was such a meaningful experience, I hope to offer the “Benedictine Footprints” retreat again next spring, in late May or early June. Hopefully a new group (and maybe even some of the same folks) will be able to share in the kind of blessings we experienced this time.

At our final prayer time together, I shared a lovely passage from John O’Donohue’s book, “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.” It seems so apt as we take up our “regular” lives back in the states, touched and changed forever by our time together in Italy:

“Nothing ever disappears, nothing is lost. Everything that happens to us in the world passes into us. It all becomes part of the inner temple of the soul and can never be lost. This is the art of the soul: to harvest your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience.”

Here’s to continuing the harvest!

A view of the Apennine Mountains surrounding Guardiagrele. The mountainside is vividly green this time of year and we will all dearly miss seeing such beauty. Our memories remain! (Photo by Judith Valente)

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Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.