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  • I actually wanted to go to the Catholic retreat. It would be a few days of silence in the woods and then a large celebration – confession included, at no extra charge! What was I, eleven? I can’t remember. And although God and I had what has so far proven to be a permanent (if not eternal) falling out several years before, the Church still held a good deal of romance for me and I remained steadfastly in love with Christ’s loving hands. If I am completely honest, though, it was not my ragtag faith that made me want to go but the chance to get away from home.

    It did not take either much to convince my parents to send me. I could make up my chores when I got back.

    The retreat was held in somewhere in a Mendocino forest. We’d stay at an enormous arts and crafts style hall that became in my mind the ideal house - tall ceilings, a huge fireplace, beautiful-stained glass windows with gorgeous lilies traced in them, warm yellow lamps, giant carpets, and walls and floors of deep, richly colored woods. Father Anthony, a friendly and well-fed Franciscan with equine features, led the retreat every year for boys wishing to receive Confirmation.

    Under Father Anthony’s guidance, we were for three days to abstain from all speech. Three days of silence to most boys entering puberty might perhaps seem a trial. But I had come to learn early on silence’s value and to find shelter in its mysterious and sometimes mossy worlds.

    So while other kids at the retreat squirmed and fought with the rowdy expressions natural to our age, I was in my comfort zone. In the stretch of retreat’s silence, I was easily a long distance runner gracefully finding his stride, a well-trained athlete whose mind and muscles moved in a mechanical harmony.

    And how effortless it was to spend time in the forest in perfect silence when I could transform that forest into Sherwood and myself into Robin Hood (and the rest into either nasty Nottingham’s crew or my merry own)! How luxurious to sit in the hall in what by all appearances looked to be the very model of prayer while the whole time carrying on the most entertaining telepathic conversations with the witty long-legged spiders and the breezy dust bunnies that lived there!

    As the end of the silent period came closer, though, that cold too-familiar dread began in my belly to shuffle itself awake.

    After the big feast, there’d be a group sharing session (ugh), then some Vatican II-style singing, and finally confession (do eleven-year olds really have so much to confess?). I may have excelled at silence, but at these activities I was the least skilled and awkward at best. It wasn’t the trepidation of having to interact with my peers, though, that awoke the dread. Nor was it having to attend confession. It was the inescapable fact that the very next morning I would be yellow bused out of Sherwood, away from the gentle company of those witty spiders and lighthearted dust bunnies, and delivered by the same afternoon home.

    When the group rap, songs, and our surely rather dull confessions were through, Father Anthony brought out a jeweled walnut box and placed it on a table. He announced that it contained letters from our parents. He would pass them out and everyone was to read them silently (ah, my little heart leapt, thank God, another slice of silence!) before going to the dorms.

    Father Anthony took the letters one by one out from the box and read the names of the kids to whom the envelopes were addressed. As he did, each would go up and collect their letter. It was a slow procession and ever so gradually the room began to fill with the quick sound of tearing paper and silence and the deep sighs of the fire.

    I wondered what their parents might have written to them, my brothers-in-retreat, and worked at how I might numb my jealousy. Surely there’d be others who wouldn’t get letters from their parents. In any case, I assured myself, I was glad not to have to lip-sync to another chorus of ‘Love is the Answer’ or ‘Joy to the World’ with its fishes in the deep blue sea, songs I was none too fond of to begin with; I was more than happy to stand by the stone hearth of this my dream house and watch the fire roar while the other boys read the sage advice of their parents or whatever such letters might contain.

    And then he called my name.

    Father Anthony smiled kindly as he handed me the letter. I was entirely confused. I had naturally assumed neither of my parents would bother to write, especially as only one could at the time. But there was the envelope. And there was my name on it.

    As he continued to call out names and the solemn procession went on, I carried my letter to the farthest corner of the hall and sat down on the floor. I stared a long time at that envelope. It didn’t make sense.

    I could hear others in the room begin to sniffle. I looked for the spiders, but I think they had already gone to bed. The bunnies had gone, too. There was nothing left to do.

    Opening the envelope, I recognized immediately my mother’s hand – the same hand that was so difficult to forge on notes to school teachers – those curly k’s and plump r’s.

    The letter itself has long since been lost. Or maybe I tore it up years later in the rage and despair that comes from trying to understand the mixed signals of love and abuse. I know I had kept it in a book for a very long time.

    But on that evening, in the warmth of those soft yellow lamps, under the watchful gaze of stained glass lilies, and in the rising shadows of that great fire, the letter’s love, my mother’s love, was clear to me. And I held tight to that letter as if it bore a secret that would save my life. And maybe it did.

    [painting: St. Antony of Padua by El Greco]
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