It is good to be home in my own bed in this old house. Last week, a friend and I led a women’s retreat at Ghost Ranch. We rented Casa del Sol, their adobe house with a courtyard that looks out on Pedernal, the mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe once claimed that God would give her if she painted it enough. Casa del Sol is about 1 1/2 miles from the main ranch, down the road where Georgia O’Keeffe lived at Ghost Ranch. Her house is still there but, unlike the one in Abiquiu she later built to winter in, it is closed to the public.
The focus of our retreat was the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those 3rd and 4th century Christians who fled to the deserts of North Africa, after the Edict of Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. For the first time in Christian history, you could come to church without being a committed follower of Jesus Christ and these men and women wanted a deeper experience of God. They fled to the silences of the desert to listen and to learn, from nature and from each other. They left about 3000 sayings, some of which are just plain weird. We used Christine Valter Paintner’s book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It was useful to have some of the sayings interpreted and then commented on by someone who has worked with them for a number of years.
Everything went so well: the weather was perfect with warm, even ho,t days and cool nights. The fall colors were just beginning. The group of women was eclectic in age and beliefs but blended well. We had fun excursions to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, Santa Fe, and Christ in the Desert monastery. The mornings were devoted to teaching and personal reflection time. In the evenings, we made “crafts”: jewelry and Milagros crosses guided by my co-leader, who is a professional jeweler. She had gone to the gem show right before our retreat, so we had high quality materials to work with. Women brought home lovely pieces of jewelry they made as well as the pottery cup we hired a potter friend to make for each of them. Another women, also a professional jeweler, fell in love with the sage that is every where down there. She made several sage bundles and taught us how to wrap them to burn (smudging) or decorate. In the picture below, mine is decorated, a gift for a friend who couldn’t come.
The silence was impressive. We were in a very rural part of New Mexico and Casa del Sol is in a remote place on Ghost Ranch. There was virtually no cell phone reception or WiFi available and it was very dark at night. We could see the Milky Way. Floating in one of the pools at Ojo Caliente and looking up at a black sky filled with stars was a highlight for me.
Being a seven-hour drive from home also helped us “unhook” from the daily routines that consume us so easily. There was no possibility of coming-and-going. You were either there or not! It was two miles to the main road and then another ten to the first little store and gas station. If you will, we had to “stay in our cell,” as the desert fathers and mothers taught their disciples to do.
We laughed together and cried together. God touched each of us in different ways and most of us left resolving to live in ways that were more life-giving.We also did a hymn sing at Echo Canyon. At one point, I turned around and we had a small audience. A few had tears in their eyes. We asked them to join us, which they didn’t want to do. We asked if they had a request. One woman suggested for “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” I had not copied that for our music packets but another woman, who is an excellent singer, knew it from memory. There was not a dry eye among us when she finished. We do not realize how many people do not sing. Women who have been raped often lose their ability to sing. I sometimes wonder if our entire culture has been “raped” by violence in media and life in general such that it has lost its ability to sing. We can’t even sing our own national anthem! Singing is a healing activity as well as a gift for many who feel they “can’t sing” or have a “terrible voice.” Maybe if we all went to a place where our voices would echo back to us, we could find healing in their sound. One raven was cawing for the sheer delight of hearing its voice echo off the rock!
Deep silence and closeness with nature is missing in too many of our lives. Even though our minds created their own racket when we had times of silence, being quiett in nature for extended periods of time allowed many of us to drop down to another level of listening. Just as it takes quantities of time to have quality time with someone, so it takes extended periods of silence for silence to become fruitful. One woman shared that it took her 10 to 15 minutes to settle in to the silence. How many times have I given up after only three minutes?!
The week was a gift that none of us has fully unwrapped yet. There are memories and lessons to mull over and integrate in the days ahead. It was such a powerful time that we are already planning the next one!