On Retreat: Life, Love, and Spirituality

I went on a retreat to St. Andrew’s Abbey over Thanksgiving weekend. It was one of those things my husband arranged because he thought I would enjoy it and as always he seems to know me better than I know myself. The retreat combined three things often missing from my busy life: beauty, time alone with my husband, and silence.

Beauty is all around me but on most days in my rush to and from work, from meeting to meeting, and from community events to errands I fail to notice. My days, like those of most professionals, have more demands than hours. This academic year I made a decision not to bring unpleasant work home with me and instead spent one hour every evening walking. The more I walked and shut out all the to-dos running through my thoughts the happier I became. I can walk and meditate,  walk and listen to music, or walk and listen to books on tape. Sometimes, I just walk, looking at and listen to my community.

When we arrived at the Abbey one of the first things we did was visit the tree garden. When my husband was a young graduate student he took a course on St. Augustine with Fr. Eleutherius Winance, O.S.B., who was on the founders of the Abbey. He had invited the class out to visit and showed them the tree garden he had planted. At the time the trees were not as tall as my husband. He fondly remembered Fr. Winance and was taken by the beauty of the place. Almost 40 years later the trees are majestic and stand out against the desert landscape. It was easy to see how the memory of this peaceful tree garden had been engraved into the memory of a young man and why it drew him back.

The beauty continued from the tree garden up the hill and through the stations of the cross. Even in the winter, the sun in the desert is intense yet I wanted to stay. I walked the stations two days and a portion of the third day. Each day I noticed something new and yet each day I thought less and felt more.

During the evening someone always built a fire in the large wood burning fireplace. The smell of the wood, the crackle, and the flames flickering has always been something that I find both beautiful and soothing. I love that I can flip a switch and have a fire in my fireplace, but it isn’t quite the same without the smell and the sound. It lacks the ability to take me back to my childhood and time spent at family gatherings around my parent’s fireplace.

Time alone with my husband when neither of us is working is far too rare. I sometimes wonder if work is an obsession or a calling for each of us. I’m sure it is a passion. It isn’t always easy to follow my calling with love and patience when it pulls me away from my bashert and so I have learned to make every minute special. The geography between us is bridged by love and a shared view of the importance of helping those in need, leaving the world with a little more knowledge, and adding as much beauty as possible.

Silence allows the heart to hear. Rustling leaves and the sounds of birds were only interrupted in the morning by the bells calling us to lauds and then breakfast in silence. The silence seemed to slow the beginning of the day and allow us to enjoy the time sitting across the table from each other. As we sat together to share surprisingly superior coffee and a light breakfast the lack of sound was not a lack of communication. It was an opportunity to listen to what can only be heard in silence. The silence was enhanced by the lack of internet, television, radio, and cellular reception. The functioning phone booth should have been a clue. Maybe that phone was a symbol that the world was still present, but it would take an effort to engage with it and in that moment the last thing I wanted was for the world to intrude.

I wonder what most people want and expect when they go on retreat? I thought it would be a relaxing time to let go of the world and explore my faith. Yet when I left it wasn’t my faith or my church that I felt closer to, but rather my husband. He showed me the tree garden that Fr. Winance had planted almost 40 years ago and I understood why it had impressed him as a young graduate student. We shared our love of the desert, the quietness, the simplicity of the surroundings, and most of all the joy of being together free of the world.

Retreats don’t always bring us closer to God. Sometimes God uses them to brings us closer those we love.

When our vacation ended I returned to the mid-west and my husband to northern Virginia. We are physically still in different cities, but now when I am quite I am much closer to him. When I turn off the world he is only as far away as a meditation in a tree garden. In simplicity, we are bound in a space of shared love. It isn’t always God with whom we need to be closer. Sometimes, it is good to remember that we live in a community and in communion with those we love. I left the retreat in love all over again and open to more fully loving those in my communities. My husband knew me better than I knew myself.

I vow:

  • to leave something beautiful in the world for others.
  • to take time each day for silence.
  • to be a guide and not just a purveyor of information to students.

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure. Henri Nouwen

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