Two years ago I posted about my My Weekend with the Monks at my first Silent Retreat. Still recovering from pneumonia, I missed last year’s retreat, and looked forward to returning this year. (Especially after being in Sin City earlier in the week.) I again enlisted my quiet buddy Louise as roommate, and last Friday we were off.
Although the retreat is always brief, there is no agenda, I expect very little and very little is expected of me, I find it astounding how much I am affected. I took my laptop, my Kindle, and several magazines, just in case, but barely touched any of them. Instead, God met me in unexpected, and completely surprising, ways.
My first shock was to find among my fellow participants at the retreat six young military veterans, three men and three women. Our church supports the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, and these six were given scholarships to attend the retreat. I found their presence puzzling, as they were about the same age as my son, and I could not imagine him attending a silent retreat. (I didn’t get the courage or feel the need until I was well over 50.) One of the young men told me that one of the other vets attended the silent retreat last year and enjoyed it so much that he talked the rest of them into attending with him this year.
The first night, before we went into our silence, we each offered a word to express our hope for the retreat. My word was “space,” in that my personal work during the Lenten season has been to embrace the new space in my life, including loneliness and solitude.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t considered this when I signed up for the retreat, but Friday was the 14th anniversary of my stepson’s death, and I arrived with a heavy heart. In feeling pangs of sadness for my stepson, I also found myself missing my younger son who is currently out of state busy with his military training.
On Saturday morning, I decided to take a hike up to the cemetery and spend some time in quiet reflection. After making it up the hill, I arrived to find the young vets huddled together on a bench, solemnly looking out over the rows of cross markers. As I found a spot, nearby but a respectful distance away, to sit and contemplate, I increasingly felt a sense of comfort in being with these young people. I wondered about the buddies they no doubt lost during their deployments. Despite their youth, who else would understand what it felt like to suddenly and traumatically lose someone close to them, someone too young? In that respect, I felt I was with kindred spirits, even though not a word was exchanged between us.
One of the activities for the weekend was the opportunity to paint a wooden birdhouse (they were tied to a theme for the retreat). On Friday, I picked out the one I wanted, and after lunch on Saturday, I headed over to the main room to work on it. When I arrived, I found the three young male vets sitting around the table painting their birdhouses! I briefly thought about setting up at a smaller table so as not to disturb them, but decided to join them. They graciously made a space for me, and I spent the next 90 minutes wordlessly but blissfully painting birdhouses with three strapping young men. I realized that God had lent me three “sons” for the day to soothe my yearning.
Because of the gracious provision of balm for my grief and aching, I was free to more fully explore my interior space during the weekend. I walked and napped and read, and found myself curiously drawn to books I found on Celtic wisdom and Irish poetry. The silence this time around felt like an old friend, welcome and comfortable.
My final love “wink” from God came on Sunday morning, when I headed back up to cemetery. I had previously noticed a grave marker for a monk whose birthday (month and day) was the same as my son’s. When I looked again, I noticed that the date of death (month and day) was the same as my stepson’s.
It was incredible how quickly time sped by over the course of the weekend. I didn’t experience any dramatic burning bush or road to Damascus encounters, but felt powerfully and deeply cared for and restored as I headed home. Once we could talk again, I tried to express my gratitude to the young veterans. I hugged them all and awkwardly explained to one (a former Army tank driver) how he and his friends had been such a comfort, to which he replied, “Thank you, Ma’am. Glad we could help.”