The Way Home
Sister Elise Cholewinski
Member of the community of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay, Wisconsin
Sr. Elise Cholewinski is a member of the community of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She discusses the role of spirituality in recovery and the many opportunities for reflection offered through the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Reflection often brings us face to face with the issues we’ve tried to avoid but need to look at so we may forgive ourselves. For information about the retreats offered at the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago, go to https://www.jesuitretreathouse.org
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Music]
[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. This week, we will again, focus on the role of spirituality and recovery. My very special guest is Sister Elise Cholewinski of the Sisters of the St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay Wisconsin Sister Elise offers spiritual direction and regularly does retreat work at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh.
[00:00:39] Good morning, sister. How are you?
[00:00:41] Sister Elise: Good morning. I'm fine. How are you?
[00:00:43] Mike: I'm great. Thank you. It's it's sunny today. That's always a nice way to start the week, isn't it?
[00:00:48] Sister Elise: Yes.
[00:00:50] Mike: Sister. I want to, I think it would help if we just started by, uh, you're talking a little bit about the various retreats that are offered at the Jesuit retreat house in Oshkosh.
[00:01:01] Sister Elise: Well, basically there are three kinds. One is the, uh, weekend preached retreat, which begins on Thursday evening and concludes Sunday noon. Um, the other is the individually directed retreats, which are held basically during the summer. Five day retreats or eight day retreats, uh, in which a person goes to a director once a day and discusses what their prayer has been like and, uh, get some direction as to where to go in scripture, to pray during the next day. And the other is the 12 step retreat, which is a weekend preached retreat, focusing on people in recovery.
[00:01:50] Mike: What does preached retreat mean?
[00:01:53] Sister Elise: It means that you go to several conferences a day, basically three and someone preaches and they have a theme for the retreat and they preach on that topic.
[00:02:09] And, uh, like myself, I usually, I always prepare, uh, a booklet for the people to take with them so that they have something to do in between time, something to reflect on.
[00:02:25] Mike: Um, now, uh, you don't have to be Catholic to do these retreats.
[00:02:29] Sister Elise: These retreats are open to everyone of any denomination or no denomination or another major religion.
[00:02:38] Mike: Yeah. Now we we're talking to ladies who were on the podcast last week. And one of the things I find fascinating about these is these are all silent retreats, right?
[00:02:48] Sister Elise: Yes.
[00:02:50] Mike: I think, I just think that's great. Okay. I'm going to, I know, I know you have a great number of folks return again and again, but I'm actually thinking about the folks who have never gone to a silent retreat.
[00:03:02] And I bet that's a bunch of people even, and a recovering people, especially. It's just like, it reminds me of sitting in the parking lot, going into your first 12 step meeting. You know, I've had so many people tell me Sister that they sit in the parking lot. Turn the key back on and go away because it's scary to go into the first meeting by yourself.
[00:03:22] So for those that have never been to a silent retreat, what can they expect?
[00:03:28] Sister Elise: They can expect that it will not be 100% silent.
[00:03:33] Mike: [laugh]
[00:03:33] Sister Elise: Okay. Um, and usually the people who come to the 12 step retreats are brought there by their sponsor or a friend and the friend doesn't tell them it's a silent retreat and they arrive. Now. They have no means of transportation to go back home. So they're stuck. [laugh]
[00:03:54] That's what happens. Um, but what you can find is if you've never been to a silent retreat is number one, you'll be warmly welcomed by the staff and by two people who are the making the retreat, but they're the coordinators for the retreat. You can expect that the first evening silence doesn't begin till almost 10 o'clock, and you can expect that um, there will be talking because there will be conferences. There will be three on Friday, three on Saturday, one on Sunday. And of course, one on Thursday evening. And there will be a social hour after dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings for about a half hour in which you can visit with anybody. There are also times during the day when you have silence. And you're encouraged to reflect on whatever the director has given you to reflect on, but you can sign up to talk one-on-one with a member of the staff, which includes several Jesuits and a Sister. But those 12 step retreats always have to people who are in the program who are available to meet one-on-one with people.
[00:05:19] So if you've got an issue or a question you can, um, talk to sign up and talk to one of those people. And on Friday nights, there's a 12 step meeting. And on Saturday night there is faith sharing where you share what you got from the retreat. So it's not complete silence. You're not totally alone. You are also, um, not encouraged, but if you would like to talk with your sponsor or someone, as long as you walk off the property or find a room that's remote in the building, um, you can meet with that person too.
[00:06:03] Mike: Well, you know, we, we do, we live in a world full of noise, right. And it is, it is hard sometimes to have the time to reflect on our own wellness, our own recovery. So how do you find that silence helps folks? What do you, what do you notice during the retreats that they come to terms with?
[00:06:24] Sister Elise: Some, what happens during the silence is you get down inside yourself. And some of the questions you're given to reflect on are meant to do that, uh, to review your history, to come to grips with your moral inventory, what you still feel guilty about. Um,
[00:06:55] Dealing with your past behavior. That continues to be a problem. Some people have come they've come there because they're an Alanon and they come to realize they really are also alcoholic. And it's the, maybe the first time that they've come to that realization or that awareness has been hanging around in the back of their head.
[00:07:25] And now they come face-to-face with the fact that yes, I do have this problem, or they may come to realize that they have experienced something in childhood, particularly abuse, particularly sexual abuse. They've never faced it. Never acknowledged it. And in the silence that they faced the truth that this indeed happened to me and it influenced the path I took in life.
[00:08:04] Many women have been sexually abused. And that's what led them to the drugs and the alcohol starting maybe in their teenage years, it's that hurt and that shame and that feeling that they're no good. Um, and it has led them to make bad choices in life. And it's the silence that helps them get to that point.
[00:08:37] And the other thing is, without any talking, they feel the support of the group. Even though they're, they're encouraged not to make eye contact with people, not to wave, you know, whisper good morning or something like that. Just being there with, um, maybe 30 or 40 other women who are going through the same things.
[00:09:06] They feel the support of the group. And for some of these people, it's maybe the first time they've turned to God and said I'm hurting, or I have a problem and I need to deal with it. Maybe the first time. They may really have turned, done that third step and turn their life and their will over to the care of God and, and, you know, and said.
[00:09:35] And in so many words, I know you can help me and I trust you. And I know you'll be there for me.
[00:09:43] Mike: You know, you you've said it in your remarks. I think that it's not just the addiction or the chemicals that we ingest, but we also create other diversions to keep ourselves from exploring those darker places, you know, through our busyness our work, um, just our lives in general, the noise that we create.
[00:10:05] So, um, I would imagine that most people come face to face with something that they either didn't know or did know, but went "Yeah, there it is".
[00:10:17] Sister Elise: Right, right.
[00:10:19] Mike: And you do have people there that process that then.
[00:10:24] Sister Elise: Yes, yes. They can sign up and they can talk to someone about it. Um, and I'm also, if I'm there just helping on the weekend, I, I make it known that I'm available for doing a fifth step.
[00:10:40] Mike: Yeah. Right. What drew you to wanting to do the retreats?
[00:10:46] Sister Elise: I had wanted to do retreat work a long, long time ago, and it wasn't possible at that time, at that time, you know, priests did retreats and I don't think there were any retreats for people in recovery, but I always wanted to do retreat work. And one year I was making my own eight day silent retreat with a sister as my director.
[00:11:17] And I was telling her about my own recovery. I had been in recovery for around 10 or 12 years at the time. And, uh, I told her that I wasn't attracted to the alcohol or the prescription drugs. I was struggling with my behavior and my attitudes and getting back into the old ways of acting and living. And she interrupted me one day and she said, may I have your permission to talk to father Dick, who was the director of the retreat house at that time?
[00:11:58] And she said, I think it would be good for this place. And so she talked to him and he invited me to come for a weekend to see what it's like. When I came for that weekend, I opened the door and he said, Well, if you're going to give a preach treat, we have to know that you know how to preach. So why don't you do the homily tomorrow? [laugh]
[00:12:22] Mike: Nice. [laugh]
[00:12:24] Sister Elise: And the reading for that next day happened to be the old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi. And I talked about how Ruth stood at a fork in the road. She could go back to her old lifestyle, or she could come into this people that were strangers to her and take on their way of life and their beliefs.
[00:12:47] And, uh, on the basis of that one homily here I am, almost 25 years later.
[00:12:56] Mike: I, I was not aware of that when I asked you that question. That's that's unbelievable. So how long have you been recovering then?
[00:13:03] Sister Elise: I've been in recovery for, since 1988.
[00:13:08] Mike: Yeah, we want to figure it out. That's good enough.
[00:13:11] Sister Elise: Ya, 34 years. Almost 34 years.
[00:13:13] Mike: You're better than I am. You're quicker than I am at it. [laugh] Well, you, you know, you mentioned the women who come to retreat, you have men's retreats to though.
[00:13:20] Sister Elise: Yes. And I have given it a, um, a couple of those. In fact, I was invited last summer to go out to Maryland and give a men's retreat.
[00:13:32] Mike: Are they different? Are, are, are women's retreats and women's silence is different than men's?
[00:13:39] Sister Elise: Not too much. What I have found in, in the 12 step retreats is the men are more emotional than, than I would expect a man to be, and they're hurting. And some of them are hurting very, very deeply. And they're willing to share that story. Um, probably the, one of the big differences is not as many men sign up to talk individually to people, but those who do are very open and willing to share and willing to change.
[00:14:27] Mike: You know, I'm not surprised to hear you say that about, um, the men and, and, and that our ability to not deal with that. I grew up in the generation of "Just deal with it", you know, "Suck it up". "Don't talk about it", especially if you're a man.
[00:14:45] Sister Elise: Yeah.
[00:14:46] Mike: What, um, and, and couples retreats, do you do those?
[00:14:51] Sister Elise: I've done a couple of those since simply because the person who was supposed to give the retreat had to back out a few weeks before the retreat.
[00:15:01] Mike: Wow. What do couples, uh, how do they end up reconnecting when they go to a silent or a reflective retreat?
[00:15:09] Sister Elise: Well, during those retreats, there, there is a time period each day where a lot of about 45 minutes where the couples are encouraged to talk to one another. Um, what I do try to do during the couples retreat is I try to show them that their married life as a couple is not an isolated thing. And I give a retreat called "The story within the story".
[00:15:40] And I talk about the Bible as a love story from the first chapter of Genesis to the end of the book of revelation. It's a love story and that their story of their individual love for one another is within the context of the story of God and his people of Christ and his church. So I, I give them questions to reflect on after each conference in.
[00:16:09] I would presume when they talk to each other, they talk about, uh, some of the questions and their responses to them.
[00:16:17] Mike: You know, it's so interesting because there's so much when people talk to one another, just through the tone of voice they use or how their face looks that we interpret and sometimes, um, incorrectly.
[00:16:30] So I would think that that time of reflection is really, really good for them.
[00:16:36] Sister Elise: Yes, definitely.
[00:16:39] Mike: You know, when, when you start doing this, you know, when you talked about the guilt that people feel, there's a, uh, you know, there's not one of us, who's lived a life that is free of things that we wish we would have done different.
[00:16:53] But so many of the folks, um, who get into recovery have a history of things, they feel bad about. Forgiveness must be a part of that reflection.
[00:17:06] Sister Elise: Oh yes. And, uh, you know, sometimes people will come in and say, you know, um, I know God loves me. And but the bottom line is they don't love themselves.
[00:17:21] Mike: Ya, uh huh.
[00:17:23] Sister Elise: You know? And sometimes what I tell people is, imagine yourself, go back.
[00:17:31] Into your life. Imagine yourself doing the worst thing you ever [inaudible] picture it. And then imagine God being there with arms around you and saying, I still love you. And I know you really don't want to do that. You really don't want to be that kind of a person. I think that opens the door to them hopefully being more aware of God's love for them.
[00:18:03] And if God can accept me in that behavior, I must be worth something. And that hopefully begins the way home. A big problem is is that they trust God's forgiveness. They just can't forgive themselves. And, uh you know, there was a woman who lived in the 1400s who made this statement, her name was Julian, Julian of Norwich, and she made this statement.
[00:18:40] "Sin is valuable".
[00:18:44] And, uh, what's valuable about it. We would never know the mercy of God, if we had never sinned, you know God is very mysterious. Um, but we would never know that mercy, that love, that homecoming, if we had not sinned and needed that mercy. And I, you know, St. Paul says, "God makes everything work on to good". Can our sin work on to good. And it does. I mean, we've had our history, we've had our addiction, we've had our behavior and my sin has been, and my working through it, my native forgiveness. Has been a source of strength for other people, we see that at every AA meeting, you know, we share our experience, frank and hope and my, my being so downcast because of my behavior, my sin, and how I'm working through it, encourages other people.
[00:20:05] Mike: And that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone that we had heard along the way is going to be at the same place.
[00:20:13] Sister Elise: No, they're not. And the thing we emphasize in the eighth and ninth steps is doing this step is about me. It's about what I do. And I have to respect the fact that that other person is in his or her place.
[00:20:40] They may still be angry and hurt, and I have to be patient and allow them time. And they may never say that they accept.
[00:20:51] Mike: Right.
[00:20:52] Sister Elise: You know, But that's okay. I have to be okay with it. And I have to understand, I may have done some real damage and I have to trust that God will heal that person. I can't.
[00:21:08] Mike: You know that's a great, I think the, I can be okay. Is a great spot to exit this conversation, Sister. This is a. And great. I really enjoyed this. We, of course, for the listeners, uh, we'll put links to the retreats at the bottom of the podcast as we always do. Um, and Sister, I hope you've enjoyed this too.
[00:21:29] Sister Elise: I have enjoyed it very much. Thank you.
[00:21:32] Mike: And I don't, I may be the only guy. I mean, I probably not, but I may be one of the few people to do a podcast, um, that used to be a janitor in a convent back in the day. So a lot of what I've learned about [laugh] household repairs, I've learned from nuns. So [laugh] I appreciate you being here. For the listener we invite you to listen in the next time when we will, again, talk about substance use.
[00:22:02] So please, be safe, take care of yourself and find the way home.
[00:22:08] [END AUDIO]
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