I joke that I’m a recovering Catholic, but really, Catholicism is not something you get over. From time to time, I find myself in a Catholic church, bathed in incense, surrounded by candles, flowers, and statues of the Virgin Mary. I spent many hours immersed in liturgy and ritual as a child, and it’s imprinted on my soul like initials in concrete, a forever thing.
When fellow writer Susan Ito announced her New Year’s retreat, “Sanctuary”, at Santa Sabina, a former Dominican novitiate in San Rafael, California, I jumped at it. It’s been six and a-half months since that retreat, but the intentions I set there have unfolded through the winter and spring. Now, we’re in high summer, and one of my biggest goals, a new website, has been achieved. But most of what I did on retreat was about self-nurturing not ambitious accomplishments.
As it happened, Northern California got slammed by driving rain and wind that weekend, so 15 writers cozied up and set intentions for the New Year, colored mandalas, made miniature books and collages, even paper – all in addition to writing.
Saturday morning, I woke early and went to the dining room for coffee. Turning a warm mug in my hands, I sat outside in the inner courtyard, surrounded by camellia bushes in the slowly lightening dark. Safely ensconced under the stone cloister, I listened as the gutters gurgled, the rain splashed and dripped, and the wind whooshed through a nearby grove of Eucalyptus trees. The trees chuffed and moaned like the giant waves at Limantour Beach, raking over pebbles.
The ghosts of novitiates – barely out of girlhood but with a pull to the sacred so strong they left the world behind – wander in my mind’s eye under the cloister arches, through the chapel, and into the Rose Room, the Pillow Room, the Library. Every nook and cranny of this place is filled with the energy of their prayers, and the hush is profound.
That silence and reverence is what my writer’s heart craves. Some of us sat at the library table cutting images out of design books or torn from calendars to collage the top of our pizza boxes. The pizza box is the essential container for art supplies, marker pens, one’s cache of torn or cut images, and perhaps a journal so that you can easily transport it from Library to Art Basement and back upstairs again. Here, creativity vaults off bulletin boards and corridor walls. The words of Catholic mystics like Thomas Merton or Theillard de Chardin are displayed, as are the poems of Mary Oliver. You can trip over wisdom and beauty in every corner of this place.
During our sharing sessions, we learned that mothers and sisters had died these past months, relationships had ended, children had left home, adoptive parents were searched for, jobs lost, roles dissolved. Our political moment had put all of us in transition, if not actual jeopardy, and we shared our grief and our resolve.
Santa Sabina is a place where we gathered to renew and comfort ourselves and each other. We made new art and wrote new words, reweaving the world’s entropy, stitching the chaos into new patterns. We affirmed that love and beauty never die, even if loved ones do. We came together to meditate, collage, and write ourselves into wholeness. And when, on Sunday afternoon, I headed out into the storm, even the buffeting winds couldn’t shake me.
As I look back now, the feelings of connection and inspiration have endured. When the grit of day-to-day living clouds my vision, I can remind myself by looking at my journal, my pizza box full of art supplies, and the many thousands of words I’ve written since. Thank you, Susan, and all my writing sisters.