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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Unexpected Grace - Taking A Mini-Retreat

"....These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses...."
                                                    T.S. Eliot, in "The Dry Salvages" from "Four Quartets"

When I decided to participate in a "Day of Solitude" at the Siena Retreat Center in Racine, Wisconsin last Sunday, I had two needs: I craved a day of silence, and I longed for a feeling of forgiveness toward someone who had hurt me.

I got my day of silence, and received a feeling of forgiveness. But much to my surprise and delight, I gained so much more: I felt compassion.

I never expected to experience compassion, but it came, seemingly on its own. I think this miraculous movement is called grace.

There are so many words in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we hear them so often, that their meaning becomes muddied or trivialized. So it is, I think, with the word grace. As T.S. Eliot wrote, all we have are "hints and guesses" about truths beyond our understanding.

But when you feel the power of grace, you realize it can bring miracles. I think grace brought me compassion last Sunday. And I believe grace came to me because I opened my heart.

The day at the Siena Center was simple, although it included ideas from several different faith traditions. We gathered at 8:30 in the morning. The retreat leader, Pat Shutts, played a song by Kuan Yin that had only one lyric, repeated like a chant: "Open my heart." 

Pat told us the theme of the day was  compassion. I wasn't expecting any theme, but I thought compassion was a great intention for me to set for the next seven hours. Pat gave us a couple of brief writing prompts and encouraged us to create our day of silence any way we wished...we might walk outside, make a collage, meet with her for a half-hour of spiritual conversation, color a mandala, create art, do some body movement, participate in a liturgy...whatever

We were on our own until 4:00 pm. Immediately, I set low expectations for myself; I wanted a true mini-retreat. In fact, I fully planned to find a corner for a little snooze during the day.

This is how I spent my hours.... 

After participating in Mass and receiving Communion, I had a short meeting with Pat, the retreat director. Afterward, I wrote down three things she said: 

-  "Grace begins flowing at the moment of our birth." 

-  "I need to look to see the light in the eyes of others, and trust that the Holy Spirit is moving in them." 

-  "When I feel judgmental or vindictive feelings and thoughts blooming inside, I can choose to remember how wonderful it was in the past, when I let them go."

Yes, I thought, I needed to hear those things. I needed to be reminded that grace and the Holy Spirit move in everyone; it is not my responsibility to try to "fix" others. And I needed to be reminded that when I judge others, I put a burden on myself.

After talking with Pat, I colored in a mandala pattern. It could have been any sort of design, but it happened to be a mandala. I thought coloring would be a good way to "loosen" my mind from daily concerns, and center on God.

I colored in a leisurely manner, using super-soft colored pencils. I felt calm and kind of meditative while I colored, like a little kid. As I shaded one color into another, a saying came back to me that I first heard about thirty years ago from my sister Sally, in her Edgar Cayce study group. The saying is "Be a channel of blessings." I loved those words then and I love them still, but I had forgotten them. When I finished coloring, I wrote two reminders to myself: "Open your heart to God" above the mandala, and "Be a channel of blessings" beneath. 

I took a walk outside, listened to birds, and gazed out at enormous Lake Michigan, shining in the sun like a mini-sea. When I returned indoors, I did some "mindful movements" along with a video of Buddhist monks and nuns of Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's community. The movements reminded me of Tai Chi - they seemed all about slowness and balance. Slowness and balance! That is what I seek, especially at a retreat.

After a quiet lunch, I found the art room and created a collage. I hadn't made one since high school. I slowly cut and glued pictures onto a piece of matte board about 5" x 5." Gradually, images ran into each other...a riot of pink azaleas, a white horse rollicking in the surf, a yellow butterfly in flight, and lurking beneath all: a tiger. I wondered about the images. All I could see in them was wildness. I liked that, maybe because my life is pretty tame.

I found some books and read about mandalas and collages. And eventually, I got my little snooze.

Here's what I didn't do, all day long: converse with another retreatant, make a new friend, comfort someone, try to make someone laugh, try to make someone smile. This lack of out-going was relaxing - and essential - for me. I crave solitude but somehow I've learned to be an extrovert. And it's exhausting.

Mostly, I didn't try to do anything. It was a day of just being. I opened my heart, set my intention, and did what I felt like doing.

I'm not sure when, but at some point during the day, I felt the miracle of forgiveness and compassion. Finally, I wrote down these words that came to me:

 When I open my heart, compassion flows.

It is my calling to love others. It is none of my business if they love me back.

I don't have to "direct" anyone, or interfere in any way.

Even though I decide not to direct or interfere, I may still pray for a person or for a situation.

...Thank you, Siena Center.

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from


  1. A wonderful reflection, Gail. The bit on loving others reminds me of a scene toward the nd of the movie Marvqins Room. Bessie says Tao her sister "I have known such love." LEE responds"Of course we all love you, Bessie." But Bessie says" No, I mean I have been able to love others Sep well." Indeed the gift is in loving, not in being loved --though that is wonderful too.

    1. Thanks, Pam. My dad always used to say that what humans want to do is GIVE love. I think he was right.