Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

How I Failed Retreat 101

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published April 26, 2012

When we first moved into our home in Decatur, my husband and I fantasized about the fruit and flowers we would raise, but as the years passed, we trimmed down our expectations.

You see, our yard is richly shaded by gigantic trees, and it seemed that every crop we yearned to plant required the one thing we couldn’t provide, which was sunlight.

Everything changed, though, one summer when I went on a women’s retreat at a secluded monastery.

I will always remember arriving at the monastery and being riveted by the rush of absolute quiet that filled my ears. The silence was so stunning that I was able to detect the sizzle of each individual raindrop as it hit the concrete path.

As I unpacked, I basked in the humble simplicity of my room, which contained a bed, a table and an armchair. I read for a while, then visited the chapel and said a few prayers.

There didn’t seem to be anyone else around, so I went for a long walk. And then, after a few hours of complete solitude, I was mortified when a wrenching sense of loneliness settled on my shoulder like a big annoying bird akin to the albatross in “The Ancient Mariner.”

Fortunately, there was something to distract me: The nuns would soon be serving supper in the dining hall where I would be sitting with the other women on retreat. I rushed in, eager for a chat, and then realized the bitter truth.

Meals were eaten in total silence.

In my childhood silence at supper meant one of the kids was in trouble and tensions were running high, so as I sat quietly eating my simple fare with the other women, the feeling of loneliness intensified.

I awakened at the crack of dawn the next day and began counting the minutes until breakfast. I was the first one to arrive in the dining hall because I was so eager to glimpse other human beings.

Breakfast consisted of coffee, orange juice and toast—all consumed in silence. Once the meal was over, there were morning prayers, and then I was on my own again, so I decided to take another stroll around the grounds.

It was then that I stumbled upon a thick grove of blueberry bushes, heavy with fruit. They had clearly been there for many years. And what stunned me was an undeniable fact that contradicted one of my basic assumptions: The blueberries were thriving in full shade.

I hurried back to my room, eager to share this bit of news with someone, and then realized there was no one around. I tucked the fact away in my head on a list titled “stuff to tell my husband later.”

After prayers in the chapel, I devoured a sandwich (in silence) for lunch. But try as I might, as the hours wore on, I couldn’t shake that lonesome bird from my shoulder.

I kept envisioning my husband and our two cats on the back deck having a barbecue. My imagination was so vivid I could almost detect the aroma of charcoal and hear strains of country music playing.

As I began counting the minutes until the mid-afternoon snack—when I would again see human beings—I realized the bitter truth: I simply couldn’t take another moment of solitude.

Nearly in tears, I told one of the sisters I wanted to leave early. To her eternal credit, she was very kind and refrained from commenting about my obvious inability to spend time alone with God.

Even if my attempt at a retreat was a failure, some good came out of it. You see, a few weeks later, we planted a nice thicket of blueberry bushes in our front yard.

And each summer, the ripening berries remind me that every assumption needs to be tested, now and again—and many dreams assumed to be impossible may actually come true.

But there is a deeper truth I learned from that retreat long ago.

The nuns give up husband and children to live their simple existences, and in their hours of prayerful silence, they reap great spiritual rewards. They live quietly and humbly, hidden from the world like the grove of blueberries—and yet thriving.

As for me, I may never be a woman who basks in hours of solitude, but I do thank God for the life he has given me.

It may include an occasional visit from the albatross of loneliness, but there is also the wonder of back-deck barbecues—and blueberries growing in the shade.