Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

Last weekend my faith sharing group went on retreat together. A woman only one of us knew generously offered her cottage in the country for the six of us to get away from the hustle and bustle of our lives for the weekend and spend some time with God. Cottage was an understatement. It turned out to be a lovely three bedroom house with three bathrooms--including a claw foot tub and accompanying bubble bath—a huge deck, bonfire pit, living room fireplace and hot tub.

You could call it camping with style. The six of us arrived on Friday evening loaded down with foodstuffs and linens and all things needed for a camping trip such as utensils and paper towels and garbage bags and cleaning products, unloaded and sorted ourselves into the three bedrooms, then cranked up the oldies and enjoyed a delicious, hearty meal of home made chili, salad and Italian bread on the deck overlooking a slow, lazy river.

We’d planned to sit around the bonfire afterward, but everyone was tired—hence the need for a retreat—and after some scripture reading and a ceremony where we placed our burdens in God’s hands, we trundled off to bed.

My roommate and I slept in the Princess Room, generally designated as the room for our unknown hostess’s granddaughters, complete with white bunk beds and accompanying Princess Accoutrements. I slept in the top bunk, and let me tell you, I was quickly reminded of the amount of upper body strength needed to haul a (much larger than the last time I did it) peri-menopausal woman’s bottom-heavy body up a ladder and into bed.

But manage it I did, along with a quiet prayer that I wouldn’t be needing to make my usual foray into the bathroom in the middle of the night, for fear that I’d fall right off the ladder.

God answered my prayers. I both slept through the night and slept burden free. Got the best night of sleep I’d had in a while and awoke in the morning to the smell of coffee and a delicious breakfast bake created by our organizer extraordinaire and chef in residence, who doesn’t get much time to cook, and was delighted to bless us with her culinary skills. A beautiful bowl of fresh fruit rounded out the menu.

Just before breakfast our facilitator arrived, a lovely Sister of St. Joseph and spiritual counselor who had insisted on arriving early to share breakfast with us on the deck and get to know us before the program began.

The program, which lasted from 10 to 5, included prayer, scripture readings, Christian music, periods of reflection and quiet conversation about how much God loves each and every one of us. We broke only for lunch, which was a veritable feast of salami, provolone, an array of breads and rolls, more fresh fruit and a veggie tray. Snacks and desserts, which each of us had brought individually as our contribution to the cooking, were available throughout the weekend. Oh, and yes, a bowl full of chocolate occupied center stage on the coffee table throughout :).

After the program portion of the retreat, held in warmth and cozy comfort as we settled into soft leather furniture in the gathering room while the rain poured outside and swelled the lazy river to fast-moving proportions, we concluded by breaking bread once again with a crock pot meal of pork roast, potatoes and carrots, leftover fresh veggies and our wide array of desserts. Sister left with hugs all around, and we sat up late into the night, enjoying our wine, more oldies and quiet conversation in between trips to the out door hot tub in the now misty rain.

Sunday morning we were all moving slow. We had planned to attend Mass together, but our cook/leader had arrived with a nasty cold/sinus infection she had come down with the day before, and we chose to let her sleep in and get the rest she needed. So breakfast was a lazy affair, with people helping themselves to leftovers as they got hungry, and others dipping back into the hot tub in the still misty rain. Some chose to take advantage of the claw foot tub.

Once everyone was fed and bathed/showered, we began our craft project for the retreat, which I was in charge of, so you know what we did. Collages. For the next three hours, as red, orange and gold leaves continued to aimlessly drift into the river and onto the deck outside, we sat on the floor inside and listened to music and cut out pictures from magazines and created collages of items that spoke to us, laughing and sharing and sometimes passing pictures of interest to others back and forth. Afterward, we explained them to each other.

The original theme was items we wanted to bring into our lives, but everyone had a different take on it. Some started one side of the collage with negative images from the past, and moved to positive images for the future. Another focused only on her short term goals, what she wanted to bring into her life in the immediate future. Another used the collage to express the inner woman she was and intended to express more fully. Mine, as it turned out, was full of fall colors and bridges and roads, and trains and cars and references to journeys. Took me completely by surprise, it did. I’m still trying to figure out what it means :). But each of them was beautiful, and we were well pleased with our efforts and how quickly our individual themes emerged and meshed.

After the collages, we ate again, then went to work packing up and cleaning the house so that it sparkled and we left no sign that we had been there. A final round of hugs and we were off to return to our busy lives, renewed, refreshed and well fed, both physically and spiritually.

We’ve decided we want to do this again, and share our journeys along the way. But none of it would have been possible without the generosity of a woman we didn’t even know.

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