(*I wrote this in longhand while I was on retreat, and am now typing it out, so the dates don't match up.*)
On retreat -- Windridge Solitude - 29 July 2007
I came home yesterday from Notre Dame, and noticed with some chagrin that the serenity that I felt while I was there disappeared as soon as I returned to the world of bad drivers and poorly managed restaurants. All it took was being stuck in a car for a few hours while hungry and tired to make me lose my cool, which is discouraging from the standpoint of making progress in the spiritual life. All the talk about true self and emptiness and whatever falls by the wayside so easily...
(*Case in point: I stopped in Pontiac, IL, a little one-horse town along I-55, looking for a place to eat. I ended up in a turning lane, but I didn't want to turn -- it would have taken me who-knows-where with no easy way to get back -- so I hung around at the green arrow for 5 seconds or so until the green light came on to go straight, and I went straight ahead to get to a restaurant. A guy followed me into the parking lot to fuss at me, implying that he was an off-duty cop and he would have ticketed me had he been on duty. His daughter made faces at me from the passenger seat the whole while, presumably either to make fun of me for getting fussed at, or to make fun of her dad for raising a ruckus. Anyway, I brushed the guy off rather rudely, then, not finding vegetarian fare at the restaurant, I self-righteously shook the dust of Pontiac from my feet in protest and sped off to the next exit in search of lunch. Me and my amazing performing ego...*)
I just got back into St. Louis last night, and I've been living out of a suitcase all summer, so part of me wasn't really excited about turning right back around and leaving for retreat, but a big part of me wanted the down time. I went last night and bought what I hoped would be enough food to last me 5 days, and this morning I got up early and left. I arrived at the retreat center about 9:45 and was met by one of the sisters, a very small woman in her 50s. We loaded my stuff into their Mule, a sort of dune-buggy/golf cart hybrid, and brought it out to the hermitage where I was to stay, then came back to the main house for mass. The five women here, I found out, are all former members of other religious orders -- two former Dominicans and three former Pallotines -- who had desired greater solitude than their communities were able to let them have. Given my own increasing desire for solitude over the past few years, the setup they created piqued my curiosity. More on that in a moment...
Mass consisted of 9 of us: the five sisters, another retreatant (an SSND), myself and the priest, and Toby, their ancient, deaf dog, who padded gamely around the chapel the whole time. The mass had a marvelous, simple spirit that said a lot about the openness that the community members have with each other. Afterwards, we sat around and chatted a bit before the sister who welcomed me took me on a brief tour of the grounds, explained the amenities of my hermitage, and left.
There are three hermitages on site for guests, and each has everything a retreatant could want: cooking utensils, oven, CD player, couch/futon, screened-in porch, deck chair, even a fully stocked mini BBQ grill. There is a lake stocked with fish (and fishing equipment for those who wish to catch their dinner), a hammock, lots of meadows and walking trails, and a modest library of spiritual literature, including an impressive collection of works by or about Thomas Merton (!).
After I stowed all my things, I settled in to the quiet, gearing myself up for 5 days without human communication. It seems like an axion to me that the ego (or at least my ego) is going to try to find something to distract itself from all this silence, and today it was concerns about food. I kept coming back to wondering if I had enough food for the week, if I would have to ration, if I would be able to leave to go to a supermarket if I ran out of food, and all this other stupid stuff that had to be my ego just getting scared by the quiet. In reality, I brought enough food for an army. (*Since I am on the subject, let me just mention the joy of having simple, fresh foods here. While I was at Notre Dame, I saw an article on avocados in some food magazine, and I have been craving avocados ever since, so I stocked up before I came here. Lunch this afternoon was a big piece of fresh whole-grain bread, a little cheese, and an extremely ripe avocado that melted like butter in my mouth. Marvelous.*)
The rest of the day alternated between periods of meditation and reading or walking around. I walked to the pond for a little while, fed the fish with some of the dog food they keep in a bug 5-gallon bucket for that purpose, and drained the water out of the little boat they have by the water's edge. Tomorrow I'll o paddle around if the weather stays nice. Mostly, though, I just sat still. I will do some work on my class, and I would like to read some of the stuff they have here on the eremitic life and on Merton, but I don't want this to become simply a time to be left alone so I can read. Even reading about contemplation is just as much a distraction as anything else if it keeps me from actually being still. Anyway, there is a sense of "rightness" about this place. Before Hurricane Katrina, I used to imagine someday being able to spend more time at the lodge in Bay St. Louis, even with an eye toward a semi-hermit life. That lodge doesn't exist any more, but I still am interested in more solitude down the road. There is certainly plenty of precedent with the monastic orders and even the mendicants, but is that compatible with an apostolic order? These women didn't seem to think so (even among the Dominican women, who are technically mendicants), but their persistence in following the Spirit led to the development of this magnificent place. Of course, given my work schedule, I already have a certain measure of solitude -- time in the afternoons in my office when students are still in class, late nights when I come home and everyone else is asleep -- but I want to keep that kind of space a priority and not merely a happy accident of my work situation. Merton would probably say that solitude is not about liking the quiet, but about the search for God. Well and good, but is it ok to like the quiet too?
Mercy within mercy within mercy...