The Greatest Union

peonies - photo by Annie Spratt on UnsplashI’ve recently returned from my annual weeklong silent retreat. Often it is the highlight of my year, a place to reconnect more deeply with God and to get my priorities straight for the next year. This year, I arrived at retreat with the intent to grieve. I was grieving the recent death of my stepdad. I was grieving the loss of a friend who had dropped out of my life without explanation, then briefly reappeared and disappeared in a way that felt cruel and confusing. My husband and I are about to become empty-nesters, and while there is much pride and joy in the kids, there is loss in letting go of a certain phase of motherhood. And then, on the first full day of retreat, I came down with a bad cold. Bodily desolation may not be the same as spiritual desolation, but it seems to add to it. Instead of enjoying beautiful sunrises over the ocean, I spent most of the first days of retreat weeping, sneezing, and feeling awfully sorry for myself.

God always comes through, though, and over the course of days, my sense of Jesus’ tenderness with me grew. He gave me permission to hurt and grieve as much as I needed to, for as long as I needed, and not to rush through it. Slowly, cloudy days at the retreat center gave rise to sunlight and signs of life everywhere: golden buttercups, blooming peonies, the flight of red-winged blackbirds, sparkles on the ocean waves, and the coziness of the nook in the rocks where I sit and pray with the Lord, year in and year out.

One afternoon, I felt Jesus call me to forgive my former friend where I had been hurt. I went to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and felt a capacity to forgive with ease, a grace that could only have come from God. Prayer also led me to focus my energy on relationships at home, work, and in community in the next year. Still, at this point in the retreat, I was not yet feeling the degree of consolation that I had experienced in past retreats, experiences where I had felt deeply interconnected with Jesus. I half complained and half pleaded with Jesus for a more unitive experience. But then I heard Jesus say to me, “The greatest union is a union in love.” And he pointed me toward the act of forgiveness.

Consolations in prayer, however deeply felt, may strengthen, encourage, and even heal, but it’s in acts of love that we are in the greatest union with God, who is Love itself. Over the next several days, many wonderful consolations did follow, and eventually even my cold improved. But one takeaway from the retreat will be, in the words of my retreat director, not to confuse consolation with the God of consolation. I know my grief is not over, and the ebb and flow of its tides will continue. But I will always remember what Jesus said about union: that it’s in love that we are in greatest union with God and with one another.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Join in 31 Days with St. Ignatius with today’s entry, What I Did Each Morning. Follow along everyday this month here and on social media #31DayswithIgnatius.

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Marina Berzins McCoy
Marina Berzins McCoy is a professor at Boston College, where she teaches philosophy and in the BC PULSE service-learning program. She is the author of The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness and Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy. She and her husband are the parents to two young adults and live in the Boston area.


  1. Marina,
    Such a beautiful reflection – thank you. I was struck by one of your insights -about being an ’empty nester’ which my wife and I have become over the past few years as our five daughters and son moved out into the world. I use a slightly different metaphor for their beginnings of their adult life journey. Early on in their journey I saw them ‘looking back’ most often for a bit of (silent) reassurance. First – about career direction, then about important relationships. Over time I found them ‘facing outward’ more and more and looking back’ less and less (all in a good way).
    Eventually we received a long and serious ‘ look-back’ as they began to find serious life partners with whom they wished to make an eternal promise (four weddings in the past 3 years). The ‘look backs’ have turned into beautiful conversations about shared spiritual and family values (and more than a few funny stories.) which they instigate! While it feels like loss for you and your husband at the moment – it is just another transformative moment for the next Springtime of graces from the Creator’s never ending abundance of love. Thank you for showing us the indespencible gift of mercy. Rob

  2. I have not done my annual retreat this year as my husband is ill and death could be coming soon or perhaps delayed some more. I want to do my retreat very shortly after his death and I am glad you said that greiving was a big part of your intention. I am hoping to center my life by doing this.
    Thank you for your post.

  3. I am always amazed at the wonder, the awe and the simplicity of the Gospel. Now abide in these three things faith, hope and love the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13
    Thank you for your reflection it was communicated very effectively.


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