Many years ago, I helped arrange a retreat for the men of the parish that I was serving in at that time. The retreat was to begin on a Friday evening and conclude on Sunday morning. Twenty-five men signed up for the retreat.
On Thursday afternoon, the day before we were to leave for the retreat, I received a phone call from the retreat center informing me that there was a second group of men who had also planned to attend their retreat center that weekend. They said that it was unfortunate, but this second group of men had cancelled; and that, in the absence of this second group, they could not open their retreat center for just our group of men. They apologized for the inconvenience but said that under the circumstances they had no other choice but to cancel our retreat also.
I expressed my regrets and thanked them for the call. I did not want to disappoint our group, so I immediately got on the phone and started calling other retreat centers to see if any of them could accommodate our group at the last minute. And thankfully I did find one. This retreat center that I contacted said that they were having a silent retreat for a group of senior men. The person I spoke with said, “I don’t know if you and your men would be interested in a silent retreat with a group of elderly men, but you are welcome to join them if you wanted to.” I expressed my gratitude and accepted their invitation. I then called all of our men to inform them of the last-minute change in our retreat destination.
The next day, Friday, we all met at the parish and, rather than each of us driving there in our separate cars, six men volunteered to drive, and we went there with four or five men per car.
I was not familiar with that retreat center. I had never been there before. It was raining when we arrived there that Friday, so I didn’t have an opportunity to familiarize myself with their grounds. We just went inside of their facilities; and that evening we had a silent meal, were given a copy of the retreat schedule, attended a prayer service and then each of us retired, silently, to our respective rooms.
The following morning, Saturday, I rose early. The rain had stopped. I had plenty of time before morning prayers and breakfast, so I went outside to check out their grounds. I was into jogging at the time, so I decided to take my morning run. There were some woods adjoining their property, and I could see a path leading into the woods. I decided to run down that path. I had no idea where the path went, but I checked my watch and I figured that, if the path does not wind itself around and come back out to the retreat center, I will just run as far as time allows and will simply turn around and come out the way I went in.
I ran for quite a while and, as I was running, I tripped on something, and I fell. As I tripped and fell, I broke my leg. I knew I broke it because I could not only feel it; I also heard it break. I had no idea where I was relative to the retreat center’s buildings, and as I sat there on the ground looking at my broken leg, I wondered how I was going to get myself back there. I looked around and, to my surprise, there was a young man standing there about forty or fifty feet away from me. He was standing still with his back against a big bush that was there. I waved to him and said loudly, “Can you help me?”
He walked over to me. He was a young man who looked to be in his very early twenties. He was of average height, and he appeared to be quite muscular. He said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “Yes! Thank you! I seemed to have broken my leg and I need to get back to the retreat center. Can you help me?” He reached down, took my hand and helped me to stand up. I told him, “I have no idea which way the retreat center is from here, or what would be the shortest route back.” He lifted his arm and pointed in a direction and said, “It’s that way.” I asked him how he would know that, and what he was doing out there all alone in the woods.
He said, “I’m on retreat there this weekend also.” I said, “I thought that, besides our group, that the attendees this weekend were all older senior men.” He simply said, “I’m there with my father.” I said, “I’m surprised because all I saw there were older men.” He simply repeated, “I’m there with my father.”
I put my arm over his shoulder to use him as a crutch; and we proceeded to walk back to the center. His shoulders were the perfect height. We didn’t go more than a couple of steps and it became apparent that this was not going to work. I stopped and told him, “This is not working. I need a crutch or something on the other side also.” He didn’t say anything. He simply pointed to the ground by my foot. There, on the ground, was a stick. It was about two inches in diameter, and it had a Y-shaped fork on one end that made a perfect crutch. It was the perfect length and that fork fit nicely under my arm pit, just like a crutch should. So, with him on one side and my wooden crutch on the other side we proceeded back to the retreat center.
We talked as we were walking back, and as we got close to the main building of the retreat center, we stopped. There was a big boulder there and I sat on it to rest a minute. I looked at my watch and it was just about time for the men to be coming out of that building to head over to their chapel building for morning prayers.
I thanked him for his help, and I told him that I did not want to become a spectacle to the men as they came out, and that I did not want to interrupt his participation in their morning prayers. So, I told him, “As the men come out, you go ahead and join them and leave me here. You’ve been very kind, and I sincerely appreciate your help, but I don’t want to interfere with your participation in the retreat. So just leave me here and after the men are done coming out, I will hobble to the office and get some help there.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes! I will be ok. Thank you again!”
The men then came out of the building, and as the last man passed by us, he too walked away from me and followed them to the chapel. I watched him as he walked away, and as he neared the end of the building in front of us, he turned around to look back at me. He smiled. I smiled back at him. I turned my head to look at the door I had to enter and when I looked back in his direction he was gone. I just assumed he must have stepped around the corner of the building. I picked up my wooden crutch, headed for that door and made my way to their office.
Once in the office, I explained to the man that was working there what had happened and that I needed to get to the hospital. He helped me to his car, and he drove me to the hospital.
Once in the hospital, they took some x-rays, confirmed the fracture, and set my leg in a cast. My pants wouldn’t fit over the cast. The doctor said, “We can’t send you out of here with your pants at half-mast.” So, they cut one pant leg up the side the entire length so that I could get it on over the cast. They then called my wife so she could come and get me.
As I sat there in a wheelchair waiting, I figured I had better get in control of this situation. I have always believed that everything happens for a reason, so I assumed that there must be someone here that I’m meant to see. I looked around and a man was just admitted who had a big towel wrapped around his foot. I rolled myself over to him and asked how he was doing. He said that he was a construction worker. While on the job, he was operating a pneumatic jack hammer, busting up some concrete. He had accidentally jack hammered his foot. He removed the towel to show me. I won’t get descriptive, but safe to say his toes were a mess. We talked for a while till the doctors came and took him away for testing. There was nothing memorable about that conversation so, apparently, he was not the person I was meant to see.
No sooner had he left when another man was admitted. This second man had a knife sticking out of his chest. I rolled myself over to talk with him. I asked, “What happened to you?” He said, “I got up this morning to go to work. But as I left the house, I said to myself – it’s Saturday and I don’t want to work on Saturday. I went to the bar instead. After I had several drinks, I went back home. My wife got mad at me for not going to work, so I told her to shut up and I pushed her down. She got up and pushed me down. I got up and pushed her down a second time. She got up and put this in my chest.”
We talked for a while, but to be honest with you, he had enough alcohol in his blood stream that I doubt he will remember anything that I said; and I seriously doubt he was feeling any pain. Consequently, he didn’t appear to be the reason for my being there either.
My wife then arrived, picked me up and took me home. The next day, Sunday, I was sitting on our sofa with my leg resting on the cushions. Early in the afternoon, one of the cars that was returning from our group came to the house to return my belongings and to learn what happened to me and to see how I was doing. I told my story to the five men, explaining what had happened and I asked them, “Who was that young man who was on that retreat. I neglected to ask him what his name was.” They said, “There was no young man on that retreat.” I said, “Yes there was. He was in his young twenties, and he said that he was there with his father. All five of those men said, “No, there was no young man there.”
Scripture tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
In my arrogance I had assumed that this event happened because there was something I was meant to do. What I failed to understand at the time is that we are not in control; and sometimes we are meant to just be, to bask in the love of God, and understand that we are never truly alone. In His infinite love and mercy, God has given each and every one of us a heavenly messenger to watch over us. Oh, how I wish I could live that event over again. My conversation with that “young man” would be much different.
My advice to each and every person who is reading this is to take a few minutes and look back at all the events in your life. Think of all the “people” in your life who have helped you, encouraged you, protected you, or simply reminded you of the beauty of God’s creation. Each and every one of us have been blessed with this precious gift of life for a purpose. Every breath you take, every heartbeat is a gift. Eleanor Roosevelt once wisely said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it ‘The Present”.
I had an opportunity to actually meet one of our Heavenly Father’s guardian angels, although I did not recognize him at the time. We all need to remember that we’ve been given this precious gift of life for a purpose. Remember the old Baltimore Catechism lesson, “Why did God make me?” The answer was, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”
While we are on this journey that we call life, we are never alone. We have a constant companion, a guardian, a helper. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by ‘the angels’ watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” (CCC 336.)
May God bless you. And always remember, each one of us has our own personal guardian, a protector and shepherd who is always with us on our journey.