A few weeks ago I made my annual eight-day retreat. That’s a misnomer, of course. You don’t “make” a retreat. If anything, the retreat makes you. Along with a Jesuit friend, I spent the last week of August at the Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River. I’ll spare you the details of how beautiful the scenery was, which is hard to convey in prose. In short, it was gorgeous.
It was a great retreat with a great director in a great setting with, as an added retreat-house surprise, great food. And God, as many of my Jesuit friends like to say, showed up.
Midway through the week the retreatants were invited to an evening reconciliation service. As anyone who has been on retreat knows, one tends to go to almost anything sponsored in the evening, as a way of staving off any potential end-of-the-day boredom. Besides, I always need reconciliation.
It was not to be a traditional service, but would take a form familiar to people who make retreats, which I would call relaxed-contemplative.
Set in Linwood’s cedar-paneled chapel, the service began with a reading from the Gospel of John: the story of the woman caught in adultery (8:2–11). Next, one of the retreat directors preached on the reading and quoted from a gorgeous poem by Irene Zimmerman, O.S.F. In an imaginative meditation on the Gospel passage, Sister Zimmerman has Jesus look upon the woman, with compassion flooding him “like a wadi after rain.” The image stunned me. Even more moving was the image of Jesus seeing the adulterous woman condemned by the crowd, and wondering if his mother, with her unusual pregnancy, had endured similar contempt. After this came an examination of conscience. What did we want to ask God to forgive?
Then something strange.
At the front of the chapel was a shallow box filled with sand. We were asked to approach the box and trace three words in the sand, symbolizing our sins. After they were written, another person from the congregation was to come up and wipe the words away. The image came from the Gospel passage, in which Jesus writes words in the sand. Following some quiet time, there would be a general prayer of forgiveness.
Immediately I thought: How cheesy! Instinctively I called to mind the people who would probably laugh at the sandbox. Then I remembered something that a spiritual director had told me: Never dismiss a possible avenue to God.
The first retreatant, an elderly woman, walked up the aisle, and silently wrote her words.
From another pew another woman walked up, and without reading what was written in the sandbox, wiped the words away. Then the two women embraced.
I found myself welling up with tears. How moving it was to see one stranger help another. I wondered if the people in the crowd felt the same when Jesus forgave the adulterous woman.
When it was my turn, I didn’t have to think hard about what to write. “My sin is ever before me,” as Psalm 51 says. I wrote three words and waited. Then, unexpectedly, my friend approached, wiped my words away and embraced me. How wonderful to have a friend help you in the spiritual life, I thought.
Some people reading this column may have started rolling their eyes long ago. The free-form service would not be to their liking. But lately I’ve noticed that too many people (myself included) tend to judge and condemn, just like the crowd, spiritual practices that work for other people. This is true in every part of our church. Adoration is rejected as too traditional. The rosary is set aside as antiquated. On the other hand, the services I enjoyed that weekend are condemned as unorthodox.
These condemnations are as unjust as were the crowd’s condemnations of the woman.
Here’s what I say to people who sniff at one or another spiritual practice as too traditional or too progressive, as too rigid or too loosey-goosey: Try it. Twenty years ago in Nairobi, my Jesuit community had a practice of visiting the Blessed Sacrament after dinner. I eschewed that. But my superior encouraged me to try it as a way of worshiping with my brothers. The first night I did so I was flooded with consolation. I could hear God saying, “See? I really can be everywhere”—in a tabernacle or in a shallow box of sand.