Here’s how I spent my summer vacation: at a weeklong retreat in an old nun’s convent, in silence. The theme: Death and Dying, Life and Living.

Not very upbeat, I know.

I walk into the dining room Friday night, late for 6 p.m. dinner. I look around at 40 or 50 people. The average age is 70, maybe 75. Everybody’s female. Half look like nuns, retired. We’re in this big brick building that reminds me of my old elementary school, industrial, with walls like shiny blocks of concrete. I am afraid to look at the buffet: Jell-O mold with tiny marshmallows, perchance?

OK, maybe this was a mistake, I’m telling myself. OK, maybe the “death and dying” part should’ve warned me about whom this would attract: old people. OK, maybe after a day or two, I can claim some family emergency and make a run for it.

After dinner we sit together, 14 of us, for our first meeting. Asks retreat leader Mary Anne Best, “Who am I and why am I here?”

What an excellent question.

“Silence is rare in our world,” she continues. “What would prompt modern people to do such a thing?”


Whatever was I thinking?

I have done retreats before. Usually they’re shorter, lasting a weekend or maybe Thursday to Sunday. There’s a mix of ages, mostly women, but always some men. There’s a mix of professions. As an on-again, off-again doubter, I feel reassured when the well-educated show up. Lawyers. Scientists. Neuroscientists, even better. If these geniuses are with the program, then I can be, too. And usually we’re in some to-die-for location: on the ocean, literally, just feet from the water in some grand old mansion like the one the Jesuits own outside of Boston. Or we’re at Garrison Hall in upstate New York, overlooking the Hudson in a monastery-turned-Buddhist retreat with lots of teak and luxurious hot tubs. Very Zen.

Retreats, if spiritual quiet appeals to you, are inexpensive vacations from the madness, peaceful and restorative. Since nobody talks, no one’s forced to make mindless chatter with strangers over supper. No one will dare interrupt you in your reading room with a view.

This time, however, I am at Wisdom House in Litchfield, Conn., out in the country, where they warn you to keep the doors closed lest small animals get inside. This is not a crowd of corporate high-flyers on a rat race time out. No teak in my sparse room overlooking a parking lot. The communal bathroom is down the hall. Ancient plumbing. All is completely still. It’s 9:30. I’m lonesome already. But I’m scared to sneak out tonight lest the small animals attack me on route to my car.

I hope I feel better in the morning.

Tomorrow: Thomas Keating and Centering Prayer – Get e-mail alerts for Margery Eagan‘s column.