Summers typically find me with a plan to make a retreat. This summer is no exception; in fact, I received a confirmation today that a space is available in a nearby retreat house the first weekend of July. Last year I began writing about what someone new to making retreats might expect on a first venture. I offer here ten perspectives on a key part of the retreat experience.
1. Like the refectory in ancient monasteries, the dining room of a retreat house is a community room. Like the chapel, the dining room tends to be of a size that can provide us a sense of personal space in the visible company of others. The dining room is an acknowledgement of our ordinary human needs and the care and attention that they require; the dining room can serve as a reminder of the care and attention that those needs ordinarily do or do not receive from us.
2. In most cases, the dining room is a place we can count on being three times each day of a retreat. This commitment of time is not a negligible part of the schedule of a retreat. The dining room is ideally a place where the atmosphere of the retreat is not interrupted, where the graces of retreat actually have a chance to grow and deepen. Even in situations where part of the dining room is reserved for the retreat facility staff or actual residents of the house, a section of the room can be dedicated to individuals or groups on retreat.
3. The experience of stopping at very definite times in the day to go to a meal may be different from our usual daily schedule. For many of us, what is also significantly different about each of the meal times in a day of retreat is that we are not responsible for planning and cooking and serving the meal; we are not juggling lots of other activities and claims on our time in order to find those minutes when we can fix a meal and then eat it in peace.
4. Some of us will be early to meals; some of us will report to the dining room promptly at twelve for a meal listed on the schedule for noon; some of us will be able to wait for the initial press of people to have gone through the serving line before darkening the door of the dining room. The expectations of the leaders of the retreat and the customs of the house (for example, a common grace at the start of the meal) will be factors in making the decision when to show up.
5. Some of us are not used to sitting regularly with a number of other people who are not related to us or known to us. Social instincts that come from eating out with friends are not always easy to put aside. Without the responsibility or distraction of conversation, we are left with our own thoughts at a meal during retreat. It may be a different experience for us to be able to sit at a table in silence and to eat a meal at our own pace and not to have to take care of others. Our sense of being indispensable to someone else’s comfort or of having our worth or importance defined by the role we play at home may be challenged.
6. At a meal during a retreat, the needs of others for anything more in the way of companionship than quiet proximity are not our concern. That suspension of our normal roles may leave some of us sad or confused or even a little lost, and it may be helpful to talk with one of the retreat leaders about this reaction if it affects our mood outside of mealtimes. This is the kind of opportunity that retreat provides some of us – hearing other voices within asking to be heard rather than those of the people by whom we are normally surrounded.
7. Water pitchers or serving dishes may need to be passed from one diner to another, and signaling our neighbors about our need for these items may take practice. Some retreatants have a knack for making items available to their neighbors while not intruding and demanding another’s attention or thanks. It is not normally considered rude to refrain from saying thanks to someone who provides you with an item at the dining room table during a retreat. There ought to be a shared sense of responsibility and respect for someone else’s recollection. We sometimes just want to stay with our own thoughts; we may be remembering the people with whom we last shared a meal twenty-four hours ago or even twenty-four years ago.
8. There may be pleasant surprises on the serving table at the place where we are staying. I myself rarely think of having anything more at home than a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee for breakfast. I sometimes enjoy eggs and bacon and toast on a Saturday or Sunday morning when there is more leisure to plan a meal and eat it. One retreat house, however, regularly makes available at breakfast a plate of cheeses and a choice of breads, and I have come to relish the different way of eating that those items enjoin on me when I am there. I get to use my hands with a breakfast like this – not just moving food with a fork or a spoon. There is something contemplative and soothing about the mood those actions engender.
9. There are occasions when the fare at a retreat house or a religious house may not match the variety of the meals or the quality of the ingredients to which we are accustomed. There may be something about our own adaptability or sense of entitlement that becomes apparent to us then. We might remind ourselves that at times it is easier for us to grouse about food than it is to face squarely the parts of our life about which we are ashamed or angry or in grief. On the other hand, most settings will be explicit about their ability or readiness to accommodate diet restrictions that result from serious health concerns.
10. From time to time, something about eating a meal in silence or just eating a particular food prepared a particular way will tickle us. In a similar vein, we may find that the best-intentioned courtesy on the part of one person at table strikes deep at someone else’s sense of the ludicrous, and the urge to giggles will come close to the surface. The more the people at a table know one another from other circumstances, the more likely the incongruity of eating a meal in silence with others will hit our funny bone. We ought to be easy on ourselves at those times and just enjoy this reminder of our lack of control.
Photos of Loyola Hall, Manresa in Gozo, and Connors Family Retreat Center at Boston College