‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
I’d signed up for a retreat at the Loyola Jesuit Center over Advent, which was postponed to January. Journey of the Magi, a day-long retreat to read and meditate on the poem of the same name by T.S. Elliot. Though I had been looking forward to the Advent retreat to prepare for Christmas, this ultimately felt better suited to the time period described in the poem itself—the dead of winter.
It’s not an easy journey for the magi, as explored in the poem. It’s the “worst time of the year,” a long trek from the East across the desert. Even their arrival is hard, finding Jesus in at night in a place that isn’t elaborate, probably not even recognizable as his home. And when they return home, they don’t recognize their own land—though it’s the same as before, they see the grit more clearly now that they’ve encountered God.
There was much discussion in our group about the double meaning: the physical and spiritual journey. It was compared to conversion, not something many in the group had experienced. But I understood. After the magi go home, they wish for death. They compare their own people to foreigners. After conversion, you ache not to physically die, but to be reborn into something new. You don’t recognize the people you’re close to, because they haven’t experienced what you experienced.
There was a clear shift from pre- to post-Confirmation life. I developed new interests. I talked about faith more, and stepped away from things that no longer lined up with that. People associated with those things stepped away, too, which is harder to accept. They’re not bad people. I’m still friendly with them, when we talk. But after spending a day contemplating this poem and its metaphors, I started to understand that we’re not friends. I hadn’t understood that. There are people who just disappear; they move away, or got married, or simply no longer share the same interests. When I joined the Church, I developed different interests, too. I was the one who started to disappear.
But after that “death” is a rebirth. The poem doesn’t talk about that part. It ends with the magi simply wishing for a separation from their own life. But after encountering Jesus, a new life begins. In a sense, I expected that to happen immediately after entering the Church. I’d be filled with the Spirit, joyful for life itself, eager to follow God’s plans. It didn’t happen. Instead, I spent a few months wayward. I had no one to talk to about my new life, because they didn’t care to talk about God, let alone the Church. I didn’t understand that rebirth has to begin with death.
What does that rebirth really look like? I don’t know, because I haven’t allowed myself to die. I didn’t know what I was supposed to die from; I didn’t think it would be something like friendships or social groups. But you can’t be reborn if you’re not willing to let go. I’ve been straddling my old and new lives, clinging to a past that I no longer agree with. Calling people friends who I no longer connect with. It’s time to let go. I’ve been called to a new life, but I haven’t been living it. I don’t know what this new life entails. I don’t know what God is asking of me, or where He’s going to send me. But I’m certainly not going to figure it out if I keep looking backward.
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
At the start of the retreat a couple weeks ago, each of us met with a spiritual director. I had many plans for that weekend—I carried a tote bag, armed with pens and notepad and Bible, ready to delve into the books I had just started. But as we spoke, and I talked of everything I wanted to do, I began to understand I was completely missing the point of retreat.
Instead, I had one duty: Relax.
“Leave the books in your room,” she said. “Sit outside on the patio, and just be.”
I was restless at first. It was only an hour to start—Mass was soon approaching—but I sat in that chair, and looked out at the mountains. I didn’t know how to quiet that nagging voice in my head. It told me this was a waste of time. It said reading is certainly peaceful, anyway. It picked up on every shuffling footstep or the (enviable) turning of someone else’s book pages. But I sat there anyway.
I won’t lie and say I felt a flood of peace, because I didn’t. But that was the first sign that I’d made a wrong turn somewhere. In all my studying and learning, I’d forgotten the most basic of connecting to God: prayer.
The recollection of Martha and Mary reminded me of that the following week. I almost laughed in the middle of the Gospel reading. “Tell her to help me,” Martha demands. There she is, bustling around to make sure the house is clean, and that Jesus has something good to eat, completely overlooking that the Son of God sits at her kitchen table.
I don’t know if Martha ever got it. Probably not, if she’s anything like the rest of us. Maybe she sat down, but was distracted by everything still to be done; maybe she didn’t get that far, vowing to spend time with her company after completing one last chore.
I almost got it in the final hours of the retreat. The silence broke at lunch time Sunday, and people began to sit and talk to one another. But I took my Philly steak sandwich, sat at the designated “silent retreat” table, and simply watched. There was no official departure time or closing ceremony. We just ate lunch, and left. But I sat there, almost in tears, because I wasted so much time trying to relax and could’ve used more time to actually do it.
Perhaps Martha shared the same feeling after Jesus left, realizing she hadn’t spent enough time in his company.
But it’s not the end. Those fleeting retreat days have passed, but I can still spend time in His presence. My spiritual director left me with homework—in the middle of each day, take time to be with Him. Find a quiet place in the office, or a bench outside. Just five minutes. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes it’s already 5:00 and I’m ready to go home. But those days that I remember? I take time to breathe, clear my mind the best I can, and thank Him. It’s a small act, but one that brings me one step closer to living as Mary more than Martha.
I’ll likely always be a Martha. I think a little of both is okay. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t take time to appreciate why you’re working so hard to begin with.
Summer is often our busiest time—the sun is out, the winter coats are shed, and we plan vacations and beach days and trips to the local ice cream shop. The summer anticipation hasn’t changed much from our schooldays, though now we have to work through “summer break” rather than lounge at the pool or the boardwalk all day.
So, naturally, I signed up for a retreat in the middle of July.
I know what my schedule gets like. I overburden myself, desperate to get everything into those few precious months of real warmth. A single weekend of prayer isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a good break from the constant bustle.
The weekend hasn’t even arrived, and it’s already getting in the way of my usually-busy schedule:
I’ve said “no” to an end-of-year party, one that’s sure to have BBQ and good company.
I’ve rescheduled a hibachi dinner with friends, again, that we’ve been trying to plan for six months.
I’ve refused a freelance job that would’ve given me some nice pocket change for my summer travels.
But this is why I need a retreat.
It’s not exactly a convenient time. Mentally, I’m already on next weekend, which includes more travel and even more planning. We get busy with life, so a little help getting back to the important things is much appreciated. So I refocus. I gathered my study materials, packing the prayer journal, notebook, and Bible into a designated tote. I tucked a rosary into my overnight bag. Even these small acts started to center me, and the excitement of real study and prayer bubbled back. I love this stuff. I love God. I can take some time from my summer to spend time with Him.
I’ll disconnect. I’ll leave the phone in my room, then camp out in the retreat center’s library or take a stroll around the grounds. I’ll finally break into my Jewish-Christian history book, taking notes on practically everything. Maybe I’ll even outline the book I’ve been wanting to write, once I clear my mind. The retreat center has a pool, so I’m not completely disconnected from summer. In fact, sitting outside and reading was once one of my favorite things to do. Maybe I’ll get back to those basics, the simple things that brought the most joy. (Will there be ice cream? Time will tell.)
For now, I’m signing off!