The following story is true. It happened to me. I will never, ever forget it.
I had been a Carmelite Sister for many years when this story occurred. It changed my life forever, and I came away from the experience with an explosion of faith bursting within my soul. To cut to the quick and bring forth the significance of the experience right away, let me just say that two other teachers and myself found ourselves teaching an eighth grade class with a special problem, or should I say burden? Whatever you want to call it, these students carried an unseen burden that permeated them and their classroom as well. It was some kind of oppressive sadness. Honestly, it’s true. The atmosphere was palpably, distressingly—there’s no other way to describe it—sad. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. We asked each other what happened to bring about this deep sadness.
The students were so young—only in eighth grade. What could have caused it? The only thing we were able to discover was that they had some tough years together as a class, and quarrels and factions that started out in the younger grades snowballed as the years went by. You mean that children can have that much sadness? So young? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.
So, what did we do? We three teachers prayed briefly one late March afternoon, asking the Holy Spirit for direction and guidance. These young teenagers would graduate from eighth grade in just a few months and it seemed such a shame to have them go forth from our school carrying that big load. By the way, we never spoke to them about what we noticed, thinking that some things are better left unsaid.
Enter the Holy Spirit.
Shortly after our prayer for guidance, one of us received an idea, taking form slowly at first and then turning into the concept of having a customized retreat of sorts for the members of this class. The principal agreed we could hold it on the school premises, because we did not have a budget for an off-campus retreat.
This is where I need to tell you about the rocks.
There were some rocks of various sizes left at a construction site near the school. I went one afternoon and loaded several into the back of our van. The first day of our on-campus retreat, the class walked into our parish multi-purpose room to begin the retreat. Beautiful praise music was playing in the background as they entered. Before them, in the center of the room was a pile of rocks—yes, the same rocks from the construction site. Those rocks are essential to the story.
Well, we sat down in a circle with the rocks in the middle. Now, I’m not one for gimmicks. I’ve been through the sixties and the seventies and I’ve seen more gimmicks used in retreats than I care to remember. They are just plain goofy. The rocks were definitely not a gimmick. They were the concretization of the heaviness, the symbol of the “burden” that each one of these dear children seemed to be carrying. So, that’s what we told them. We asked them to see if they could find a rock that would match the heaviness of any burden they carried within their hearts. It was amazing. They took it so seriously. As the students’ names were called, they all chose their rock and put it in their backpacks. They continued carrying their “burdens” for three consecutive days. This had an unforeseen, electrifying effect throughout all grade levels.
There were so many other components of the retreat, the “Sorry’s” whereby every single member of the class was urged to write their “Sorry’s” to anyone in the class they had slighted, made fun of, or hurt during their years together as a class. Paper bags were taped to the sides of the desks and, yes, they kept filling up just like on Valentine’s Day; the excerpts from films which had forgiveness themes which we watched and discussed; the art class where each one received a template of a human person—with a large heart in the center—to be transformed into his or her image, and added to the others on the bulletin board, all holding hands.
It was an amazing thing to see how often the students’ eyes turned toward that bulletin board to watch their figures during the day.
One girl colored on top of her heart so it couldn’t be seen.
Another student broke her heart in two.
We teachers said nothing. We prayed and watched.
Now, back to the rocks. Ten copies of the class list were made. Every hour or hour and a half during the school day, which continued with its regular lessons, a bell was rung. The box was brought out containing a complete list of class names cut up, with each name folded in half. The first student came up and took a name. Let’s say he picked Mary’s name. He would walk over to her and say, “Mary, may I help you carry your burden? Then Mary, after giving him her rock, would pick a name from the box and go to that person and ask to carry that student’s burden. This went on until there were no more names.
Wonder of wonders, we heard a knock on the classroom door and a child from a younger class gave me a note. It was from the Art and Science teacher. It read, “I would like to be a part of this retreat, too. Can I get a rock, too? I also have a big burden on my heart right now.” For some reason, this was a turning point for the class. They insisted on getting a rock and a back pack and presenting it to this Carmelite Sister who had requested it. Well, that did it. The teachers got rocks also. All our names were put in the box. We carried students’ burdens and they carried ours.
One student’s comment impressed me. “Hey, why is Susan’s [*] rock so big? Look at it. It hardly fits in her backpack. She has everything! What kind of burden could she possibly have?” After that comment, the class became noticeably reflective and ,thereafter, when someone picked Susan’s name and asked to carry her burden, that student was noticeably subdued, thinking, ruminating on that huge rock from the girl “who had everything.”
We had chosen Holy Week for our on-campus retreat. Our Easter vacation would begin on Holy Thursday at 12:30 p.m. We decided to end the retreat before then. How? We ended with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, followed the next day by a profound moment in the convent chapel when each student laid their burden at the foot of a large cross in the sanctuary. We invited students who wanted, to kneel on a predieu, alone in the center aisle, and we prayed for each one who chose to kneel there for a few moments.
That’s when it happened.
If you would ask me, “What happened?” I couldn’t say it in words. All I could do would be to say that something sweet and profound, an anointing, descended upon our chapel.
As the concluding Mass of our retreat began, the oppressive sadness just lifted. Poof! Gone.
After Mass, with my own eyes, I saw these beautiful children of God, run, skip, and yes, dance out of the chapel and into our school playground. But, where are they going, I asked myself, as they entered the school building?
A few moments later, they emerged from the music room—they had borrowed some of the musical instruments from the teacher. There they were with tambourines and maracas, triangles and bongos. One had an auto harp. Another played a xylophone—and we teachers?
We watched as these precious children of God formed a conga line of sorts, right there in the school playground. We had no camera. No need, really, for a camera as the moment was embedded indelibly into our souls.
The same God Who healed with a word, a touch, a thought, the same God Who raised from the dead, gave speech and hearing and restored healthy limbs, the same God who set prisoners free, in one sovereign almighty act, restored the joy and innocence of childhood to these children.
We teachers just stood there and wept, transfixed in the moment, eyes glued to our students, listening to the happy laughter and the unrehearsed music coming from their souls through those school instruments. We simply soaked in the moment in silence.
This, then, is the story of the miracle I witnessed.
Before the miracle, I believed. Now I know. God can and He will, and He does hear our prayers.
Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D.
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