I Retreat to a Retreat
How does a chronically ill Friend, whose attendance at meeting for worship is irregular at best, manage to take a vacation? This question has perplexed me for over 13 years. The ill need vacations just as much as do the overworked. After all, our “workdays” last 24 hours, with no days off. It is a challenge to figure out where to sojourn when I can’t tolerate noise, odors, heat, cold, or sitting up for a whole hour—not to mention that my driving is limited to about ten minutes.
A Buddhist friend who had stayed at a sangha in California for six months inspired me to consider retreat houses. I located a few possible places within my geographic radius and read about them online. A Catholic retreat house on the ocean looked splendid.
“Are you open to the general public?” I ask on the telephone. “Yes, and if you’d like to come soon,” the receptionist replies, “I have a cancellation for a week-long silent retreat.”
The theme would be “Crossings” with twice daily presentations and group meditation, all attendance optional. I sign on with delight. At meeting for worship, an hour never feels like enough time in a spiritual community. As a largely homebound Friend, I spend most of my days alone. Meditation or worship when one is alone is an entirely different experience from being in a group.
Transportation and pet sitting materialize. I pack. The day comes.
JoAnn picks me up at my apartment. We stash my suitcase in the trunk. Then we settle me in with pillows in the back seat. She drives so smoothly that I don’t realize an hour and a half has passed. I sit up as we get off the highway and gaze for a few minutes at the beach town, one I never visited before. Huge houses line the dunes. Having obtained an industrialist’s summer home in the 1940s for their retreat house, the Sisters now own an 1880s mansion with a new chapel and dormitory wing. JoAnn and I are dumbstruck at the wealth and beauty of the order’s property.
As soon as I enter, I sense how calm the environment is. I feel joy surging in me. What a rare feeling joy is. The writer Henri Nouwen said, “Joy is always connected with movement, renewal, rebirth, change—in short, with life.” I have a feeling that this retreat will be an opening in a very restricted life.
The ocean rolls behind the building, visible through windows on every wall. My room is small and simply furnished, with the luxury of a sink. I’m pleased to be on the ground floor, near the communal bathroom and the dining hall. Quietly, women trickle into the retreat house all afternoon.
We gather for supper; those who are old friends greet each other warmly. There are 45 retreatants, mostly middle-aged and older. I’m relieved that I blend in physically; with an illness, I am always conscious of sticking out in groups. Silence commences as we eat, and I am acutely aware of the symphony of silverware.
Later that evening, we gather again in a circle of chairs in the airy chapel. We introduce ourselves. Two women wearing the same Ireland T-shirt laugh and say that they have each brought several other souvenir shirts from their trips abroad. Then four or five women with Irish accents introduce themselves and joke that they need some American souvenir shirts.
It turns out that I am one of only two attendees who is not a nun.
By evening, I have a list of questions. Is it permissible to flush during the night, or would that wake the occupants of the two nearest rooms? Can you make tea at off-hours? Do you wait for everyone at your table to finish eating before you excuse yourself? After showering, must you dress in the stall, or can you return through the hall to your room in a bathrobe? Is it okay for a non-Catholic to sit in at a Mass? Should you make eye contact during silence when you pass someone in the halls? A friendly Sister gives me all the answers.
The next moming it is clear to me that in my anxiety not to offend, I have been looking for rules where they don’t exist. Generic norms are all that are needed: common politeness that would apply in any group.
There are holdovers from the old days of women religious: There is only one mirror, and that one is warped. The single beds are very hard. The yoga mat I had brought to use when lying outside gets tucked under my sheets for padding.
You’d think some of these women were models. They dress in simple but very lovely clothes of individual style. Their faces are scrubbed and smooth, their hair mostly short and grey or white. Many have augmented the religious marriage rings with other rings, and hands gleam at the dining tables.
The idea of a silent retreat attracted me as a Quaker and as a person with neurological problems. Here, there is none of the onerous work of trying to decide if a room full of people is too noisy, if one properly remembers what someone told her yesterday, or if one is accurately following the bouncing ball of a conversation. I feel utterly at home in silence: I could easily live like this.
When women do wish to talk, they simply go off to a quiet corner where they won’t disturb others and have their chat.
There are Hershey’s Kisses in silver dishes, tins of sugar cookies, an extra Danish in a dish towel, and chocolate sheet cake with fudge frosting. There is a massive, communal sweet tooth here.
Breakfast is 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., but food is available all morning. Morning Mass is open to the public and is at 8:30 a.m. The first lecture and meditation is at 10:00 a.m. Dinner, the hot meal, is served at noon. The second lecture and meditation is at 4:00 p.m. A light supper is at 5:30 p.m. Evening service is at 7:00 p.m. Everything is optional. We are encouraged to do exactly what we each need and wish to do. This includes carrying our meals on a tray to our rooms, the pool, or the pavilion, if we do not wish to eat in the dining room.
We settle into our routines by the second or third day. I find myself going to bed as the sun goes down and sleeping well. The flexibility encourages doing what the body and spirit need.
In the afternoons I take my usual rest. It is so calm here that I don’t have to stay in my room; I’m resting well and deeply in one of the salon recliners facing big windows, the pool, and the ocean. If someone else sits down, it is done slowly and quietly and with no expectation of conversation. How companionable to sit in silence like this. In the Henri Nouwen book I have borrowed from the retreat house library, I find this passage: “It is as important to be silent with friends as it is to speak with them…words are important in bringing hearts together, but too many words can alienate us from one another.”
My mind’s engine stops running. I stop thinking in sentences. Instead, I am experiencing sensations: the sound of bird calls different from those in the oak tree outside my apartment, the flow of my own emotions merely noticed, the taste of each fruit in the fruit salad, the thrum of a fishing boat engine, the scents of clover and honeysuckle, the feel of the ocean air, the way other women walk, how low tide sounds so different from high tide, the clink of our utensils as we eat, how my body feels when relaxed and at peace, how a smile feels on my face.
Needing a Reclining Chair
My medical condition includes an inability to sit up for longer than about thirty minutes without intense pain and fainting. I try to sit up the first day for the lecture and meditation, but they last a full hour. At the end, shaky and pasty white, I ask one of the two Sisters who are leading the program whether someone could put a recliner or pool chaise in the room for me. To my shock, she reacts with anger. Resolution takes three conversations and the intervention of the Sister who answered my earlier questions. Perhaps the leader’s objections have to do with her sense of coddling (“There are Sisters in their 90s who don’t ask for special accommodations!”). I calmly reply that I can’t see why workshop presenters wouldn’t want every participant to be at ease so that they might be able to absorb as much as possible. Finally a chaise materializes. I take a great leap forward and tell myself that I can forgive the Sister, even without understanding her reasons for anger, and still be open to what she is offering in the workshop.
Being Alone Too Much
Nouwen writes, “Solitude is the ground from which community grows. . . Solitude is essential for community life because there we begin to discover a unity that is prior to all unifying actions.” That may well be true, but those of us who spend most of every day alone due to illness may not progress to the community part of it.
Although I have many good friends, they mostly live too far away to see, and for the most part, they do not know each other. There is estrangement in my blood families, so no relatives visit. I do not feel myself to be an integral part of any group at all. The sole tangible community in my current life is my meeting. Even there, I largely participate at a distance, writing book reviews for the newsletter. During setbacks and relapses, I don’t go to meeting for worship for weeks or months at a time.
At this retreat, I come to know that some creative thought will need to go toward how to feel more a part of my meeting community. I must ascertain whether there are other actual physical communities I can join or create that are within my body’s limits. This is an enormous challenge for the housebound. The absence of tangible community leads to isolation on every level. When we are not needed, feel we have nothing to contribute, and lose a sense of belonging and attachment, we can lose a sense of purpose, or even the desire to live.
The Latin roots of the word “religion” are re (again) and ligate (to bind). Robin Alpern, a Quaker, writes: “Whether you bind to yourself, your family, your community, a tree or a bird, a God, or to life, the Universe, and Everything, binding together is at the heart of religious or spiritual life.”
An older Sister has brought a harp. When asked, she modestly admits that she built it herself. She is tiny and I love picturing her with woodworking tools, creating a bulky instrument.
Each lecture and meditation session begins with a song from an Irish religious CD. One moming, I am shocked at the words, sung in a treacly Karen Carpenter-style voice: “Come, God; come often; come deep; come long.”
Someone plays CDs occasionally at meals. Chopin piano nocturnes evoke memories of doing barre exercises at ballet class as a young teen. My fingers trace out the ballet movements while waiting in line for food. I suddenly feel like grabbing the hands of the Sister behind me and waltzing down the room with her—another flood of delight.
After supper, many of us meander outside and claim benches, chairs, and beach chaises facing the ocean. Although we are looking eastward, the reflected sunset makes the sky ever so soft. The Sisters in the covered pavilion at the water’s edge spontaneously clap and laugh at the moment of sunset.
I can lie comfortably for hours after supper in the mesh chairs that tip back, and I am perfectly content without a book or anything to do but absorb the lovely world around me. Living in a high apartment, I rarely put my bare feet on grass or sit outside at sunset. These hours outside are another form of connection that is missing in my life. They become a great gift at the retreat and a necessity for the future.
The Sneak Baptism
On the last morning, I venture to Mass, lying on my chair at the edge of the room. A priest gives confession, and then one of the Sisters blesses the participants with holy water on their foreheads at the font. I am engrossed and moved watching this ceremony, so alien to my Quaker tradition. At the very end comes a moment of hesitation. Suddenly the Sister steps from the font and leans over, putting the water on my forehead and murmuring “May you heal.” My eyes tear, even as I wonder whether to be slightly offended. After all, they know I am a Friend. Quickly I decide to take this in the spirit of inclusion and generosity with which it was offered. “Thank you,” I murmur, meaning it: meaning, thank you for all the blessings of this lovely, restful, nurturing, challenging, amusing, surprising week.