Tuesday, February 21, 2012


This eve-of-Lent piece was published in The Sun ten years ago. Reading it over, I'm appalled at my hubris (may the monks forgive my blindness and ingratitude),  but also cheered by how my house was built on solid rock even in the early days of my (ongoing) conversion...


I’m not sure what I pictured when I decided to make a retreat at an unfamiliar monastery, but it wasn’t this: a jumble of outbuildings and abandoned sheds, piles of barrels draped with blue tarps, a labyrinth of dirt roads. I circle around a couple of times, spot a sign saying "Registration" in the window of the bookstore, and park. After eight hours on the road, I'm hoping to be greeted by some calm, prayer-centered soul. Instead a heavily made-up woman named Dot startles, turns down the volume on a Larry Norman tape, and flutters nervously around trying to find someone to replace her at the cash register.

We walk the few hundred yards to a barracks-like structure and she ushers me into Room 1. I do a quick inventory--two twin beds, midget bedstand, broken Venetian blinds. "There's no…desk?" I venture.

Dot’s rolling eyes say it all: “There’s always gotta be one, doesn’t there?” she’s thinking. "If I could make a suggestion," she says tightly, "next time you go on a retreat, you might want to inform the people of your needs beforehand"-- as if a desk were a piece of esoteric equipment; as if I'd asked for something outlandish, like a pack of condoms.


All the next day the “retreat master” Jim, an overweight pecan farmer with a John Deere cap, makes hourly progress reports on his painstaking, convoluted attempts to locate a desk. Finally one of the monks approaches me in chapel, looks furtively around, as if we were planning a tryst, and whispers, "We've finally found you another room. Room 12."

And the kicker was, when I went over to look at it, Room 12 didn't have a desk either...At which point I realized my room was fine. It was wonderful. Hot water, heat, an outlet for my laptop, a porch.


Out back the next morning, I saw a beautiful orange bird. There are cottonwoods and cholla, and a little stream running through.

photo: integrity of light


I'm here because I need a break from my life--the book nobody wants to buy, the one-bedroom apartment where I write, my husband Tim, the early stage breast cancer I found out about last year and decided to treat with surgery only. "Oh, you're using holistic medicine," people say approvingly. But I am not using holistic medicine. I am not seeing an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, an herbalist; I am not taking vitamin supplements or Laetrile or mistletoe tea. Aside from cutting down on fat, I am doing pretty much what I was doing already, which is eating healthily, walking, writing, praying and hanging out with other sober people--I've been a recovering alcoholic for 14 years.

But you got cancer doing that, I can hear people thinking. So I got cancer! People get cancer, they die from cancer! My problem is not cancer. It's lack of faith, lack of acceptance, living in illusion. That's the real reason I'm here.


This big place is apparently run by six or seven monks, all of whom appear to be in the throes of deep spiritual crisis. The Divine Office--Vigils, Lauds, Vespers, Compline--is the heart of Benedictine spirituality. At every other monastery I've attended, it's prayed with the utmost attention and reverence. Here the monks show up looking like they just crawled out of bed; they slump and slouch and scratch and yawn; they seem crabby and bored. One, a sixtyish fellow with bloodshot eyes, practically lies down in his seat after quavering the entrance antiphon; another, a tall rawboned youth with hacked-off hair, crosses his legs, gazes out the window and dangles his breviary in one hand. This, it turns out, is the abbot.

I was appalled for about ten seconds and then I realized that I am so clueless and broken right now that I feel much more at home with these folks than I would with people who were reverent and assured.


For the last three years, I've given up coffee for Lent, and I’m going to try it this year, too. A hundred times a day, I contemplate how horrible this will be. Here is the extent of my caffeine addiction: for the last two mornings, I've woken before dawn and driven 15 miles to the local Circle K for a jumbo "Dark Roast." It would be one thing if it were actually good, but it has no more of a jolt than the watered-down swill they serve in the dining hall.

Still, knowing myself, I will make the trek to Circle K every morning.


I’ve figured out how the monks keep the place up and running: the army of oblate-volunteers who spend the winter in a nearby RV park.

The first night I met a retired couple named Fran and Earl, who immediately informed me they'd been coming here for 11 years. The next night I met Lois and Vern. "Oh I met a nice couple last night who do the same thing you do," I told Vern. "Fran and--"

"We've been coming here 12 years," he cut in. "They've only been coming 11."


For once, in chapel this morning, I was actually able to attend to the meaning of the Psalms and readings. I've been praying the Divine Office on my own for two years, but usually I'm still so self-conscious, so eager to "progress," that I never get around to orienting myself toward Christ: I make it all about me. I keep doing it because I figure it's pleasing to God; because maybe after 30 or 40 years, I'll be purified; because there's only one way to make it be about Christ: to keep on praying. And in the meantime, every once in a blue moon, it is like it was this morning.


One of the RV women is in charge of cooking, and her approach seems to be to take a food and smother it with so much fat that it is unrecognizable not only as the food it was, but as any food at all. Last night dinner consisted of pork chops in an inch of greasy breading, a string-bean casserole enhanced with suet, and a tray of deep-fried, syrup-drenched apple fritters that must have weighed a pound-and-a-half apiece. I happened to be sitting at the same table as the chef, and it came out in the course of the conversation that she makes a special "black bread" for Ash Wednesday (they serve only bread and water that day).

"What's in it?," I piped up eagerly, hoping it might by accident contain a stray nutrient or two.

"Oh they've begged me for the recipe,” she replied coyly, “but I won't give it to them. Four Seasons wanted the ranch dressing recipe from my restaurant, too, but I wouldn't give that out either"...

I don't know what horrified me more: that she had been connected in any way with the operating of a restaurant, or that she imagined I might want to duplicate anything she had cooked.


There's a nun here from Baltimore, about my age, named Georgina, who has breast cancer and leukemia. They give her five years, tops, she told me last night. I might drive her into town to get some supplies as she is constipated, exhausted from radiation and, like me, having a hard time with the food. At dinner, I saw her give a big smile to Jim, the retreat master who I'd decided I didn't like, or who didn't like me. Constantly, I am reminded of my meanness.

Last night I skipped dinner and went to the chapel for Compline at 8:30--pitch black outside, freezing cold--but they must have already had it in the dining hall because nobody was there. So I went to the Lady of Guadelupe alcove, where the light was, and said Evening Prayer by myself, and then sat by the Blessed Sacrament for awhile. That used to sound so hokey to me: the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now I see it as a deep, mysterious gift. What solace, what peace to sit with Him: the Great Physician; the Master Anaesthesiologist.


I keep thinking of last Sunday’s reading from Sirach: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man's faults when he speaks." Or acts. Giving Sister Georgina a ride into town this afternoon, I saw myself…through her eyes. First, she was embarrassed to be going at all as any retreatant worth his or her salt apparently does not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat, while I have gone on my lame coffee runs every morning. Second, she wanted to pick up some juice and tea because she's sick: I wanted to pick up some chocolate and a last coffee before Lent begins tomorrow.

photo: Bob Tranchio
To top it all off, I repaired to my room afterwards and proceeded to eat the entire giant Cadbury bar I had purchased at the Safeway while Georgina was loading up on apricot nectar and chamomile. After judging everyone else for being fat. It doesn't matter where I am, my faults will be revealed.


My last day, Ash Wednesday. When I go into the dining hall, each table is bare except for a loaf of dark rustic bread--the secret recipe!--and a white crockery bowl filled with dirt and stones. At noon Mass, the abbot talks in his homily about prayer as a method of detaching from thought. He observes that one way to do this is to sit in silence with a sacred word. The word many of the monks use, he says, is the Aramaic "Maranatha": Come, Lord Jesus. The chapel is packed and, for a second, I wonder if this "middle-America" parish is ready for contemplative prayer. And then I realize that this whole place probably operates on nothing but prayer, that I know nothing about prayer.

We file up to have our foreheads anointed with ashes. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," he says afterwards, over and over again.


I spend the afternoon packing and, when Vespers is over, wander behind the chapel, skirt the duck pond, and find my way to the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Like the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations have always struck me as slightly musty and old-school, but someone has put a lot of thought into designing these--I know from the brochure that they incorporate natural features of the landscape--and it seems like a fitting way to end my visit.

I start at Station 1--Jesus is Condemned to Death--noticing a nearby creosote. "This desert bush," the placard reads, "forced to survive with so little water, reminds us of how Jesus felt as he stood before his merciless accusers." I pause to reflect on this happy thought for a minute, then make my way around a boulder to Station 2--Jesus Bears His Cross: "This heavy stone, an impossible burden, is like the cross Jesus was forced to carry to Mount Calvary."

The path winds up a hill; I trudge on, the sun sinking in a pool of red. Station 3--Jesus Falls For the First Time. Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother. Station 10--Jesus is Stripped of His Garments: "The spines in this ancient cactus remind us of the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore; of the many humiliations we, too, suffer in our lives." Station 12--Jesus Dies On the Cross: "Just as the trunk of this burned-out tree is stripped bare, so we will be stripped of everything: property, success, looks, health."


And suddenly I am weeping, weeping for the old men and the abused children, for the people so alone they never get prayed for, for Sister Georgina, for myself. I've tried so hard to "get" it by being good: praying the "right" way, giving up coffee, being mature and responsible and accepting about my cancer. But nobody ever "gets" it. It's not about being good, it's about being vulnerable. It's not about being perfect, it's about becoming human. It's not about pretending that cancer don't suck in every possible way, it's about consenting to bear my suffering in a desperate, keening, crawling-on-bloody-knees kind of love for my brothers and sisters, just as, in some mysterious way, my brothers and sisters bear their suffering for me.

Christ wasn't mature and responsible and accepting when they drove the nails through His precious hands, His beautiful sacred feet. He knew the worst spiritual anguish any person can know: Father, Father, why have Thou forsaken me? And yet...He doesn’t forsake us; He never forsakes us. That's what the Resurrection--that light way in the distant future, after these seven dark weeks of Lent--tells us. I don’t understand it, I don’t even believe it half the time, but that's what I've staked my life on.

The dinner bell rings and I salivate: I've been fasting all day. Tomorrow I'll leave the silence and the cottonwoods and the birds, and make the long drive home.

But for now it's time to walk through the gathering dusk and join the others--the young monks and the old; Dot, Jim, Sister Georgina; Fran and Earl, Lois and Vern; the woman in charge of cooking: to bow our heads; to eat the good black bread.

photo: Jonathan Gayman


  1. I laughed out loud twice, which was the first of the day...and the only, considering i'm going straight to bed. I just loved it! And couldn't help but note all your fear of fat hanging over the belt-lines. I have the same fear--don't we all--Happy Mardi Gras, Heather!

  2. Solid rock: "But nobody ever 'gets' it. It's not about being good, it's about being vulnerable." And, more solid rock: "I don’t understand it, I don’t even believe it half the time, but that's what I've staked my life on." Blunt, honest, and therefore rock solid.

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  3. And, the dear, faithful monks would be pleased, I have no doubt! [I like the photo, ten years ago, before "Shirt of Flame" of Therese]

    John W. White

  4. What struck me was the line from Sirach, hitting all too close to home -- as it should! -- and your line, Heather, about being vulnerable, not being necessarily "good." So, so true.

  5. I like the feeling of shared suffering you experienced at the Stations of the Cross. Isn't it strange that such a prayerful experience of human and divine suffering can bring about such sweet, tearful consolations? We come a little closer to understanding how Jesus is so with us at these moments.
    Thanks for all of your sharing, Heather.

  6. Your paragraph about bearing our sufferings for others - absolutely striking. This might sound strange but for the past year I've found meditating on Christ's Agony in the Garden to be comforting somehow.

  7. So how was that bread? I was looking forward to a report on the black bread!

    Great post-funny and poignant and similar to something a dear friend of mine was telling me in a similar vein- how she was looking forward to a wonderful time at some monastery and as time went on she realized that nothing quite held up to that ideal she had somewhere in her head.

    Unflinching with yourself, you are. Thanks for the lesson. Good start to Lent! And hope that your time in Palm Springs, in the desert, no less, is abundant and surprising and renewing for you.

  8. We need a word for female curmudgeon. 'Crone' won't do - you're too young and lovely for that.

    Curmudgess? :)

  9. Question for any technical types: I am so excited to see your Poor Baby (talk about a perfect title!) but I have an iPad, not a Kindle...I am quite the non-techy...would it download to an iPad or a computer? Or do you really need a Kindle?

  10. Oh, Heather. My sister and I spent one afternoon, evening and morning at an abbey, St. Benoit du Lac in Canada a few years ago. Your story brought back some appealing memories. We had to eat in silence. The monks sang gorgeously at all monestery gatherings. They were alert, prayerful, resolute to rejoicing in God, our Saviour, at all times. Our single room HAD a desk. We were instructed by "Mother Superior" how to close our doors making NO sounds,turning the knobs so silently. Reminded us both of our Catholic school education teachers, NUNS! We enjoyed our experience, the cool, crisp air in these sweet, green mountains, rising at 4:00 a.m. for morning prayer, trying not to snicker at each other while silently eating our meals. Thank you, yet again, for a wonderful post!

  11. Curmudgess: I like it, Bill! Or possibly simply crank...

    Oh Bird, kindle schmindle...of course I don't actually own one myself and it has not even occurred to me to wonder whether people can download the thing to an ipad. Though a friend showed me a couple of books she had bought off kindle (it seems to me) that were ON her ipad (I don't own one of those either) the other day. Give it a try and if it doesn't work you can shoot me three bucks and I'll send you a hard copy--it's a 10,000 word (35 or 40 page) essay, not a whole book...

    I'm gonna post about it Monday I think--thanks for noticing. I thought it would be good practice to dabble in the self-publishing world and see if I could format and figure out the "kindle direct"--which I think I have, basically...I am quite proud of my cover as well, designed and executed by yours truly on "paintbox"...more like sandbox, looks like, but whatever!

    The main thing is the essay itself, over which I've been toiling for months...

  12. there is a "Kindle for Mac" app you can download onto a Mac...I tried downloading it to my iPad (which is made by the same people--i think...Apple makes Macs, right?) but nothing happened. So let's go with the paying you for a copy. Where do I pay?
    About the essay: I am in hushed awe around your courage to write about this. You are helping tons of women and men to stand up to this monster among us. At least, this is my thought on the before-side of reading it and the after-side of reading lots of your other stuff.
    With love,

  13. Thank you, Bird! Through the Donate button on the right hand column of the blog...


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