The Power of Retreat

By Kathryn Jean Lopez Published on April 7, 2019

Antonin Scalia didn’t get into Princeton University. That’s one of the many things I didn’t necessarily expect to learn when reading a new collection of reflections and speeches by and about the late Supreme Court justice, who died unexpectedly in February 2016. The collection centers around Scalia’s relationship with faith.

Scalia brought his failure to attend Princeton up during a 1998 talk to a group of students at his alma mater, Georgetown University. He used it as an example of trusting the hand of providence and not being stubborn about your own will. He trusted that he was a better man than he might have been had his own will — going to Princeton — been done. For every disappointment in life, not just college admissions, it’s something worth keeping in mind. For those of us caught up in the nonstop rat race and news cycle, the value of stepping back, of reflecting and letting things be, is more necessary than ever.

Taking a Retreat

How many of us can even get through reading a traditional newspaper column without being tempted to go check our phone for something — anything — potentially new? Everyone knows about “fake news,” but how about the needless, repetitious information we voluntarily submit ourselves to daily, and even form strong, emotional opinions about? Some of it is no better than gossip. Most of it not only has no real effect on our lives, but takes us away from the people and needs around us, from the parts of our lives and surroundings in which we could make a positive difference.

Taking a retreat may sound like an escape, but it’s actually more like a reboot. The culture could use one right about now. So, the least we could each do is consider giving it a try.

“If you don’t have a weekend to spare once a year to think exclusively about the things that really matter — well, then you haven’t planned your life correctly,” Scalia insisted.

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I had to laugh at a number of points reading the Scalia book, remembering his fearless wit. Before getting into his Georgetown talk, he nudged the organizers a wee bit: He had been asked to talk about his values, but he explained how he actually detested the term, “which suggests to me a greater degree of interchangeability than ought to exist — as though the principles that guide a man’s life are something like monetary exchange rates, subject to change with the times.”

His point about values is a point about the crisis of our times: Identity. What are the reasons for our lives? What are the hills we’d be willing to die on? As Scalia put it: “Because the world believes in the pragmatic rather than the transcendental, and you will lose your soul (that is to say, forget what and who you are) if you do not get away from the noise now and then to think about the first things.”

A Little Voice of Conscience

Joe Biden isn’t the first person you might think of in the same context as Justice Scalia, but the recent flack he’s gotten for his personal-space issues is not unrelated. As the Democrats who want to be president keep tripping over themselves to be the most radical on issues that hit on the most fundamental things — like human life itself — Biden is actually someone who at critical moments has seemed to occasionally be a little voice of conscience.

I think of a news story about him pushing back in a White House meeting in which the mandate that would ultimately force the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Supreme Court came up. Biden was shot down and subsequently became a chief spokesman for the conscience squeeze by the Obama administration. But I can’t help but wonder if we had more people with the long view in politics, people who knew who they are and kept that in focus, a lot of Biden’s decisions could have made for a different kind of politics. He’s a man who has suffered, and there may just be a wisdom there that our current politics just can’t handle tapping into.

It’s all certainly worth a prayer, as well as a dedicated reassessment. If we were all taking such breaks, we’d be better, making life better for others. Scalia said he fell off taking retreats after his Catholic school days, but had rediscovered their power in the ’80s, and kept with it thereafter. It’s a beautiful legacy — his very practical in-no-way-partisan posthumous gift for a harried people.


Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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