Here is the story of somebody who did a retreat with us.
I arrived in Delgany for the weekend, my head a jar of wasps. Sister Monica came out from behind the reception to greet me, her fresh face full of humour and kindness. Still, I buzzed away inside. I prayed no one could hear it. Or I would have – if I was the praying kind.
She walked me to the little hermitage in the Church grounds. She asked if I was interested in attending the Carmelite Office in the Church and I replied that I probably wouldn’t. Smart lady, she gave me the timetable anyway just so I could avoid the nuns and their prayers. I fully intended to.My life had made me very tired and I was desperate to wrap myself in a blanket of solitude
The hermitage was simple, but not austere. Fresh primroses smiled up at me from a tiny, heart-shaped vase in the kitchen. My own heart melted a little.
Once alone, the velvet silence enveloped me. The angry wasps continued to fling themselves against the glass of my insides. It had been a tough year. I understood that I’d been drawn here, but what for and by whom remained unclear to me. The Catholic Church and I hadn’t really been on speaking terms for a good 20 years. I didn’t pray. I meditated.
As I settled into the hermitage, though, I realised that it was impossible to avoid prayer in this place. The silence here was not empty. The very air was layered with the prayers of all those who had ever sojourned here. The DNA of devotion had bound itself to the molecules in the walls, the carpet, the curtains.
And those intrepid nuns were praying for me. It was like receiving a remote spiritual massage. Painful knots were being kneaded – gently, expertly and very, very firmly. There was no arguing with it – either today or during the days that followed.
With no family, friends, TV, radio, internet or – dare I say it – drink, I could attend to what was going on inside. I felt as though I had been crouching in an airless foxhole for the longest time, cowering as the guns raged outside. By the third day of my visit, I realised I was no longer crouching. The space inside me was growing. I discovered there were vast prairies inside me if I needed them. With all this silence and simplicity, every single cell began to uncoil itself.
I found myself sidling into the church at times listed on the laminated schedule Sister Monica had given me. I didn’t get a glimpse of those mysterious women as they worshipped the Creator with Psalms and song. They occupied a private space to the side of the altar, cordoned off by a red rope, not unlike the ones which protect VIPs from the rest of us at nightclubs. I realised that these women were actually VIPs, but not ones full of self-importance and a tiresome need to be noticed. It was the opposite of that. They had cloistered themselves away from the rest of us, not so they could thumb their noses at all the poor saps outside, but to pray. For us. These women did not sound young. They did not always intone in tune. Or in time. But that was of no consequence. In the purity and peace of this place, I could tell that their prayers had grown potent.
At first, when I heard them pray, they sounded like tribeswomen pleading with a volcano not to blow. But when I paid more attention, the words revealed meanings I had obviously missed when I was younger. I knew I had grown tired struggling on my own. I had come to the limits of ego. Suddenly, the prayers seemed to be all about that. And love. And becoming selfless. And letting go. What a relief. So, I too, began to pray. There was strength and joy in it.
I also found that I drew energy from the rhythm of the life here. I awoke with the clear, gentle bell of the Angelus at 6.00 a.m. and rose to join the prayers at 7.00 a.m.in the quiet mystery of the morning. I returned at the appointed times during the day – 9.00 a.m., 11.00 a.m., 1.00.p.m. 5.00 p.m.and 6.15 p.m. and 8 p.m as dusk began to sweep away the day. I slept early and soundly. I let the wasps loose from the confines of their jar. And made arrangements to stay for a further 5 days….