In the Fall of 1987, I was finishing up my Master’s degree at St Bernard’s. My thesis was humming along in next-to-last draft, I was training for the foreign language requirement dredging ten-year-old German out of my brain’s recesses, and I was preparing for my comps. I was hoping to do a thirty-day Ignatian retreat, but when I contacted the Jesuits at Eastern Point in Massachusetts, they demurred, suggesting eight days instead. Up to that time, my only retreat experiences had been weekends with the Trappists, and ten days at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario.
Okay. I really would have had a hard time of it taking a month off from my job. Plus, as my advisor noted, though I would have had time to complete my degree by May, my main calling at that time was to be a student, and I realized remaining faithful to that was a spiritual value as well. So it was off to the Atlantic Ocean for eight days.
I arrived by bus and heard the ocean waves on the other side of the building. I settled into my room, and immediately made a beeline for the beach. I had never been to the ocean before, and my first task was to taste the water. I bent down at the shoreline, and took a small sip. Yep. Salty, for sure. Then a big wave splashed over my shoes and soaked my socks inside. I wrote lyrics for a song that first day:
Come, create in us, O God.
Find us ready for the grace
that springs from thirsting you.
Let me touch the water, hold it in my hands:
taste the salt of living, know the sweetness, too.
The tides were amazing to follow that week. The first morning, I noticed the water had receded to form a land bridge to what was an offshore island that first evening. I hiked out across the tidal flats and climbed the rocks jutting out into the ocean. Crashing waves brought me back to the reality that the tides were rolling in and my shoes and socks were likely to get a thorough soaking if I didn’t hightail it back to permanent land to pray.
It was my first directed retreat, and it was a good one. It set me on a good annual pattern for retreating a week at a time. I will always remember the night I was praying in the chapel, with my hands turned upward. I had a sensation of something resting in them. I didn’t want to open my eyes and spoil the moment. But it felt like a loaf of bread. I sat there completely still, refocusing on prayer, but the sensation remained. It was even a little chilling, thinking that I would open my eyes and I would have seen that God had miraculously placed bread in my hands. So I prayed instead that I didn’t need a miracle like that. All I wanted was to be able to come to God for spiritual nourishment whenever I turned to him in prayer. I had a deep experience of trust and faith. It was perfect for a person heading into a big life’s transition, as I was. The sensation passed. I opened my eyes to see an ordinary chapel in dim lighting. But the sense of spiritual surety and the presence of God remained.