Each morning we rise before 7 and start our day, 14 of us, sitting in a circle around a candle, a vase of fresh flowers, a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus. We meditate for an hour, barefoot. There’s about 2½ hours of meditating a day. So we’re at 7½ hours by the end of today. No TV, no radio, no talk outside of group meetings. No food to prepare or meals to clean up after. No errands to run or day trips to plan, just here, everything taken care of.
It does slow you down.
There are two other simultaneous retreats here, so about 50 of us are in the dining room together. You can really linger over meals; spend an hour if you choose, silently chewing. I’m rushing anyway. Why? Where am I going? It’s startling how awkward it feels just to sit with a plate of food, around a table of women, in silence, rarely even making eye contact.
My manners improve, though. I’m much more conscious of shoving food into my mouth like somebody’s going to steal my mashed potatoes. I’m not pushing the last stray bits of salad onto my fork with my thumb, either. There is no Jell-O mold with tiny marshmallows, by the way. The food is fresh and healthy, the gluten-free and lactose-intolerant accommodated. Great desserts.
Between time reserved for prayer and death and Mass and meals, retreatants read, write, head outside in the sun and sit on wrought iron benches or walk, slowly, the spectacular Wisdom House grounds, the Berkshires as backdrop. There are black-eyed Susans and lilies, all sorts of wildflowers and birdbaths. There are acres of grass and fields, a meditative stone labyrinth to walk, a pool that is not, happily, over-chlorinated. A bunch of us are there Sunday afternoon in our frumpy bathing suits. How different it feels: no beauty contest, no best body competition.
Next to the main brick house where we sleep is a white clapboard farmhouse, built in 1770, with a big covered porch. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s house in Derry, N.H. Beside it is a carriage house and a laundry and a barn, where cows still lived when the Daughters of Wisdom, the order of nuns that runs the retreat house, first came here in the 1950s.
After supper, and before night prayer, lots of retreatants head out of the building with cell phones to catch up on the home front. One of my friends kids me, “How’s the cult? You drinking the Kool-Aid?” One mother of three boys can’t believe her house remains standing without her supervision. But her husband is confused about where she is and what she’s doing. “How’s the yoga?” he asks.
Of course, it is hard to explain what we are doing. But by the end of Day 3, the stillness, the birds, the stars, the knowledge that literally thousands of other seekers have walked where you are before, well, you feel different, connected, contented, held. You feel you are walking on hallowed ground.
Tomorrow: There is nothing to fear.