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.

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