In the Absence of Words
I arrived at Gonzaga: Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at low tide and sunset.
Behind the large house, a Jesuit-run spiritual center since 1958, kelp beds were aglow with the day’s last light.
Inside, the ocean smells gave way to those of dinner: pork, potatoes, and corn on the cob. About 30 other retreatants were already eating and talking — this with a certain urgency, because silence would soon descend for the remainder of the three-day weekend.
“Freed from small talk and other distractions, we can better hear that inner voice,” Father Jim Keegan told us during introductions to the weekend retreat. He explained where the library and bicycles were located, and suggested we spend time outdoors. “You’ll see No Trespassing signs around. Disregard them,” he said, to laughter.
Eastern Point offers two kinds of retreats: directed, where individual participants meet daily with a leader, and guided, during which group presentations are offered as aids to contemplation. My group of six was led by Father Rick Stanley, who urged us to draw closer to God through prayer as “an attentiveness, a listening.” We were of varying faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish — but everyone hoped to gain understanding in the quiet. One man sought guidance on how to proceed with the adoption of a baby. A woman said she’d come out of a need to feel close to her deceased son. Several people mentioned a desire for time away from their daily lives to sort something out.
“There’s an unmasking that takes place in the silence,” said Rick Margolis, the man considering adoption. “You can be your true self here.”
By Saturday that silence had settled in, a penetrating quiet broken by the occasional cry of a gull. Some of us spent the hours in sunny nooks in the old stone mansion. Others headed out on walks around nearby Niles Pond or along the ocean rocks. On Brace Cove beach, I encountered the woman I’d sat next to at breakfast. We walked quietly together for a while before parting.
Nighttime at Eastern Point had its challenges. The absence of TV and Internet wasn’t a big deal, but to have so many people around and no one to talk to was a bit disconcerting. I wished I’d brought a book and maybe earplugs — at night, the house itself was less than quiet. Doors banged and pipes hummed beneath the sink in my clean but spartan room.
As for the silence, it varied over time — sometimes buoyant, sometimes heavy. On the last night, when we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, the opening bars of a Russian folk tune came as a relief. The group burst into song, loudly enough to overcome the sound of rain drumming on the roof. After Communion, as we were heading for the dining room, the rain abruptly ceased and we made our way outdoors. A full rainbow arced the length of the ocean horizon.
The next morning when our small group reconvened, speech at last restored, the rainbow was acknowledged as a moment of grace. We talked about the peace we felt in its presence, about the community that can form in the absence of words.
Gonzaga: Eastern Point Retreat House, 37 Niles Pond Rd., Gloucester, MA. Rates begin at $180 for a weekend retreat with private room and shared bathroom; meals included. 978-283-0013. easternpoint.org
The Many Forms of Divinity
On my first evening at the Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center, in the hills of Litchfield, Connecticut, I came upon a labyrinth. It was dusk, and the path of embedded stone and brick wasn’t easy to see, but I decided to try it anyway.
The circuitous route doubled back and detoured several times. With the dark closing in, I began to feel impatient. Finally, the center became obvious. I stepped into it and stood, anxiety dropping away. The message couldn’t have been clearer if someone had shouted it in my ear: Slow down. Trust that you will reach your destination.
If the labyrinth is a metaphor for life’s journey, then Wisdom House prides itself on honoring the many paths that lead to understanding. That weekend, several groups were in retreat on the center’s 54-acre campus. Members of the Women’s Center of Huntington, Long Island, occupied the farmhouse; as I made my way inside, I could see their candle-lit circle through the window. In the main building, where I was staying, the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, were downstairs watching The Chronicles of Narnia. The smell of popcorn wafted from the room. A sign taped to the door asked, “What longings for us as a community were stirred up as possibilities in this film?”
Besides offering private retreats, Wisdom House hosts programs on topics from the Bible and sacred chanting to money management and yoga. The flexibility is by design. Wisdom House occupies what was originally a novitiate and convent for the Daughters of Wisdom, a Catholic order founded to serve the poor and the outcast. Sister Rosemarie Greco, the center’s administrator, says it now reaches out to “anyone seeking divine wisdom,” with an emphasis on women and artists, groups she counts among today’s marginalized.
The place is ardently interfaith, with activist overtones. Displays urged action on human trafficking and the rights of minorities and women. Vegetarian options were offered at meals; fair-trade coffee was served. The center is deeply committed to the fight against the privatization of water — “a spiritual issue that is generating a global political crisis,” says Sister Rosemarie. During introductions, she urged retreatants to drink the center’s artesian well water and to eschew bottled water.
Although retreats are only occasionally conducted in silence, the center’s large size and solid — if institutional — construction seem to mitigate noise. Some guests find the quiet daunting; Sister Rosemarie urges them not to turn away. “Things may come up in the silence, but at least they’re important things,” she says. My small, homey room was on the fourth floor with the Ursuline Sisters, who in any case were exceedingly quiet in word and in action.
Unless you’re there as part of a program, the experience at Wisdom House is somewhat looser than the one at Eastern Point. I got up early the next morning to go down to the chapel, a lovely open space where several other women were already in prayer. After breakfast — buffet style — I returned to the labyrinth. This time it was easier to walk it as intended: slowly, with deliberation. The place was having its effect. I went back inside to read from a book of meditations I’d found in the lounge beside my room.
Other visitors reported an equally peaceful experience. “It’s a wonderful, safe place,” said Nancy Sajda, a retired computer development manager who was there with the Women’s Center. “I’ve been here at least 10 times and I hope to keep coming back.”
Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center, 229 East Litchfield Rd., Litchfield, CT. Rates vary, depending on duration/type of stay and type of accommodation; meals included. 860-567-3163. wisdomhouse.org