This year, for the week I turned 32, I decided to head for the hills. I had booked four nights at the Hermitage at St. Mary's Sewanee. I was feeling emotionally drained, tense, anxious, not eating much, and had suffered some significant personal stresses lately. I left the number for the center with Jeff, kissed my kids good-bye, asked a neighbor to feed the chickens, packed some clothes and books, turned off my phone, and retreated into the silence. I was both excited and terrified. Would my mind be too loud? What if I got lonesome? Wouldn't I get bored?
I made the 1.5 hour drive, threw down my bags, observed a breathtaking misty sunset over the bluff, and set off to find something to eat. I turned the wrong way out of the center and drove to Alabama before turning around and coming back. Life with no phones - how did we survive?
As I was scaling back up the mountain, "Let It Be" seeped into my ears from the stereo. "When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me . . . there will be an answer: let it be."
Let it be.
I scampered into a little burger joint in Sewanee just before the kitchen closed. I ordered a cheeseburger and a beer. I finally felt hungry - for the first time in months. I drove back to the Hermitage and drank some wine and drifted off. I had troubling dreams. But I did sleep for hours and hours.
I don't remember much about the next day. I did some hiking and a lot of reading. I did my prayers in the morning. After I made a big steak and Brussels sprouts for dinner, I sat down in a chair and cried and cried. There is someone I miss cooking for, and I don't think I will ever cook for this person again. Food is love for me. Making it and sharing it. Knowing just how someone likes things. Kneading the dough that will rise into the bread that will become the French toast. Stirring the milk that will be pressed into the paneer that will get mixed with spinach and yogurt. Perhaps I have been avoiding eating because it reminds me of these meals that will go unshared?
I slept with the windows open that night; that's a tradition I've been keeping on the night before my birthday for at least 20 years.
On my birthday, I went into town and read for awhile after I hiked some of the backtrails on campus. I went to evening prayers at St. Mary Convent, and met a community of women who immediately became special soul friends. Also one man (a priest), who is dedicated to their Benedictine way of life, but lives nearby with his wife. A huge storm blew up during prayers. The sky had that greenish cast that all Kansas schoolchildren fear, because it means one thing: tornado. The poor little convent dog, Penny, cowered under the kneelers. I waited out the storm and walked home.
The next morning the air was fresh and the ground was spongy. My prayers had a theme of peacemaking and reconciliation. Ouch. It can't be forced, can it? One of the appointed readings was 2 Corinthians 5:18-19: "All this is from God, who reconciled himself to us through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."
All day long I pondered: how does it all fit together? Peacemaking, forgiving, forgiveness, reconciliation? Is there an order to it? How do I know that I have forgiven someone? I went to the noon office, and - surprise - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 was the reading from the Office. Am I getting the message?
I went into town to read at the coffee shop again. Over the speaker: "There will be an answer: let it be." Ah. Ask forgiveness, and there will be an answer. Let it be.
That afternoon, I went to hike the Perimeter Trail around the edge of the Sewanee University property. I got about five miles in and realized I had completely lost the trail. The daylight was fading. No phone, no map, no compass, no flashlight, no water. Why did I think this wasn't going to be a big deal!? It wasn't too cold, and I wasn't too panicky - yet. I found a gravel road that I was sure must lead somewhere. Followed it about a mile. Then, I was rescued by an Episcopal priest and her husband, out for an evening jog. They were the first people I had seen in miles. I realized that I don't have time to waste in asking forgiveness. I got home, showered, got the feeling back into my hands, went into town, and tore into a huge order of fish and chips.
The next day, my last day, I went for morning Eucharist at the convent and shared spiritual conversation with the sisters (and father) over breakfast. Sister Hannah gave me the literature about becoming an oblate. Either they felt the same thing I did, or they just really need some more oblates. Either way, the place already feels like home.
As I drove home that morning, I felt fresh and alive. It felt as if it had been winter in my soul when I left, and that spring had come into my heart in those few days. I did get lonesome, and bored, and my mind was too loud. But I think that was the point. Only once I learned to endure through those sensations, did I receive any insights.