The path wound long through pitch black darkness leading to the secluded catholic retreat center. This would be a first for me, actually two firsts. A solitude retreat. And a catholic retreat center.
Not only do we shape our children’s spiritual journey, they also shape ours. And so as Angela’s spiritual formation converges with the liturgical church, mine brushes along its edges too.
This Pre-Advent Retreat focuses on making space for the incarnation in advance of the advent season. In the chapel with Angela for Evening Prayers, I pull down the creaky kneeler from the back of the seat in front of me. The chancel’s foci are a statue of Jesus with a slightly more petite Mary on His left. We sing, “Be Still and Know That I am God” and I am glad because the text centers my attention away from the distracting statue of Mary that seems out of place in my theological construct. When the service ends, the silence begins.
I climb the stairs to room 214 and crack open the door. My humble abode features a tile floor, a creaky bed and an old fashioned hot water radiator.
And the only wall décor? A framed picture of Mary.
There is also a comfy recliner in the corner and I cozy up in it with my soft lap blanket and Bible and talk to the only One I’m allowed to.
“God,” I vocalize. “I’m not going to ask you for anything for anybody this weekend. I’m not going to tell you my concerns because you already know them anyway. I’m here to quiet myself. I’m here to listen rather than speak. I’m always asking you all sorts of things. This weekend, I invite you to ask me something.”
I don my reading glasses and crack my Bible open to Isaiah 40 and read
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
And that’s what I’m here to do—to make space for the Lord to reveal His glory. But I am distracted at every turn.
I wonder about my youngest sweetheart who’s tucked away at a friend’s house overnight. Is she secure in my love even in my absence?
And that next princess. Maybe she’s nauseas in the bathroom heaving over the toilet alone.
And what about lovely Lily. How is daddy-daughter bonding going on this superhero movie night?
And then there’s the girl in the room down the hall, the one with a messy chest wound. And my mind wanders to the one who was careless with her heart and I’m struggling to embrace what I know about the loving sovereignty of God to her and to him.
And I realize I am spinning again, spiraling toward the eye of the tornado, the vortex of my own personal hungry monster– anxiety.
Refocus. Breathe. Read.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart;
He gently leads those that have young.
That’s me, I remind myself. I’m that lamb He’s carrying. And I’m snuggled up to His chest. I’ve got young and He’s ever so gently leading them too.
And I feel my eyelids growing heavy. Soon, sleep will prevail.
The next thing I know, I wake up in the recliner and stagger over to my extra firm bed. I guess the Catholics consider discomfort virtuous. When the heat comes on, the radiator talks—loudly- and I awaken. Several times.
It’s morning now. Time to greet a new day that holds yet to be discovered fresh, new mercies.
I default to my familiar ritual and open the shade.
Wouldn’t you know? There’s a larger than life size statue of Mary in the courtyard straight out my window.
Seriously. She’s everywhere.
What to do with Mary? I ponder L—O—N—G.
And in that pause, God speaks. “There she is. The handmaiden of the Lord.”
So I consider her story. It’s littered with snapshots of open handed living recorded over decades of life.
So many fresh, new mornings when she might have pulled the covers over her head paralyzed by her calling, she got up instead and faced her day with courage and confidence in His mercies—even the severe ones.
Informed by an angel of her immaculate conception, I wonder how Mary broke the news to her parents.
“Mom and Dad, I’m pregnant but I’m still a virgin.”
I’ve been a teenage girl– and I now parent them. That explanation would not fly in our family.
And what about the neighbors with their shaming glares and gossiping whispers? She might as well have worn a scarlet letter on her breast.
Imagine the conversation with Joseph, her fiancee. Awkward….
And then there was the road trip on the back of a donkey at full term pregnancy climaxing with a home birth delivery minus a home.
And she laid her baby, God with skin, in a feed trough in a barn.
And if that wasn’t enough drama, shortly thereafter she packed up and relocated internationally on moments notice all because of her husband’s bad dream.
And then she yielded her aspirations for her first born son, deferring to his counter intuitive strategy for kingdom building. He chose singleness and homelessness, hung with a crowd of outcasts and established a reputation as a religious agitator.
And what mother can stomach the cross, looking on helplessly, suffering vicariously while her son groans to his Father asking for a pass.
And then God never gives us the end of her story.
Who but God would think up a story like this? It’s as paradoxical as creating people for His delight and knowing they’d reject Him.
And who could He ask to participate in His madness?
I pause in my musings and God queries gently and kindly,
“Will you do that too?” “Will you invite me to write your story today… and tomorrow…. and each fresh, new day I gift you with?”
It’s time for Morning prayers so I walk thoughtfully downstairs to the chapel and recite these words: “O God our Creator, Your kindness has brought us the gift of a new morning. Help us to leave yesterday and not to covet tomorrow but to accept the uniqueness of today.”
And like the figure positioned beside the altar I say “Yes Lord. Today I will accept what You give.”
After chapel, I take a nap because rest is worship too. Then I walk for hours around the Lake of St. Mary. The trails meander through woods where the echo of my feet crunching leaves reverberates off the naked trees.
A trio of deer eye me naievely unafraid.
A formation of Canada geese honk overhead.
The wind howls across the water.
Ahead, a set of fallen trees block the walkway, obstructions on the path. Up and over the barriers I climb.
I repeat the route once, twice, three times because worshipping God in his creation is like listening to a text rich hymn or replaying a powerful sermon, each repetition illumines a new facet worthy of my consideration.
Before Evening Prayers I knock quietly on Angela’s door and whisper an invitation to make one last pass with me. Silently. We walk separately, our steps in tandem. Just as we overtake the dead tree barricade, an owl hoots in the distance. And we are suddenly characters in Owl Moon remembering that “When you go owling , you have to be quiet. You have to be brave. You don’t need words or warm or anything but hope. “
A red fox scampers out in front of us, discovers our presence in his territory and beelines for the woods.
A deer stands still as a statue watching us inquisitively, cautiously and we reciprocate.
Dusk is settling over the woods.
We stop at a bridge. Angela picks up a leaf, grins girlish and tosses it out onto the lake. The breeze cradles it gently as it floats downward and settles into the water. One leaf after another she throws them over the edge of the bridge and each travels it’s own unique path to the river below. She hands a leaf to me invitationally and suddenly we are playing Pooh-sticks using leaves and the innocence of childhood is recaptured for a moment.
But all good things must come to an end so we stop, turn and walk back to the retreat center. I wonder if God has anything else to say to me. I’m listening. But there are no more words from the Father. God isn’t verbose.
He gives manna for each day. No more and no less. Just enough.
Today he’s asked me to consider Mary.
The retreat concludes with Evening Prayers and the Holy Eucharist.
My 24 hours of solitude finishes. I pack my bag, strip my bed and flip off the lights in my little room. It’s dark as we exit and walk past the statue of Mary.
Silence has done its work.
I am prepared to enter the season of Advent, to wait and see what God will do.