For a decade now, I've gone away on a personal retreat once a year, usually just for 24 hours. Two years ago, they accidentally booked me in for 48 hours so I rationed my food and stayed the whole time. I'm scheduled in for the last weekend in January 2012, but a craving for quiet meant I went this past weekend too.
The place I go to is about a half-hour from home, an old farm homestead that has been converted to a retreat centre. There's wifi only in the conference area. I once went there with a group of friends and one of my closest friends and I decided to walk in a quiet pine forest and some distance out, hearing the crackle of Something Else Out There With Us, we thought of bears and retreated, terrified but laughing at ourselves.
The particular place I stay at is a teeny weeny cottage. It's a former dairy with thick stone walls. The whole thing might be 12 feet wide and 12 feet long. There are two rooms -- with the mini kitchen alongside the pullout bed, and the toilet, desk and shower in the other room. It has everything a person could need.
Except for a few key things this weekend.
The bathroom desk -- which is nicer than it sounds -- is equipped with a desk lamp, a journal (to record observations about one's time at the Hermitage), and a group of candles. I brought a nice soy candle of my own. I did not bring matches, but there are always matches there. Not this time. I searched every nook and cranny -- including under the sink, in pots, in the first aid kit - and there were none. No candles for me. I worked all new-fashioned with the desk lamp and fell asleep, really late.
When I woke up in the morning, I surveyed my hot drink options. Note that I had brought all the options -- and that there were options. I had brought decaf coffee, decaf Earl Grey tea, Creativity rooibus tea, peppermint tea and apple juice. Not one speck of caffeine. Quite accidentally. I made and drank a cup of Earl Grey, hoping to fool my brain.
Then I set out to walk the labyrinth as I often do. The ground, the trees, every blade of grass, every twig and every dried wildflower dazzled with hoarfrost in the early morning light. I walked along one of the paths in the field, and through a little incline and cluster of trees to approach the labyrinth. I spotted a man stepping in, and then another man coming toward me on another path. I decided to wait, and to walk around the trees. I kept my eyes open for the massive wooden cross that stands on a hill, surrounded by a pile of rough field stones. Couldn't see it. The trees must have grown up, I thought. I thought I saw it, then, but it was a telephone pole. Curious, I circled back toward the labyrinth and to the place where the cross stood. There atop the pile of stones was a small stool and a woman sitting on it with a book. In the morning light she looked like a statue, like Rodin's The Thinker.
I sat down on a bench, near the heap, and kept stealing glances up at the woman. I thought it might be a statue. I thought it might be a dream. I felt sick at heart -- more than I would have thought. I kept saying to myself, "There's a lady where the cross should be."
A friend of mine wrote to me after my recent blog post about faith. She suggested that doubt was good -- I agree - and that probably I was living a good moral life, faith or no faith. What I tried to explain to her was that what was missing at times was what felt like a partnership, a relationship -- that all that was left was me. As I looked at the woman sitting in the place where Jesus was, I felt indignant and upset -- but much more than I might ordinarily when I push that relationship, that partnership out to the edges of my life in order to put this lady -- myself -- at the top of the pile.
I wandered somewhat unhappily away. I assumed that this retreat centre had received flack about the cross from other groups that wanted to use the facilities, and so had removed it and left it as a place for contemplation of any stripe. I felt a sense of loss: are any of us strengthened when others' faiths are watered down? I don't think so.
I thought about the three kinds of power I had lost: light/heat; caffeine; the Cross. (Once I came to this centre to write and all four of my pens died. Every year after, I've brought a laptop and a fistful of pens.)
Later in the morning, I walked up to the conference centre kitchen to ask for a book of matches. They had hot water brewing and tea bags, and would not take my money for a cup of tea or the matches. I asked the man working in the kitchen about the cross: it had blown down in a massive windstorm this summer and would be re-erected -- resurrected -- next spring.
In an instant, the power was back on.
It wasn't so much that I actually needed the matches for warmth, the caffeine for wakefulness or a cross on a hill for faith. But their absence jarred me into awareness.
You can't force much on a retreat. You can't get far when you insist on epiphanies; that's precisely when they elude. You can't do the same thing twice -- once I saw a rainbow that cascaded down seemingly onto my wee cottage. You can only get quiet, pay attention and take it in, if and when it comes.