Today marks a week since we returned back home from being on retreat in Deer Park. Before leaving last Friday there had been a community meeting in the hamlet I was staying in, Clarity Hamlet with the sisters, after breakfast. These meetings were common before doing work meditation and served as opportunities to make announcements, divide up the work assignments, welcome new friends who had arrived, and say good-bye to friends who were departing. There was one other lay friend and myself leaving from Clarity Hamlet last Friday and we were asked to say a few words. She and I shared about our gratitude and joy for having been able to come and stay at Deer Park and for being so well taken care of. After we had both spoken one of the older sisters was talking with one of the younger sisters who translated for us into english that the older sister wanted to give us a hug. In all my time at Deer Park I had never seen the offering of a sister hugging the lay friends who were departing. And from the reactions of the sisters I’m not sure it had ever happened before. As the sister stepped forward to offer us each a hug the other sisters were visibly surprised and very touched by her display of affection for us. It was such a gift and tears came to my eyes as she embraced me. One the sisters smiled and said, “I think this needs to be our new way of saying good-bye.” And another sister said, “I wish we all were getting a hug!”
Sometimes it can be difficult to feel comfortable and at home in the sisters hamlet due to cultural differences, cultural shyness of vietnamese women, language barriers, and the simple fact that nuns and lay people live very different kinds of lives. I felt much more at ease this time around then I did last January but still there is a slight disconnect. And I also see that disconnection, in any setting, is in large part illusory and self-made. There really is no separation unless we ourselves create it. Instead of waiting for something or someone to change we can be that connector, that bridge from one side to alleged other side. Writing about it now I see that the sister offered me that teaching in my departure. With her stepping into the middle of our circle and giving us a hug she was that bridge bringing us all together. It is a memory I will carry with me in my heart.
Last Friday our shuttle came at 2:00pm to take us to the airport. On our way I was keeping my eyes open for one final chance to catch a glimpse of the ocean. We had seen an inlet and a distant quick view of what I was pretty sure was the ocean between some buildings but nothing as substantial as I was hoping for. The terminal was very un-busy when we arrived and we got right through security and to our gate in what seemed like a matter of minutes. Our plane took off from San Diego around 5:00pm and as we were climbing into the sky a magnificent sight unfolded outside of our little window – the ocean!! Of course! It made sense once I saw it that the ocean would be visible in flight but as I had never flown out of San Diego I hadn’t thought about it. It was incredibly beautiful. And we just happened to have front row seats to the spectacular show that happens every day – sunset over the Pacific Ocean. The skies were clear and the colors of the sun setting spread out like ripples on the water, seemingly vibrating forever into time and space. We watched with awe as the sun gracefully disappeared, little by little, over the horizon. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Going on retreat used to be something I viewed as being separate, different, and outside of my normal routine. But with this retreat I have a different view of them. Retreats do not have to be disconnected and separate from my everyday life, they can be an extension of it. Going on retreat is not to step outside of our ho hum way of life but to enable us the opportunity to fully embrace it just as it is. To practice diligently to engage fully with what we’re doing while we’re doing it so that each day does not slip away without meaning. I go on retreat to brush my teeth and know that I’m brushing my teeth, to open a door and know that I’m opening a door, to wash my dishes and enjoy washing my dishes, to walk and enjoy walking, to breathe and enjoy breathing. I go on retreat to remind me that every moment is an opportunity to practice waking up to the present moment, no matter what is unfolding in that particular instance. I don’t go on retreat to get away, I go on retreat to come home, wherever I am.