The famous battle cry “Retreat!” is an excellent name for the spiritual practice of leaving one’s environment and taking time out for prayer, rest, and renewal. It’s an excellent name because sometimes life is a battle, or feels anyway like a battle, and it’s good to find a safe, quiet place to put aside the troubles of the world and listen to God.
I was long overdue for a retreat–overdue in terms of my Franciscan Rule of Life, which requires at least one retreat a year, and overdue in terms of my requirements for the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, which also requires one retreat a year. And so I took three days off of work and family responsibilities and went to Little Portion Friary, a house of Franciscan friars in the worldwide Society of Saint Francis (Anglican tradition).
The Friary is on the northern side of Long Island, so I hopped on a Metro North train from New Haven to Bridgeport, CT, and then took a one-hour ferry ride across the Long Island Sound on a beautiful, sunny morning with a lot of tourists who looked like they were going to hit the Long Island beaches. The secretary at Little Portion Friary told me I could get a taxi from the ferry port to the friary, but when I told the taxi driver where I was going, he’d never heard of it. I had left the address at home, so I called Verizon 411. They didn’t have a listing for Little Portion Friary. Finally, the taxi driver’s dispatcher looked it up on the Internet for us, and we were on our way. As we were driving there, the taxi driver, who was hard of hearing, kept asking me to repeat where I was going. “Franciscan Friary!” I yelled. “A retreat center. I’m a Franciscan!” He kept asking why I was going there. “Retreat!” I yelled. “I’m going on retreat!”
When we pulled up into the unassuming driveway of what looked like a white house, he said, “Is this it?” Since it had one of those “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs, I knew I was on safe ground. I thanked him, and then he said, “Pray for me, will ya?” I asked him his name, and I said I would pray for him. And so, while saying a silent prayer for Joe the taxi driver, I walked into the friary with his question still in my head: Why AM I going here?
Because Franciscan places feel like home to me. There’s an emphasis on openness to the Spirit and to anyone or anything that turns up. There’s a focus on simplicity, of dispensing with the usual expectations of the world.
Because I needed a break from life. Don’t get me wrong: there are many, many blessings in my life, but I needed a change of place and of pace to focus on those blessings and to put aside worries.
Because quiet time in nature helps me to feel close to God and all of God’s creation.
It was VERY quiet when I got there. A sign on a stair railing at the front door said “Ring bell for friar.” I rang the hand bell, but no one came. Hmmm. I looked into an inviting library with comfy chairs and into a very simple kitchen with a dining area with laminate tables. Double hmmm.
I went outside and tried another door with a hand-drawn sign that said “Friary office.” There, I found the administrator with whom I had exchanged emails, Terry. She is the fulltime administrator who lives at the friary. She was very friendly and asked me, “Did you ring the bell?” When I told her I had, but that no one had come, she said, “Those brothers! Well, they are having a quiet day, so maybe they are being quiet.” She apologized for the quiet day, and I said, “That’s okay. Silence is fine with me.”
She showed me to my simple room (but with its own bathroom!) and around the friary house, all of which was available for my use, and explained when the community prayer and meals occurred, and then she went back to work. And so I walked the grounds, which were lush with blooming hydrangeas, lilies, sage, dahlias, daisies and lavender due to the heavy rains we had in the East this spring. There is a small wood behind the friary, and I hiked up into it, going as far as I could until I ran into the back yards of Long Island estates. (Apparently, Pete Sampras lives nearby.)
On my way back to the friary, I walked into a quiet green space, and then I realized that I was walking upon the graves of Franciscan friars and priests buried there. Oops. I was temporarily embarrassed. Did anyone see me walk on these graves? And then I laughed, because no friar would say to me, “Hey! Get off those graves!” In fact, as I stepped politely aside, I considered that these friars might be glad that they were holding me up, even in death. They would like the fact that their ashes supported me.
When I went inside and finally encountered some brothers at prayer and at lunch, they were completely silent: friendly, gracious, making sure I had everything, but silent. So I was silent too, and then I went to my room and slept. Yep, I napped for three hours midday. It was great. Remember when Jesus is sleeping on a boat through the storm, and his disciples are frightened, and they say, “How can you sleep at a time like this?” (I’m rephrasing a bit.) I totally understand that nap. It is the first requirement of any of my retreats.
At dinner, we had the same silence, except we were joined by a local neighbor who frequents the friary for communal prayer and stays there occasionally for labyrinth walks. She also was silent through dinner, and then she looked at me and asked, “Is it okay if we talk? Are you doing a silent retreat?” I laughed aloud and said, “No! I thought the brothers were having a quiet day.”
Then they all started chattering, and I realized that they had been silent at the meal for my sake. Donna, the neighbor who frequents the friary, asked me if I wanted to go to town for an Italian ice. Another requirement of a Franciscan retreat–unexpected delights! After I said yes, one of the brothers reminded me that there was a guided meditation class from 7:30 to 9:30 at the retreat center that night. Um…. I paused. Then I said, “We are going to meditate over Italian ice!” And we did.
The next morning, I discovered that Brother Dunstan, a friar in his 80s, fills both bird and ground feeders with seeds, corn kernels, and bread for the creatures, and suddenly, the whole grassy area underneath the apple tree was swarming with bluejays, blackbirds, mourning doves, squirrels, and baby chipmunks. And so, each morning, I went out there with a couple of books, a journal, and a cup of coffee, and I watched God’s creatures flock for their food. And there, I found peace and some distance from worries. I breathed slowly and deeply as Brother Dunstan and I sat underneath an apple tree whose leaves were spotted with blight, and we watched the birds, squirrels, and “chippies,” as Dunstan calls them. And I took long walks in the forest.
A lot more happened at this retreat, and maybe I’ll write about it later, but what sticks out in my mind the most was my harsh reentry into the world. On the Metro North train ride from Bridgeport back to New Haven, there was a loud, nose-to-nose verbal altercation between a train conductor and a train patron who was trying to smoke on the train. Then, a train passenger two seats in front of me, clearly under the influence, spoke loudly and drunkenly to fellow passengers, using “Motherf—-r” every other word. I am not exaggerating when I say it was every other word, because I counted it, amazed at this linguistic feat. And then, another mentally challenged train patron entered the train.
And then, while I was commuting by bicycle home from work two days later, I was stopped on the sidwalk when two women at a bus stop began a screaming fist fight that stopped traffic. They threw each other against newspaper dispensers and smacked each other over the head with umbrellas, yelling obscenities.
And I thought, “Wow. That was a rough reentry back into the world.” Our world is spotted with blight like that aged apple tree at Little Portion Friary: frustrations, battles, crime, war, illness, strife. But we still scurry around its branches, grabbing bits of sustenance and sunlight. Hopefully, after retreat, we can be bits of sustenance and sunlight to others who badly need it. And so thanks to the brothers of Little Portion Friary for the light they offered; thanks to Donna for the trip to the ice cream store and the ride back to the ferry; thanks to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale for paying for the retreat; and thanks to the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis for their Rule of Life, which requires retreat. And thanks to God, too, for all of the above. (I couldn’t find Her web site, and Verizon doesn’t know Her number either, but you’re sure to find Her at your local retreat center.)