Okay. I've had an absolutely lovely time away. The retreat was great. All the presentations, including mine, were well-received. The Mercy Center in St. Louis was probably the loveliest, most gracious retreat center I've ever attended (and I've attended quite a few of them). I took a couple of pictures of my favorite parts:
Yes, the Mercy Center has a lovely labyrinth, constructed, as I read the story, over landscape fabric. It was initially built by a group of women, and mulched with wood chips (wisely salvaged from pruning and trimming on their own property -- oh, that I could get our church to do that!). Now the dark black mulch is shredded rubber, an excellent choice, I think, and I wish I could get hold of some for my own labyrinth. It was striking. It is a 12-circuit, like the large one at Chartres Cathedral in France. It also seems much like the one at Kanuga Camp and Conference Center, where I actually learned to appreciate the labyrinth. It does seem longer than the one at Kanuga, though.
The outdoor stations of the cross also touched my heart, probably because I saw them so soon in the Easter Season! I've longed for outdoor stations at our parish. We have a beautiful and unique set inside our church, and we use them exactly once a year, during Holy Week. I'd be happy, though, if others wanted to use them more often. But in the church, to move from one station to another really only requires a shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. I really wanted stations that you could actually walk a few steps between. You might be able to see in this photo that the cross sits in the center of a very large circle that contains all 14 Stations of the Cross, each one sheltered in a small wooden "house-shaped" structure, mounted on a pole. My idea, exactly! And executed most beautifully, with great love and devotion.
I did not get any pictures of the presenters, but the Hindu woman (a social worker by day) appeared in a sari; the Muslim woman appeared with appropriate head covering, the Jewish woman wore a lovely yarmulke or kippah, and the Zen Buddhist wore traditional Japanese robes.
I didn't get pictures of them all, but I was so very pleased that they were so warmly received by the audience, a Christian religious order (some of whom, I was told, might be fairly conservative). Everyone there seemed to want to know more about the worship and mystical practices of the world's great religions. I was also very touched at the warmth with which my talk and my presence were received. Though I was much too much of a newcomer to share in the rather intense emotional experience of the entire retreat, I certainly felt loved and welcomed, and that was a Good Thing!
During my presentation, I offered this quote, by Bede Griffiths, an English Roman Catholic Monk: "If you look at religions as they present themselves to us, it is like five separate fingers. But if you penetrate to their source -- to the palm of the hand -- you will find they all spring from the same source and instead of being separate entities they are, at their base, sharing in one common, mystical tradition." This quote was received with many nods and murmurs of assent. It's what I believe, too.
I left the retreat warmed to my heart. I was fed by all of the presentations (on interfaith approaches to prayer, worship, and meditation) and the people who were there; I slept a lot, signifying that I had allowed myself to relax into this time of grace and rest. I was also installed as a Companion in this order, something requiring more of a commitment than my previous status as "Friend." I wish I had also taken more photos of this gracious location, with its wide, spiral staircase spanning three levels (but also with elevator), its lovely grounds, and the delicious food we were fed with far too great regularity! I loved this beautiful and holy place, and do hope to return.
And then I drove the three hours back to my family's home in the easternmost part of central Illinois. Oh, how lovely that was! I wish I had pictures, but I don't. But my heart danced in the arms of my family. I conversed and broke bread daily with the ones I love, and then also had a lovely dinner with my one remaining brother, who generously shared pictures of himself and others in my family. He lost his wife 7 months ago, but is coping remarkably well. I was so happy to see my loved ones doing well, and regretted missing the ones who were working in another part of the state.
This afternoon I arrived home. I was so, so happy to be with my doggies again. Mr. Buddy, who seemed to have a sore back when I left, is fully recovered. My kennel lady was kind enough to text me and tell me of Buddy's return to dancing. The kitty has taken up residency in a windowsill in my study, and I'm delighted that we can finally all be one family down here. My youngest dog, Ms. Clementine, has grown far gentler and more respectful, so the kitty need not live in terror any longer.
So I'm so happy to be here. I was only gone a week, Wednesday-to-Wednesday, actually eight days, if you count them up on your fingers. But meanwhile, things have gone wild in my garden! Just look at a few of these! I've often had the experience of being gone midsummer, and finding my garden gone wild upon my return. But never have I had this experience so early in the spring. Things are so much more lush and beautiful than when I left a week ago!
This tree peony never fails to knock my socks off. I love the vibrancy of it. This year it has more blooms than it ever has had. I made the mistake early on in my time here of cutting it back severely, and it has bloomed ever-so-slowly and sparsely in the years since. I love the blowsy sensuality of these blooms.
This is only the second year in my 7 springtimes here that I've seen these clustered purple wisteria blooms. The wisteria is amazing, when it decides to happen. The problem is that it doesn't like any severe cutting back, and if I actually trim back what has extended into the little tree next to it (see upper right), then it doesn't bloom again for ages. Of course, two years ago we had a severe late frost -- but I'm ever so grateful for these blooms that occurred during my absence! Now if I could only nurture back its twin, which was chopped to shreds -- twice -- by my ever-helpful lawn crew. This year I will try once again to pick one perfect stem and nurture it into a small tree.
I could post a number of other photos I took today, including some dynamite columbine. But all of these sweet flowers do announce spring to me. I love lilies of the valley. I remember when I was a young teen my favorite cologne was "Muguet des Bois" (flowers of the woods, as I recall) -- the sweet scent of lilies of the valley. They are such a pretty addition to my springtime.
I can't believe that I was gone only for a week, with nothing but the barest hints of these things when I left! Now they are all in full flower. Besides that, when I took my walk with the dogs tonight, I discovered many, many tiny bunches of grapes on my wild-as-can-be (though of a domestic variety -- only neglected) grapevines. I have a parishioner of Italian extraction, who knows about these things, who insists that all these tiny buds will produce only tiny, tiny heads of grapes. But it's too late to prune as he has instructed, this year. And there are so many little bunches! The very best I can do is to find ways to repel the deer, so that I can eventually see all that develops for myself. Then I'll know better what I should do for next year. I have shiny things to set blowing outside the garden to scare away the deer. I can get some netting (though this is best in battling birds). I might even surrender to the terrible prospect of "liquid fence" -- garlic and rotten eggs! Oh, my. But I'd love to save the grapes that have budded out (pictures another day).
How lovely to get away! How lovely to visit a fine facility and also be part of a lovely retreat! How truly heartwarming to visit old locales (including the gravesites of my parents and daughter), and to enjoy the love of my family for a few days! And how wonderful to return home, especially to an abundant garden! Thank you God, for all of this!