When I set out on my year of performing spiritual and corporal works of mercy upon my 40th birthday, I figured by far the easiest of the works would be to “Pray for the Living and the Dead.” How hard can it be to pray, especially for someone who is already committed to daily prayer? For me, the answer depends on how quietly you go about it.
Ever the one to complicate things, I decided I would attend a silent retreat, spending an entire weekend in quiet prayer. I didn’t want to be a wimp, and just say a few decades of the rosary and cross this work of mercy off my list. After all, being 40 is not for the faint of heart. It was time to buck up and shut up – literally.
My husband was willing to join me, and I knew of another couple from my church that planned to attend. Still, I talked myself out of going a ridiculous amount of times, but each time I felt like I was cheating myself out of a unique experience. I kept thinking about how I had committed myself to do these works no matter how uncomfortable they might make me feel. So I decided to let go of the apprehensions of the unknown and approach the silent weekend of prayer like a child with a secret too good to share. I zipped my mouth closed, turned the lock and threw away the key.
Driving in the dark Friday night, with the destination being the middle of nowhere was disorienting. It reminded me of playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey as a child, turning around and around blinded by everything but specks of light that peak through where the folds of fabric fail to overlap. When you arrive at a halt, it is somehow jarring to have the motion and darkness cease as you are left fumbling for a way to reunite the donkey’s tail with his ass. In the end, you are left staring at the donkey with his tail pinned somewhere close to his right ear – wondering how you ever got so far off course.
Perhaps that is the point of the retreat, to see how far off course I am, and figure out how the dizzying chaos of life can lead me in the wrong direction.
When we arrived at Camp Middle-of-Nowhere, we went to mass and listened to a rousing sermon about how much God loves each of us. Afterward, we were told how the retreat is based on a spiritual exercise by Saint Ignatious with participant’s focusing on different points of meditation. Apparently Saint Ignatious intended the silence to last a month instead of a mere weekend. Can you imagine?!
Turns out the weekend would not be completely silent as we would be listening to two priests from Spain give talks throughout the retreat, and then we would prayerfully meditate on its points. While we were discouraged from any type of communication, I was glad to know someone would be talking.
I wondered what the European priests thought of Camp-Middle-of-Nowhere. My husband and I have traveled to Spain and remember the beautiful cathedrals, public squares, and quaint villages. I was a little embarrassed that this was the best we had to show them of America, and I hope they realized our country is more than green pasture surrounding a shriveling lake, showing clear signs of drought-induced dehydration.
After mass and a brief orientation we were dismissed, and I was eager to see our room. It was freezing outside and I was watching my husband, do all these bizarre hand signals pointing to the car and then doing some walk signal with his fingers that made me think of that advertisement for the Real Yellow Pages, where your fingers do the walking. Obviously, he was asking if I wanted to walk or drive to our cabin. I shrugged my indifference, and we got in the car.
The door was barely shut before he enthusiastically pollutes the pure silence. “Are we going to talk?!” he spouts like a smokestack of emissions. I grabbed a pen and wrote on the envelope that contained the room key, “Do you want to?” Before I could finish writing the short sentence, he scolds me, “You can’t write on that…we have to turn that in…blah, blah, blah.” I pointed the pen again at my question and he answered yes, but I had already decided no. I gestured as such and he parked in front of several small buildings.
Our room was like a tribute to concrete – concrete floors (not the polished, trendy kind you might find at a boutique hotel, but ones that look like you could just give them a good hose down and you’d be ready for the next guest), concrete block walls and an abundance of beds each with a mattress that technically were not concrete, but were hard enough to imitate the stiff substance. The room was set up as a dorm with seven different bunk beds. I had always lamented never being brave enough to go away to spend the night camp as a child, so although the bunks were not appealing there was a tiny part of me who thought, alas – summer camp!
All of the beds except one were metal and painted in a mint green that reminded me of the similarly-flavored chocolate chip ice cream. I would have to bet that this was original lead paint as these beds were true antiquities, and made a mental note not to eat them.
We started signing back and forth about which bed we would take. I had my eye on the top bunk of the mint bed with the thin metal spindles which reminded me of a fashionable chevron pattern. He wanted the only wood bunk in the joint. He gestured, like a game show host, the significant merits of its width compared to the more narrow metal beds. I stomped my feet, but he won the prize as he showed me how he intended to remove the top bunk and reconfigure the beds next to each other so we could sleep side-by-side.
Since I was never meant for the independence of sleep-away camp, I nodded my consent. At opposite ends of the bed we stood trying to detach the top bunk from its mate. Although it looked like it was made of pine, it also must have been constructed from concrete because it was too heavy for me to elevate.
Sleeping arrangements left ambiguous, I went about settling into the room trying to conjure images of a rustic cabin instead of a cold dorm room. The bathroom, while also concrete, was outfitted with two miniature pedestal sinks and two separate toilets. While we have two sinks in our master bathroom at home, we only have one measly toilet. This is quite a luxury. In fact, no five-star hotel we have ever stayed in had his and hers commodes.
Marveling at my good fortune, I returned to see my husband still contemplating the wooden bunks like they were an equation that needed to be solved and he simply needed the right formula. Then suddenly, he found his solution — he indicated that he would remove the bed from the wide part on his side and then run over to my side to help me lower it before it collapsed and crushed me to death.
Since I couldn’t really articulate my concern of ending up like mushed bug on the concrete floor, I flailed in silence as the weight of the lopsided bed tilted toward me. He ran to my side and rescued the falling bed. With a loud crash the top bunk was adjacent to the bottom. He was silently smug with success. I was happy to be alive.
The only noise the rest of the night came from my stomping and snapping which I thought was a lot of fun. It reminded me of the theme music from the Addams Family sitcom. There was a certain cadence to it. Besides, what woman does not relish the opportunity to snap her fingers and have her wish be his command? Maybe there was something to this silent retreat.
We went to sleep side-by-side in our respective twin beds, not knowing what kind of noise the silence of a new day would bring to both mind and heart.