I wanted to give Liz a luxury cruise, a spa vacation, or a few nights at a high-end hotel. She wanted none of those. All she wanted was isolation, quiet, and rest.
Liz had taken care of our beloved mother-in-law when Mary was dying of brain cancer. Then when Mary passed, she had to deal with Mary’s husband, whose poor judgment and mean-spiritedness made it even harder for Liz to maintain her poise and her patience. But she had.
My then-husband and I were so grateful for Liz’s devotion to Mary and her generosity towards Mary’s husband. We wanted to say thank you in a big way. But “big” to Liz was “No frills, please.” So, I put a 5-day stay at a monastery on our list.
It made perfect sense that she chose the religious retreat center. Liz had been a Catholic spiritual director for many years. She tended to others’ needs so often, and now she needed tending herself. The New Camaldoli Hermitage at Big Sur, California, offered everything Liz needed. Solitude. She would be staying in a cottage all by herself with no one nearby. Silence. Talking was not allowed anywhere on the grounds except the bookstore and then only to register or check out. Beauty. The Catholic retreat center was located high on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The views were spectacular.
I decided to book a room for myself at the monastery for three days out of curiosity, but also respect for the deep spirituality Liz and my mother-in-law shared. They often told me of the benefits they gained from attending silent retreats. I had never been silent a day in my life. The idea of a strict no-talking rule actually scared me.
As Liz and I drove to the monastery, hugging the scenic and rugged California coastline, I spoke to her of my fear.
“I don’t know what to expect out of being silent. Sounds lonely and a little frightening.”
“The best thing,” Liz said, “is to have no expectations. Just surrender to the stillness, and answers will come.”
I was willing but didn’t have a lot of practice. I had chosen to come to this silent retreat with the hope I would deepen spiritually in a new way. Now I just had to have faith that those “answers” Liz talked about would come.
My first brush with those answers began as I checked myself in at the bookstore. I had flown to Texas about a month before my dear mother-in-law passed to see her one more time. Mary had wanted me to pick some belonging of hers to remember her by, something that would have special meaning for both of us. I asked her if she had a St. Francis statue, knowing how deeply she cared about the Catholic saints but also knowing how much I loved animals. St. Francis loved the animals too, and the natural environment. Mary didn’t have a St. Francis statue but insisted we go shopping to find the perfect one. We looked, but I didn’t see any that spoke to my heart…too small, too big, wrong facial expression, etc. Mary told me to keep looking after I returned home and that when I found just the right one, it would come from her heart as well.
I hadn’t looked. Shopping didn’t seem like the right thing to do when the grief of losing her weighed heavily on my mind. Now, as I looked around the monastery bookstore after we arrived, my gaze settled on a surprise. There on the top shelf, tucked into a corner, was the most beautiful St. Francis statue I had ever seen. But it was expensive. Too expensive, I thought. Disappointed, I turned my back on it and, instead, settled in to my spartan room with the gorgeous ocean view.
Now what? I had no plan, and that made me anxious. I didn’t know what, if anything, to do but try and empty my mind and snuggle up to the silence. I went for a walk down the winding road that led to the highway far below. There were benches at various places along the way—a chance, I thought, to sit and drink in the beauty along with the silence. But every time I sat, my mind was flooded with the image of that lovely St. Francis statue. It was like a tune you just can’t get out of your mind. Just a distraction. An annoyance to divert my attention from sinking into silence.
And then it hit me. This was one of those answers Liz said would come. Mary had told me when I found the perfect St. Francis, it would come from her heart. I had found the perfect St. Francis. Suddenly the expensive part was of no importance. I walked back up the road with conviction and purpose. The statue was waiting for me at the bookstore. Now with great joy, I bought it and placed it on the little desk in my room. Just looking at the beautiful face and peaceful expression on the statue, I could feel the convergence. Mary’s love for me. She had said this gift would come from her heart. My love for Mary. And St. Francis signifying a love for animals. It had come together perfectly. I knew I would be reminded of my love for Mary every time I looked at my beautiful St. Francis.
I was faithful to the rule of silence at the retreat. My time there had already been eventful. On the third evening, just as the sun was beginning to go down over the Pacific, I walked to a bench at one of the highest points on the cliff. To my happy surprise, Liz was sitting on the bench, but there was enough room for the two of us. We smiled at one another but did not speak. I felt such a deep love for this woman who was more a sister than a sister-in-law. I hoped my feelings for her would flow out to her in the space between us on the bench.
Suddenly, we both noticed something moving out from the woods below us. As it advanced towards us, we could see it was a beautiful reddish-brown fox. It kept on walking towards us, getting closer and closer…now alarmingly close! What is this wild thing doing? I thought. Is she going to attack us, bite us? Oh Lord!
Liz and I looked at each other with wide eyes, both of us still silent but not sure what to do. Should we run? Should we try to wave off the fox? Instead, we just watched her as she came right up to our feet, turned around, and sat on the ground between us facing the ocean.
The three of us stayed there, not moving, never flinching, all of us directing our attention to the beauty before us. The sun was just beginning to dip down to the horizon, sky, and ocean blending into a mesmerizing image of blue and gold. Spokes of intense light reached out to form a halo of radiant beams around the sun.
The fox and the two women shared an instant of exquisite beauty and connectedness. And when the sun finally disappeared on the horizon, the fox slowly rose and began the trek back down the hill to her den.
Liz and I looked at each other in utter amazement. There’s that convergence again, I thought. My love for Liz, her love for me, St. Francis’ love for animals forming a perfect communion between the three of us—me, Liz, and the fox appreciating the beauty of the light from the setting sun. I imagine the messengers of God wanted us to share in this moment of silence an understanding that all of God’s beings are but rays of the same light. Thank you, God, for Mary and Liz, the fox and the sunset. We joined in a moment of grace that will live in my memory forever.
“Let us wait here in silence, and kneel down an instant in our gratitude to Him Who called to us and helped us hear His call.” (C-Ep.4:1)