Vignette from a retreat

Vignette of a brief retreat in Nerinx, Kentucky

Last April 2015 I sat at a plain desk in a tiny, cedar-sided cabin in Kentucky that was named ‘Wonder.’ I remember gazing out the window and seeing redbuds and dogwood in bloom. Below the window I also spied a handsome rabbit nosing and eating spring shoots in the midst of a cluster of new Virginia bluebells. They were flourishing among the previous year’s fallen leaves. That innocent creature had no idea, of course, that I was watching her. There was no reason for me to move or do anything that might alert her. I had, in fact, absolutely nothing better to do than quietly enjoy my surroundings, breathe deeply, and feel gratitude.

Thank you for life. Thank you to the builders and caretakers of this cabin. Thank you for the hospitality of strangers. Thank you for serendipity.

I was on a silent retreat. I’d never heard of the 200 year-old Sisters of Loretto community, set amid 780 acres of woods, streams, and lakes bordered by corn fields. A Franciscan sister in Philadelphia recommended a retreat center where the core teachers for the On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program could rest for a few days between our leadership of two “Testing the Waters” retreats in Ohio and North Carolina, just a week apart. And that is how I came to delight in the humble cabin that provided everything I needed to simply pray, read, go for walks, and sleep in glorious silence—accompanied only by bird song and rustling lizards in the wood pile.

Like the rabbit, I had a certain innocence of my surroundings, too. I learned that Loretto is surrounded by farms, struggling villages, local-origination bourbon distilleries now taken over by foreign conglomerates—and timeworn traces of religious history in the U.S. In the early 19th century Catholics migrated to the frontier in Central Kentucky looking for a safe haven from religious persecution—an area later called ‘the Holy Land’ by the region’s historians. Six brave young women established the Loretto community in 1812 and set up a school for poor girls with help from local settlers. Half of those women died of consumption, but more sisters came, schools were built, properties were donated, and the community thrived and spread. One of their nearby centers was known as Gethsemane. This became the eventual home of Trappist Brothers who established the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane. If that sounds familiar to you, perhaps you know of Thomas Merton.

My experience as a Quaker has often proved serendipitous—we are few in number yet there are so many links between us, and others. After we made our plans to retreat we learned that Sr. Elaine Prevallet, a former Pendle Hill teacher and author, lived at Loretto in a hermitage. The Spiritual Nurturer program had assigned her popular pamphlet, “Reflections on Simplicity” for a number of years. Sr. Elaine is one of several social justice and ecological activists within the broader Loretto community. We arranged to have lunch with her and broke our silence for a few hours. She asked us to say hello to Fran Taber, one of the founders of the School of the Spirit Ministry and her former colleague at Pendle Hill. Fran, also, had retreated at Loretto and fallen in love with it.

I learned recently that there is a cabin for me in Loretto if I wished to return this April 2016. I recalled the rich, damp fragrance of the earth around my little cabin from last spring. I imagined the time to just be again. Would I be assigned to the ‘Wonder’ cabin again? One of my favorite teachers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once characterized his life in retrospect by saying, “I asked for wonder.” Me, too.

Yet I know that some of the other cabins are named Grace, Hope, and Namaste. I look forward to receiving what I am given.

Beckey, March 29, 2016