Every year, the Villa Maria Hall retreat begins with a game called, “What’s in the Bag?” Before the retreat, each participant is told: “Bring a small item that has significance for you, but don’t show or tell anyone else what you’re bringing.” Then, after we arrive at the retreat house, and guys are settling into their rooms, we announce that each person should discreetly put his item into the large “bag,” which is a big pillowcase or sleeping bag carrier. After everyone has done so, we form one large circle, and the game begins.
One person pulls out an item (other than his own, of course). He gets one guess at whose it is; if he’s wrong, the group as a whole makes a consensus guess. If both guesses are wrong, the mystery person stands up and claims his item. No matter the result of the guessing, the person then explains to the group why his chosen item is so important to him. He then pulls the next item out of the bag, and the game continues.
I love this game for two reasons. First, it reveals to the guys on the retreat how well they already know each other. Out of about 34 retreatants this year, we as a group probably guessed at least 25 correctly. Second, and far more important, I am amazed year after year at some of the profound things we get to learn about one another. And often, these incredible lessons come from some fairly unimpressive items.
Two years ago, an engineering student brought a small set of pocket Leatherman tools. I expected him to offer an obvious explanation about how he liked to fix things, and that’s why he was an engineer, etc.; instead, he told us about his adoptive father, who worked with him on projects in the garage and left him this tool collection before recently passing away.
Last year, a junior placed in the bag a simple crucifix on a chain. He recounted how he had lost this crucifix time and time again, only to have it mysteriously return to him; it was a symbol, he said, of God’s never-failing love to find us when we are lost.
This year, a freshman contributed a hot pink shoelace. After he and all of us laughed at its garish, girly quality, he told the story of his high school basketball teammate whose mom had died of breast cancer; as a show of support, they all wore pink shoelaces for that season, and he has chosen to maintain the tradition in her memory.
After this year’s playing of “What’s in the Bag,” I marveled to my hall director, “I can’t believe how deep this can get.” “I know,” he exclaimed. “And it’s so simple. ‘Share something that’s important to you.’ That’s all we tell them, and look what happens.”
We begin our men’s hall retreat, their first “adult” retreat, with something that is little more than a children’s game; it’s just kindergarten “Show and Tell” with a twist. And each year, it reveals spiritual mysteries, mysteries deeper than most of what they hear in the more formal retreat talks, or even – dare I say it – in my retreat Mass homily. And so, in this simple kids’ game, our retreat embodies Jesus’ beautiful prayer, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Portland. He is a monthly contributor to theSpes Unica blog, reflecting primarily on the work of Holy Cross in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in the field of education to bring hope to the Church and world.