Walk to Emmaus: Retreats and Letters
Paul Gadie - Doctrine & Life December 2018
‘WHEN was the last time you sat down to write a letter?’ I recently asked this of a group of students. While they frequently texted, tweeted and emailed, they wrote few letters, but spoke of their excitement when an envelope addressed to them fell through their letterbox.
Letters are a potent form of communication as they afford the writer the opportunity to share their thoughts in a considered way. The Walk to Emmaus retreat, which is related to the Catholic Cursillo Movement, has been harnessing this understanding for many years. They use handwritten letters to support participants during their weekend-long retreats. The effectiveness of writing and sending letters can also be used to support various forms of parish, pastoral effort as will be discussed later. For now, let us investigate Emmaus Letters and their roots in the Cursillo movement.
CATHOLIC CURSILLO AND BEYOND
The Cursillo Movement was founded by Eduardo Aguiló in the 1940s. The first ‘cursillo’ (Spanish for ‘little course’) was held on his home island of Mallorca. From this grew a highly structured, three day retreat weekend, open to those seeking to develop as Christian leaders. During the weekend the basics of Christian faith were explained and celebrated. As important as the cursillo retreat weekend is the ‘Fourth Day’ experience, which continues to offer faith support and development on a weekly and monthly basis thereafter. The movement grew throughout Spain, extending to the USA in the later 1950s. Currently the movement is active across the USA, in South and Central America, Canada, Europe, Africa and Australasia. In 1980, the Cursillo Movement established a worldwide international office, the Organismo Mundial de Cursillos de Cristiandad (OMCC). Cursillo has been the inspiration from the 1970s for the Churches of the Reform to adapt its three-day retreat weekend. While Cursillo is very much alive within the Catholic tradition, it inspired one particular expression of its spirituality within the United Methodist Church.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF ‘WALK TO EMMAUS’ RETREATS
The General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church adapted the Cursillo programme to make it more appropriate for Protestant participants and for ecumenical use. From 1978 it ran as ‘The Upper Room Cursillo’, later renamed ‘The Upper Room Walk to Emmaus’. It was designed for adults, with separate retreats for men and women. One important rule of all programmes: pilgrims may only participate if sponsored by a previous participant. In 1984 came a version of Emmaus for young people: Chrysalis.
The adult retreat is offered as a walk of personal spiritual renewal, with a parallel focus on the formation of Christian leaders for local Christian churches. Taking the framework of the Cursillo, it uses the motif of an Emmaus Walk, hence its title. It emphasises ‘practicing agape love throughout the entirety of [its] three day movement – not only during weekend preparations and the weekend itself but also during the lifetime experience of the Fourth Day.’ The foundation of this love is Christ’s love and servanthood, modelled by those who plan and give the retreat weekend. But how does the participant (or ‘pilgrim’ as retreatants are known) encounter such love? It may be useful to recount the Emmaus gospel story (Luke 24:13-35).
THE EMMAUS WALK
On the day that Peter confirmed Jesus’ resurrection (Lk 24: 9-12), Luke recounts the story of a walk to Emmaus. Luke paints the picture of two followers of Jesus, discussing his ministry and death and of their hopes. Suddenly, Jesus joined them. At first he listened and then he teaches them. While their hearts burned within, they remained blind to their companion’s identity. The scales were lifted only when Jesus broke bread: at that moment they understood his actions, his words and his life with a clarity previously missing. Their witness was added to that of Mary of Magdala and the other women, and to Peter’s testimony; that the Lord had risen and was recognised ‘at the breaking of bread’ (Lk 24:35). Luke’s dynamic account presents Jesus breaking open the Hebrew Scripture on the road to Emmaus with his followers, and then breaking and sharing bread at the end of their shared journey. These become the essential components of Christian worship, demonstrating to the early Christian community how their coalescence feeds the Christian lifestyle.
The Walk to Emmaus weekend programme aims to encourage something similar. As Christians know from experience, however, the personal road to Emmaus is a difficult one, requiring support. While the ‘Fourth Day’ experience supports the pilgrim after the weekend, during these retreats one form of support is offered in the form of a letter.
Churches that organise these retreats encourage friends, family, church members and sponsors to pen Emmaus Letters, which encourage the wider Christian community to take a hand – literally, in supporting a participant.
The letters are handed to participants, via the retreat organisers, at different moments of the retreat experience. They express the author’s prayerful, spiritual and loving support. While a format may be supplied, it is used only as a guide. This is an example letter I prepared after considering other examples.
I was delighted that you accepted the invitation to take part in the forthcoming ‘Walk to Emmaus’ organised by our local churches. I remember speaking to you about the wonderful blessing the weekend was for me and how I felt prompted by the Spirit to speak with you about it. I was delighted when, after prayer, you felt that the time was also right for you!
I wish you every blessing on your Walk to Emmaus and hope the Spirit not only helps you to see how you already serve the Lord, but you also discern his call to further service. See you on the other side.
Your friend in Christ,
This simple format speaks of important Christian themes: listening to the Spirit in prayer; God’s call to all to serve him; a ministerial expression of service at the level of the local church. Taking the trouble to find pen, paper and an envelope can be difficult enough. Expressing care, especially love (agape) for another, in writing, can represent a much bigger commitment. Furthermore, these letters also reveal our understanding of the church to which we belong and how we perceive the other as God’s chosen and valued minister. These are concepts that some churches are comfortable with – others less so.
KAIROS AND EMMAUS LETTERS
While some people develop their relationship with God in the familial or parish situation, God’s call can be heard wherever we find ourselves. This extends even to time spent in prison. There is a branch of the three-day retreat movement dedicated to those serving prison sentences, known as Kairos Prison Ministry.
This differs from the Kairos three-day retreat for High School students of the same name. Kairos began in the mid-1970s, in the USA as ‘Cursillo in Prison’ and welcomed members of all faiths. It now operates in the USA, the UK and beyond. The volunteers who run the Kairos weekends have a slogan: Changing Hearts, Transforming Lives, Impacting the World. It is God who does the changing and transforming, through the testimony and service of the volunteers, who run these weekends. Handwritten Emmaus Letters are again used to support participants.
They reference the author’s experiences of Cursillo or Walk to Emmaus, and the support offered to the pilgrim after their retreat finishes. They also promise some form of personal sacrifice during the participant’s retreat. For example:
Dear Friend in the Lord,
May the peace and love of God fill your heart this day. May this Kairos experience renew and refresh you in the Spirit. I pray that you will feel the Peace and Love of the Lord and enjoy His friendship which surpasses all understanding in Joy. I will be refraining from alcohol during the three days of your Kairos weekend and will be spending a half hour each day in prayer and reflection for the intervention of God’s grace and good will for you.
Peace my friend,
Again, this form of address and the sentiments expressed will be more familiar to some churches than to others. In the Catholic spiritual tradition, St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) reminds us:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go aboutdoing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.
For Teresa, the hearer/listener is challenged to be a vehicle of God’s compassion and love.
Fusing Theresa’s sentiments with the rationale behind the Emmaus Letter supports the impetus to ‘tell others about Jesus’, i.e., to evangelise. The writer is given the opportunity to express their understanding and commitment to Christ. The reader is provided with ‘food for thought’ and the consolation of another’s support. With this in mind, here are three pastoral uses that letters can be put to, today.
USING LETTERS TODAY
The method can even be used to accompany the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. Writing a letter addressed to themselves or to another, which may be sent or remain unsent, affords the penitent the reflective space to consider their actions and the actions Christ’s love calls them to. For those who cannot attend the sacraments due to infirmity or illness a personally addressed letter offers them Christian consolation and support. It acts like a bespoke parish newsletter, keeping the person informed and involved in parish life.
Reflecting on the Cursillo/Emmaus ‘Fourth Day’ experience, parishioners can be encouraged to take up supportive roles towards First Communion children and their immediate families. Written especially by parishioners whose children have made their First Communion, the letter they write can speak about the pressures leading up to the day, but also of the sacrament itself. While some speak in terms of a child’s First Communion being their ‘last communion’, the local parish community can seize the moment and communicate a message of continuing support and love to the parents of children making their First Communion.
These few examples are the actions of a supportive and reflective local, Christian community. As Jesus walked with two of his ‘downcast’ (Lk 24: 17) followers to Emmaus, he listened to their doubts and responded positively, helping them to comprehend the meaning of his life and ministry. He supported their faith as he encountered it, in a sympathetic and practical manner. Positioning the local Church, especially the parish community, as active carers of the family is part of Pope Francis’ continuing message to the Synod on the Family (2014/15). Considering how we support others on their faith journey and how we evangelise becomes a little clearer, when reflecting on how a simple letter can be of such service. I suspect St Teresa would take up pen and paper in a flash.
Paul Gadie lectures in theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.