Saturday, March 25, 2017

At lunch, I was asked how well I like my small group and I fessed up that I was skipping the group portion of the retreat in favor of personal time.

After lunch, I drove the few miles to Barnegat Lighthouse with a fellow retreatant named Cecilia. She had visited the park once before a long time ago. She surprised me by saying that she would walk up with me. I took each step as slowly as I could and at the first landing, she declared she needed a break. I encouraged her to rest. By the second landing, she turned back. I continued on, reaching out to the railing with each step to pull myself up. Gasping and coughing, I burst out the door at the top and startled a man with a tripod taking photos. Not a clear day, not a great view. And windy!



The outing took an hour. I sat in my room, near an open window and read until it was time to drive to St. Francis of Assisi for confession.

One car was in the church lot with the occupant still inside. I figured I could be done before he worked up the courage. I entered by the side door that had a light on overhead. I walked past the tabernacle and turned towards the rear of the sanctuary to catch Fr. Kevin standing in the doorway of the sacristy taking a huge sip from an insulated bottle. I didn't exactly startle him, though I walked briskly and we've never met.

By way of an informal introduction, I mentioned I was visiting the area, on retreat at Harvey Cedars and he said, to his knowledge, it was a nice facility and how nice to be visiting Long Beach Island. We sat in the sacristy. Switching into my reading glasses and pulling out the schedule portion of St. Francis's website bulletin on which I had written my examination of conscience-type notes, I explained that I would read from the paper and he said that was fine. It's a formula either way, whether read or recited from memory.

My favorite part of the rite is when we're talking simultaneously to God: I'm making my act of contrition and he's speaking the words of absolution. The hard part of naming my sins is done, praying the homestretch towards that wonderful grace.

The other man went in after me while I said my Our Father. Then he left after saying his penance. I moved out of Father's sight, towards the tabernacle, to take more time. Others trickled in, but no one mistook me for being on queue. At one point, Father wandered from his post so I directed a penitent seeking him to the back. Father came out, calling, "I have a customer!" It was an hour before mass was scheduled to begin but the musicians were on site warming up and sacristans were preparing the altar.

Dinner would be my last meal at the retreat center so I was sure to tip the kitchen staff. I made the difficult decision to sit next to a woman whose children had attended private school with mine years ago. I can't even say that it was fun to catch up with her. Since it was more than ten years ago, we weren't aware of the youngest child in the other's family! She was at the retreat with someone as no one ever goes to these events alone. So after a few more polite questions, she turned her full attention back again to her friend.

I spent the evening in my room, listening to the light rain outside, the gusty wind and the occasional goose. It was too cold to sit on the porch. I read from a book I'd brought by Christian Smith (reviewed by Mark Noll1 at First Things). Sometimes my reaction is "Preach it!" I love it when he advocates for church membership and commitment. Other times, I see problems or a double standard in his criticism, "He's being too harsh."

1 "As someone whose respect for the strengths of Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades, I have a particular interest in the questions Smith raises." - Mark Noll
I had a six pack - of water - that I drank at night and in the morning. Before the optional "sunrise prayer," I caught up a chapter of New Testament reading, aloud and standing in my retreat quarters, to help me wake up.

"Sunrise," scheduled from 6 to 7am, was a misnomer for a few reasons: (1) the sun rose after 7, (2) the sky was overcast and (3) the third floor widow's walk faced west-southwest. When I mounted the dizzying, spiral stairs to the third floor, the half dozen women sitting in near-darkness, their faces bathed in smart phone glow, made me question whether "prayer" was also a misnomer. As my eyes adjusted, I spotted the guest speaker in a Hilton Head sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. A humble posture for prayer but actually she was covering her bed head.

The woman who helped me locate the gathering did not herself remain more than five minutes. I didn't do much more than mumble some memorized prayers. In the next hour before breakfast, a few more of us congregated on the second floor to talk about how things were going. Many confessed to staying up too late last night and looking forward to a shower before breakfast.

Having been up already for three hours, I was eager for breakfast and entered the dining room while staff was still setting up. I did not take a seat immediately but as the hot food was brought out, I found a table with an available seat. I'm not in the habit of saying grace before or after meals unless I'm really, really hungry. But I'm ok with other people saying grace, either to themselves silently or aloud for me. One of the men in charge of the dining room said a blessing over a microphone as the food was served but too many people came in late and said their own. When a woman I knew joined our breakfast table, she bowed her head over her food for what seemed an inordinately long period of time. Much beyond "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts ..." I wondered what else she prayed about. Then I realized she was checking her phone in her lap.

I discovered that some of the women at the table work for the church. One talked through breakfast about the grant proposals she was writing for the church's food bank. She said that she directed money from the food bank to fund projects that no one wants to fund and now needs to replace the money through grants. She talked about paying someone's rent, for instance. This all struck me as very illegal. I wanted to follow up with her about that and maybe talk with someone else from the church.

The conversation turned to afternoon plans because, remarkably, the entire Saturday afternoon was wide-open, free time. This was very unexpected to me. At a Jesuit retreat house, for instance, Saturday is a busy day, the only full day of a weekend retreat and Saturday afternoon is especially packed with Stations of the Cross, a penance service, Saturday liturgy, anointing, eucharistic exposition and benediction, not to mention dinner with wine. I had a strong feeling that tonight's meal would not include wine.

So, anyway, five and a half hours of unstructured time. Everyone said they were going to take a nap. I said I was driving down to the lighthouse and if it was open, I was going up. One woman asked to come with me so we agreed after lunch to meet up.

While everyone else sat in the morning's lecture, I walked the grounds:

Harvey Cedars Bible Conference

I walked to Loveladies.


I passed a Catholic retreat compound, Maris Stella.


I crossed Long Beach Island Boulevard and walked out onto the beach. It was really unbelievably perfect.


As I walked, I listened to a talk given Thursday night by someone I've known a long time.

The Harvey Cedars water tower was a great landmark for me to find my way back.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

I've taken enough retreats over the decades to know that no one of them brings dramatic, instantaneous changes. Still, I hope.

No dinner would be served the first night, which spared me the Lenten, meatless-Friday dilemma1. I stopped at the Forked River rest area on the Parkway to grab a slice of mushroom and spinach and reached the retreat center at Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island very shortly into the check-in window of "between 4 and 7 pm."

I left my belongings in the car just to be sure I was in the right place. Two women came running from another vehicle and overtook me as I approached the entrance. They were met inside by the weekend's guest speaker who was concerned to welcome them and see them checked in. Even with three staff working the counter, each assigned a third of the alphabet, I waited my turn, trying not to look impatient or annoyed.

So typical, the check-in process of those ahead of me hit a snag: no room keys tucked into their name tags. I think most of us are capable of waiting so long as things appear to be moving along. But things looked to be spinning into chaos. Fortunately, there's the tendency to toss in the towel and move to the next person, attempt a fresh start. So the woman with wavy hair and glasses faced me, asking my name. My tag did not have a key either! Well, then all the keys were found under the counter! The woman with wavy hair and glasses expected me to move along to my room but she had not given me a retreat folder or a welcome bag. When she realized her mistake, she apologized for her absentmindedness,
You see, my son was just accepted to Fordham. I want him to go there but he said, 'Mom, it's a Catholic school!' I told him it's a good school.
How to congratulate her on raising such a fine son? I mean, seriously, can't this bigotry skip a generation even?

I went to my car for my stuff. Returning, I was caught behind a woman pulling a cooler on wheels, plus her suitcase and several plastic bags. We were all supposed to bring a snack to share in the evenings, so the staff asked whether any of her bags were a snack. No, she said all of this stuff was for her for the weekend. I, on the other hand, had brought cookies and gluten-free pretzels to share, so I passed them the bag with that.

When I entered my private retreat room, I was stunned. Seeing the sofa first, I thought, "Ok, a sofa bed, that's alright." Then I turned to the right and saw the bathroom. "Ok, no walking down the hallway to the showers, great." Then I saw the kitchenette with a full-sized refrigerator. "Oh, this is getting serious!" And the bedroom with a full bed. "Ok, when are my other roommates showing up?" I could not believe this was all to myself.


I knew Friday would be the best day, weather-wise, so I quickly got settled and went for a walk. The first retreat event of the evening began at 7:30 but I intended to visit the Franciscan parish fifteen minutes down the road for Stations of the Cross. There are four Catholic parishes on Long Beach Island, but only St. Francis of Assisi is open year-round. It was also the one farthest away from Harvey Cedars in Brant Beach, but most lights on Long Beach Boulevard flash amber for north-south traffic.

I would not be able to stay for the entire Stations program and the visit was mostly exploratory: to locate the place, learn the lay of the land. Since I would be leaving the program early, I sought out a discreet seat. Assuming a typical devotional of all fourteen stations, I sat by number 5, in the back pew, but found it strange that Station 10 was directly across the narrow nave. "How are these laid out?" I wondered. Three large, wooden figures, actually stations themselves, were at the center-aisle end of the pew I chose. A young girl was dropped in a rush at the sacristy by her mother to robe up as cross bearer but, as her mother went forward to the sanctuary, I heard the girl call after her. I offered to help her but, you know, I don't know anything about vestments or the sacristy. She figured it out for herself and got vested. Three teens scooped up the three wooden stations from the back row and the procession line was put in place by a sister. No priest was in attendance and the youth ran the program. It all dawned on me gradually: on this third Friday of Lent, Stations 7, 8, and 9 would be prayed and that's why they were removed from the back wall and carried forward. So, only Station 6 hung there and I easily overlooked it.

My exit did not go unnoticed, unfortunately, despite trying to be discreet. The program was so out of the ordinary that I might have been forgiven. However, it was well-attended and the youth were heavily involved. Good things.

Back at the retreat, I endured an ice breaker with the usual questions. I had met three of the women previously at bible study and another woman once sent her children to the same private school as mine. Still, there is the most commonly asked question, "Where do you attend church?" once they learn that I do not attend the retreat host church. I dodged that question all weekend.

The guest speaker was from Central New York State and talked about muck soil. Her accent sounded very Utica, not quite Western New York. Her descriptions of childhood abuse were so vivid that that night I had nightmares in which I was present and watching it happen. I decided that I would not attend any more of her lectures that weekend.

My suite had two doors to the veranda, overlooking Barnegat Bay, and I bundled up to sit outside for a bit.


I heard some wildlife but imagined how raucous the summertime must be. I saw a dark figure in the distance and I sat perfectly still as it silently moved my direction. I was wondering how on-site security was handled, at a Christian compound, in the off-season. It turned out to be a local who was walking her dog and felt quite familiar on the property. The dog, no leash, even came up on the porch to check me out. The porch lights went off, perhaps on a timer, and I was able to see the stars better.


1 My first post-college retreat was a weekend in 1995 at the Xavier Retreat Center on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station (Morristown), NJ, and the good Sisters there served meatloaf Friday night during Lent. Our Jesuit retreat director eyed all of us to see who would point it out. Sure enough, someone did.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How are you liking it so far?
The lyrics in the finale1 of the Palm Sunday cantata, Come to the Cross and Remember, are based on Philippians 2,6-11:
At the name of Jesus, ev'ry knee shall bow. At the name of Jesus, ev'ry tongue confess that the name of Jesus is high above all names.
Not recognizing it, an alto next to me at Tuesday's rehearsal tried for a rhyme with "confess," substituting "the rest" for "all names." I get that hymns typically rhyme and I considered the attempt fair. But I also thought, well, doesn't the slightly odd phrase just roll out from familiarity?

Sunday's service featured a rite, the installation of an ordained elder and deacon, and two sacraments, the baptism of their daughter and the Lord's Supper by intinction. I wondered why their daughter had not been baptized already but I'll never know. I haven't got the hang of how the Reformed understand sacraments. The baptism was a big deal, a happy occasion: the young girl walked up and down the aisle, so everyone could see and the grandmother was beaming at her, so pleased.

The minister explained intinction to the congregation. I can't know how many were unfamiliar and in need of explanation. Or whether it had ever been practiced before. The catch was that they had to leave their seats and process forward. By their reaction, which was audible grumbling and physical reluctance, this is not anything that they are accustomed to doing.

I stayed in the back corner pew, aware my "sitting it out" would be impossible to miss. Everyone, and I mean everyone, went forward! Ladies from the kitchen preparing a post-service turkey dinner came out, also, at just the right time to join the communion line. One dipped the bread into the cup too far and looked to shake off the excess grape juice only to, after catching my eye, wipe it absentmindedly on clothing.

I glimpsed the choir director peek above the piano, perhaps to assess how the line was moving. He finished one hymn and went into the next, "One Bread, One Body." I opened each of the two hymnals at the index to find it, even though I know it by heart. Neither one had it2. I was near tears because it was so appropriate. The choir director really knows his stuff.

He said that he picked all the songs for this morning. I planned to leave early, immediately after the sermon, again from the local reverend, my spiritual director. But I hung around long enough to join in "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus." Snow threatens to cancel Tuesday's rehearsal.

My view from the corner, in robes



1 Scroll down to #14 "Every Knee Shall Bow," page 81.
2 the newer, purple one seems to have it.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

That it was the beginning of Lent meant only I was wearing ashes on my forehead through everything.

A public school bus in the parking lot crept alongside me as I walked towards the church for Bible study. I heard the doors open and the driver ask me, "What kind of building is that, a religious center?" I stopped and turned to answer and as I did, he saw the ashes, "Yes, it's a bible church," an answer which I suppose meant nothing to him, specifically. "You're Catholic, I see. Well, me, too." Naturally. Then he changed the subject to politics, how Christie made him a Republican.

Two hours later, my cell phone was ringing when I reached my car. I had to pick up my son at school because he had had a seizure. Completely incredulous, I drove around the corner and picked him up. He slept on the way to the emergency room, 50 minutes away. He walked in with me when we arrived. He was still in his school uniform: sweater, tie, penny loafers, right next to me in my ashes. We probably looked the Catholic school family part. I was downplaying the whole thing:
The school nurse thought I should bring him here but I'm sure it's nothing.
I had his lunch with me and we were taken to an examination room. They started an IV and let him eat his lunch. I supplied insurance cards and medical information. The staffer deduced my religion from my ashes, "Catholic?" Yup.

My husband showed up rather quickly but he couldn't stay long. As he was saying his goodbye to our son, we noticed that he looked like he would cry. His mouth was firmly closed but seemed to be moving slightly as if he wanted to speak. Then he turned his head sharply up and back to the right and his open eyes followed. I unbuttoned his shirt but otherwise I stood there and felt my own lips trembling as my husband called out to him.

He ran for the nurse and doctor who came and observed. They immediately gave him Lorazepam, I don't know how much. It made him sleepy. After my husband left, they ran a CT scan which was normal and tried to elicit a seizure during a non-invasive EEG. I think the Lorazepam may have interfered with that. Also, I noticed that my son wasn't clear on the tech's directions. She used a strobe light but I saw that he was closing his eyes!


I wasn't being intentional about fasting for Ash Wednesday but my circumstances prevented me from getting anything to eat until about 4 in the afternoon. I was subsisting on sugary soft drinks until that time. After the EEG and CT scan, waiting for the results, I made my way to the hospital cafeteria. I bought my son some fried chicken strips and a tuna sandwich for myself. Most of the cafeteria staff wore ashes. Carrying my food back, I passed a Roman Catholic priest who did a double-take and said, "Oh, well, hello there!"

They moved us to a larger hospital and ran video-EEG monitoring overnight. I think that they intentionally kept us up late, well past 11:00, so that his fatigue would trigger a seizure. We had to answer many of the same questions as before. I was tired of answering. The nurse asked which religion we practiced and would we like a visit from the hospital chaplain? As much as I would have liked to speak with someone, I declined it. I wiped my ashes from my forehead because I couldn't think of anything worse than an "Ash Thursday." I made myself comfortable in the window seat for the night.


I was skeptical that they would have any success in capturing a seizure but they did. I watched the video the next day: he sat upright in bed and the nurse came in, asking him if he knew where he was. He said, "I'm in bed," which wasn't a good enough answer. Then he said, "Room 5005," but they wanted something else. Eventually he just lay back down and they left.

The next morning, I got out early for a Mass down the street at St. Peter's. This is directly near the university. I was early enough that I thought the turnout would be light. Instead, I was soon surrounded by the young men of the campus ministry. The young women sat on the other side of the center aisle. They were all very devote, as young people are, as we all once were. The following morning, which was Friday, I was sure to sit on the proper side, with the other women.

For the rest of his brief stay, he ordered his food for each meal with plenty of lead time. We borrowed some board games and played Battleship and cards. He also borrowed video games and my husband brought his laptop and iPad from home.


I gave him a list of his school friends' texting numbers so he could keep in touch. That gave him a lot of joy. The kids sent e-cards to the hospital that moved him emotionally.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The snow storm, such as it was, pushed out our monthly meeting a week. To today, that is. I had in mind a few things to discuss, current activities, and Lenten plans, including a weekend retreat. She couldn't wait to introduce me to the Anglican rosary. But the one she offered was broken, the Celtic cross had separated from the beads.
What prayers are said on the beads?

It's Anglican. Various prayers. There's no praying to Mary.
I had a feeling that she didn't herself practice it. I declined the one she offered, because it was broken, and I said that I would research it online. I could get one at Amazon, but the review there is that they break easily. "Handmade." I already have a rosary. Several, in fact, which have, on occasion, broken and been repaired.

I had given her my background information at our first meeting last month but not too much stuck in her memory. She blurted out, "Are you a lifelong Presbyterian?" What's the penance for misleading one's spiritual director? Maybe Teresa of Avila can tell me. I haven't expressly told her my affiliation but I've allowed her to think what she thinks. I don't know why it matters.1 Anyway, I stated simply that campus ministry in college led me to the church, which is true enough.

Upon leaving, I noticed a nuthatch feeding upside down at a bird-feeder. I recalled the numerous red-winged blackbirds from my walk yesterday. She would say that spring is around the corner and I would say they're year-round residents.

She said after three meetings we would evaluate how suited we are for each other. There is still a possibility that this is not a "go," then.


1 It does matter. It matters to me. And apparently it matters to her. But it shouldn't. I mean, it shouldn't affect how we interact. But it would. I know it would.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

He warned us of a couple of things, that his talk was long and that he was inadvertently drawing from next year's lectionary reading1. On the first point, he said he'd removed about 200 words over the past few weeks. On the second point, he didn't care to change it.

I suppose if he'd decided to start over with the correct lectionary reading, he wouldn't have had enough time to make it too long. If he were the regular speaker, his jumping ahead wouldn't be the least bit noticeable. But, once a month or so? I found myself saying, "Hey, weren't we in Matthew?!"

He read us the entire fifth chapter of 2 Kings without any paraphrasing, summarizing or embellishments. I had some trouble following because I'm only familiar with the scene between Naaman and Elisha (v. 14-17). He stressed the role the young girl played in Naaman's healing (v. 3) and how, in the end, Naaman's skin became like that of a young boy. He imagined that, after setting down the dirt Naaman had taken from Israel, he and the young girl might worship together. An altogether odd thought.

After ascertaining from the choir director how much Hebrew he knew, the speaker gave us a brief language lesson. I suppose he wanted to be sure that, if his language skills were a bit rusty from seminary, the choir director wouldn't call him on it. He said that the word qatan (Strongs 6996) for "young" could be masculine, as in verse 14 or feminine, as in verse 2, depending on the vowels. I see that qatan is an adjective, modifying a masculine noun in verse 14 naar (Strongs 5288) and a feminine noun in verse 2 naarah (Strongs 5291). I guess beyond that, I don't see the significance. Plenty of languages are inflected, having adjective-noun agreement.

As for the songs we sang, well, I need to promise myself that, going forward, I will take them all seriously. When we rehearsed "Brighten My Soul With Sunshine," I thought I was singing something from Godspell. I kept up with the part in rehearsal but lost my place live, coming in with the sopranos and tenor instead of with the other altos. I was so ashamed. We didn't rehearse "There is a Balm in Gilead" because it's assumed that everyone knows it. But I do not. And then this somewhat dark tune in G minor which I liked.


1 6th Sunday After Epiphany which will be First Sunday in Lent (2018)