I am a retreat junkie. I’ve been to almost every retreat center on the East Coast. If I was really smart, I’d have made a log of every trip and written the equivalent to a Zagat Guide for Catholic retreats. But of course, capitalizing off my experiences seems to go against the very idea of retreats, so it’s better this way. But I still firmly believe in them and think every Catholic should go on at least one in their lifetime.
I currently live down the block from a retreat center and often find myself there at the end of challenging days. Just walking onto the grounds settles me down, and before long, I feel peaceful and centered again.
In any case, I go on so many because I find them far more restorative, edifying, relaxing and useful than a regular vacation. I have never been the tourist type and find little joy in adhering to schedules and itineraries while traveling. So I go on retreats instead.
I was raised by a lay Franciscan, so I suppose that explains it. Growing up, we rarely took the standard family vacations. We visited shrines far more than amusement parks. We went on family retreats instead of cruises or theme trips. And for whatever reason, I never felt like I was missing out. I still have no desire to visit a theme park or tourist destination.
During the years I taught for the New York City public schools, I went on five or six retreats a year, for each of the week long breaks and during the summer. They were all silent retreats. I desperately needed to sit in silence and replace all the internalized noise from my impossible work. During school hours I was immersed in a dysfunctional, hostile and frequently violent atmosphere. I needed to restore my entire being, and silence was the way for me to begin.
One of those times changed the path of my entire life. It was the summer after I’d turned 30, and I chose an 11-day silent retreat at a Benedictine center in Rhode Island. It was walking distance from the beach, and the grounds had a pond, rolling fields and a lush forest. My mother saw the pictures and decided to join me.
By the evening of the first day, we both knew this was going to be a life-changing time. My mother found a resolution to a conflict that had been plaguing her for decades.
I, on the other hand, made a big decision: time to marry. I’d waited long enough, and the single life held very little appeal. I needed a safe haven to come home to and wanted to start a family of my own. I spent the next 10 days in constant prayer, asking for guidance in this matter. I needed to know if I was on the right path in thinking marriage was the next step for me.
While there was no thunder and fire and voices from above, I did get my answer, and it came from the most unlikely place.
On the morning of the second day, I wandered out to the pond and was immediately taken with it. Dragonflies flitted over lotus blossoms. Frogs lazed on rocks in the sun. And there, a few feet from a frog, was the most magnificent heron I’d ever seen. I knew this was the spot for me, and I sat there every day for the duration of the retreat.
So did the heron.
Herons are the most graceful creatures. They can stand, completely poised and composed, for hours on end. It took me a long while to figure out what this particular beauty was doing, but when it was clear, I recognized the message.
The heron was hunting — more to the point, waiting. The object of its laser-sharp focus, a chubby frog, was completely unaware of the hunter’s presence. The heron could have pounced at any given moment with guaranteed success. But instead, it took time to wait, contemplate, measure, analyze and wait some more. I was astounded at the infinite patience, grace and strength of this creature. I was also acutely aware of the lesson contained in this observation.
I never looked up what herons symbolize, and I didn’t really need to. That was because I figured it out: I could either be the frog or the heron, the hunted or the hunter. I decided to be a little of both.
When the retreat ended, I went back to my life in New York City. August is the best time to be a New Yorker, because everyone leaves for the Hamptons or some other beachy locale. It’s a near-empty urban paradise. I sat with a book in Washington Square Park and thought back to the heron.
It was now or never: be the heron. Find the husband. Then be the frog and let him do the hunting.
And it truly was that easy.
I wrote some lyrics from one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs on the inside cover of my book: “I believe, I trust, I promise, I wish…” I envisioned the man I would marry. I already knew him; we’d been friends for nearly a year. I also knew he liked me.
So I decided to hunt for him, just the way the heron would — with patience, grace, stillness, poise and focus.
I got up off the bench and went to look for him.
What happened is the stuff of movies: I hadn’t even exited the park when I saw him walking towards me. He had the same look of focus and patience that I had. The first thing he said to me: “I’ve been looking for you.” So there we were, two herons, laser-sharp focus fixed on each other, poised and composed.
One year later, on the same date as the last day of that fateful retreat, I married him. Although the marriage eventually ended, it was one of the most life-affirming, positive relationships I’d ever had. I don’t regret a minute of it.
And the moral of this story is: without that particular retreat, I’d be living a completely different life. If that doesn’t say it all about retreats, I don’t know what does!
I just booked another one: a silent weekend in Cape May, New Jersey in April. I can only wonder what possibilities await me. Any CM members care to join me?