I pressed the green button and said, “Hello. This is Larry.”
“Hi. Teddy here. How was your retreat?”
That was the first question that Teddy Merkle, my friend from childhood, fired off to me when I answered his phone call.
“It was good. I guess didn’t realize how much I needed it until I got there, unpacked and settled in.”
“You went to a new place this year, right?” Teddy asked.
“Yep. I drove up to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the Jesuit Retreat House that’s right on Lake Winnebago. It’s a huge lake. In some places, you can hardly see what’s on the other side; nothing but water. You’d think you were looking out on an ocean.”
“Sounds like a pretty place. And it was a whole week of silence, right?” he asked.
“Yes. The silence is the best gift of the retreat. It’s what makes it special. When you get away from downtown Chicago, you realize how every day we are surrounded by the constant noise of rickety L-trains, frantic police sirens, early morning construction horns, thumping car music, and impatient taxi drivers. One day on retreat I was able to listen to rain fall gently on the lake. It was like two hour symphony played by God’s creation.”
“Who did you have for your spiritual director?” Teddy asked.
“I was assigned a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Wally. He is 84 years old and has been a priest for 55 years. He’s a real gentleman; a very holy and wise man. He spent most of his life teaching philosophy at Marquette University.”
“So did you get any great special revelations during the retreat?” Teddy asked.
“Yes. There were several that stuck with me. I always find it interesting how God speaks to us in surprising and unexpected ways. Sometimes you hear the voice of God when you’re sitting quietly reflecting upon a scripture passage. In the quiet, when there are no interruptions, you can hear God’s voice whisper words of wisdom right to your heart. Or, it can also happen when you’re at Mass, and the homily is right on target to what is going on in your life at this moment. You walk away with a sense of peace knowing that your soul has just been fed by what is true and holy.”
“I can believe that,” Teddy said.
“But I have to tell you Teddy, there was one moment on retreat that helped me to understand what our lifelong relationship with God is like. It didn’t happen at Mass. It didn’t happen when I went to the reconciliation service. It didn’t happen when I met with my spiritual director.”
“How did it happen?” he asked.
“Well, it took me by surprise in a unique way,” I said.
“Tell me.” Teddy pursued, wanting to get any helpful insight that would help him out.
“Well. I was sitting in one of the parlors of the retreat house with my bible and journal. The assignment my spiritual director gave me was to pick out a couple of miracle stories from the gospels and pray over them. So I did.”
“So what was the revelation? Did one of the miracles give it away?” Teddy wondered.
“Well, it wasn’t a miracle story that led me to the epiphany. It was what happened in the room when I was praying?”
“Did you see a heavenly vision? Did an angel suddenly pop-in on you like they did with Joseph and Mary?” he asked.
“No. Don’t be silly. I don’t think I am on an angel’s house call list. It was nothing like that.”
“Well, what happened in the parlor?” he asked again.
“Actually, it all began when another retreatant walked into the parlor. It was a elderly nun. She wore a perfectly ironed gray dress with a matching habit. She sat down at a round oak table that was about 15 feet to my right. I could see her out of the corner of my eye. I pretended that I was deep in prayer, but actually I peeked over to see what brought her into the room.”
“So what’s the revelation?” Teddy interrupted.
“Hold on. On the nun’s name tag was written “Sister Mary Ann.” In front of her on the table was a jigsaw puzzle that was about a third of the way completed. The cover of the puzzle box had the number “500” in big print so that you knew how big the challenge was going to be. The picture on the cover of the puzzle box was that of a red barn in the middle of a farm, next to a sprawling cornfield. It had that rural Wisconsin look. The picture had a blend of colors that made it difficult to figure out how the 500 cut puzzle pieces would be aligned to make the picture.”
“I don’t get it. What does this have to do with the revelation?” Teddy asked.
“Hold on Teddy. I’m getting to it. I watched the nun work the table like she was playing craps at a casino in Las Vegas. She had a hard and serious look on her face as she scanned over the 300 unused pieces spread out on the table before her. The small pieces laid face up, just outside of the square picture frame that was completed. The nun looked like a surgeon in the middle of an operation. Back and forth her hands moved, one piece at a time, trying to find a good match. Flipping. Turning. Spinning. Constantly searching.”
“Come on, what’s the revelation?” Teddy was not going to give up.
“I’m getting to it,” I said. “Then she did something very clever. With one hand she held up the cover of the puzzle box that had the picture of the barn, the farm, and the cornfields. She would take one piece at a time and place it against the picture, trying to find a clue as to where it might line up with the other pieces on the table.”
“You’re losing me now. What’s does any of this have to do with the revelation?” I heard through the phone.
“You see, the revelation is this. I think only God knows the complete picture of our life. To start with, God created the puzzle and knows how it all fits together perfectly. Only God knows how it will all turn out in the end. As we go through life, we only get the small pieces of the puzzle, one at a time. Our challenge as believers is to figure out how it all comes together.
Puzzle pieces come in all shapes and sizes; and so do the experiences of our life. A lot of them may look the same, but no two are exactly identical. In life we get the good and the bad; the sad and the joyful; the understandable and the mysterious; the dying and the rising.
That’s the revelation, Teddy. God has a big picture for each one of us. Hopefully one day we will get to see the finished product.”
“That makes sense,” Teddy said.
“We have to believe and trust that all the pieces will eventually fit perfectly together. God doesn’t want us to walk away from the table and leave the picture unfinished. God wants us to journey through life assembling the dream that God has for us. Hopefully day by day we get to see more and more of the big picture that God wants us to see.”
Teddy then said, “Father, I think I’m gonna ask God to send a couple of angels to help put my puzzle together.”
Maybe they will come dressed in a gray dress and habit?