By Tracey Primrose
May 28, 2014 — Jesuit Father Ralph Huse, spiritual director at the White House Jesuit Retreat Center in St. Louis, has an innovative approach to penance. Rather than asking the penitent to recite Our Fathers or Hail Marys, Fr. Huse suggests a reflective look at the coursing Mississippi River from the bluffs that anchor White House’s historic campus. It’s a penance that often provokes a quizzical expression or a smile followed by a quick retreat to the water’s edge.
The son of a Kansas farmer who moved the family to Wichita during the Dust Bowl years, Fr. Huse has always loved the land and loved the Church. He grew up half a block away from the parish where his dad was an usher and his mom was a member of the altar society. Perennially assigned as an altar server at the 6 a.m. Mass because “the priests knew my mother would make me go,” Fr. Huse would often serve four Masses in a row.
He came to know the Jesuits in high school and entered the Society of Jesus right after graduation in 1963, coming of age during the height of the Vietnam War and the post-Vatican II era. Always drawn to Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction, he studied theology under the tutelage of Jesuit giants at Saint Louis University and hoped for a full-time assignment at a Jesuit retreat center following his 1975 ordination. He says with a laugh, “My request wasn’t granted for 50 years.” Such is the life of a Jesuit.
First, there were years of parish ministry in Pueblo, Colo.; a long stint as the director of novices at the Jesuit novitiate in Denver; and an assignment as the rector of the Bellarmine House of Studies, a Jesuit formation house in St. Louis. He also served as the chaplain of the lay faculty at two Jesuit high schools and the rector of Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, “the largest Jesuit community under one roof in Christendom.” Although he wasn’t assigned to full-time retreat work until 2012, he’s proud of the role he played in helping to form Jesuits. “The Society so often can identify a man’s gifts better than he can,” he says.
No matter where he's been assigned, spiritual direction has always been front and center for Fr. Huse. As a retreat and spiritual director at White House, a lush 85-room, 80-acre campus with historic 1922 stone buildings, Fr. Huse and his colleagues minister to more than 4,000 retreatants per year. White House offers a wide number of retreats, including ones tailored for those struggling with addiction. Some retreatants have visited annually for more than half a century.
At the end of a retreat, Fr. Huse offers several suggestions for ways to continue the contemplative experience at home. One idea is to establish a prayer corner, a dedicated spot used only for prayer. He says, “All it takes is a chair with perhaps a side table where you could place a candle, a crucifix or a Bible. You don’t sit in that chair for any other reason, only to pray.”
Another idea: Saint Ignatius’ prayer of memory. Fr. Huse suggests, “I invite people to simply remember. Remember your life, remember your parents, remember your first Christmas, remember the people, remember the relationships. God is in all of those things. A very easy and delightful way to pray is to simply remember and ask where the Lord was in all of that.”
And for Fr. Huse, one of the best places to find God is in the rushing waters of the Mississippi, hence his unorthodox penance. He says, “I tell retreatants: Just watch the river, don’t try to analyze how fast it’s going, don’t imagine a map of where it’s going. Just sit quietly and contemplate the river. The river reminds me of God’s love, it’s moving, it’s powerful, it brings life to the plants. And when it gets high in the spring, it’s going to pull all the crap off the banks.”
When he isn’t working at the bustling retreat center, Fr. Huse enjoys White House’s beautiful surroundings, walking the wooded grounds, watching the river and practicing quiet contemplation.
He’s mindful of the many gifts he’s received along the way. “Ignatian spirituality for me involves the whole person, so whatever is happening in that person’s life is the stuff of spiritual direction. So many men and women come here with their suffering, their doubts, their fear and guilt, and they come in and bear it all. It’s an incredible privilege to have that gift, through the Lord, given to me, such a privilege to get to know people at that level. I’ve been overwhelmed by the trust that people put in us. ”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.
Photos of Fr. Huse by Fr. Tom Rochford, SJ.