by Elizabeth Racicot
It's 6:30 in the morning on a cold February day at the Eastern Point Retreat House, a Jesuit ministry on a rocky stretch of Massachusetts coast. From my window I see the sun rising over the ocean, sending out slivers of pale pinks and oranges. I dress quickly and head to the dining room where I can sip a cup of tea and continue watching the sunrise.
As I pass by the entrance to the chapel, I see one of the Jesuit staff members standing in the hallway with his head bowed toward the rising sun, which has begun to shine through the chapel windows and fills the hallway with light. He appears to have stopped in his tracks and turned to the east to reverence God who made the sun rise over the rocks and waters of this place.
Eastern Point is set on a beautiful spot several hundred yards up from the surf. The first time I came here, in the fall of 1991, I heard stories of a storm the year before and of 50-foot waves that washed over the top of the dining room roof. Later, I learned that it was the same storm memorialized in the book and the movie The Perfect Storm. Until then I thought the retreatants were exaggerating!
Sometimes the place overwhelms me with its natural beauty -- the ocean waves breaking over the rocks, the gentle surf moving in and out of Brace's Cove, the swans gliding through the waters of Niles Pond, and the many old and majestic trees that line the narrow roads leading into the grounds. In all seasons of the year -- and I've been here in every season -- this place is beautiful.
Yet it isn't the natural beauty of Eastern Point that most attracts me but its deep reverence for silence and the sacredness that awakens in that silence. This is a house that nurtures the spirit and honors the need for time away to sit and listen to God so that, as Isaiah says, our souls will have life.
For any eight-day directed retreat at Eastern Point, most retreatants will have been here before, some two or three times, but many, like me, ten or twenty times. And it draws all kinds of people.
On the opening evening of this retreat, I sat at dinner with five other women. We can talk at the opening and closing meals, so I had a chance to learn a little about these women. Judith, an Episcopal priest from Connecticut, is here for the first time. A second Judith is an Anglican member of the Third Order of St. Francis and a regular retreatant. Kathryn, a Methodist missionary for over 35 years, has come from Tennessee for the second year in a row. Carol is a United Church of Christ pastor about to begin a sabbatical, and Mary, the only other Catholic at the table, is a hospital chaplain.
Until the closing brunch we will take the rest of our meals in silence. Classical music plays during lunch and dinner. We will look out the floor-to- ceiling bay windows in the dining room that provide a spectacular view of the cove and beyond, to the ocean and the horizon. We will watch the waves break on the shore, the seagulls dive for food, a fishing trawler cast its nets, or a seal rest on one of the rocks. If we're lucky, we may catch a glimpse of the swans as they fly from Niles Pond to Brace's Cove and back again.
Two mute swans, a male and female, who mate for life, live in Niles Pond. Every spring the female hatches cygnets. The average is six or eight, and usually they don't all survive. But last spring nine hatched and nine survived. Those of us lucky enough to be here then watched these gray cygnets, usually in groups of three, waddle after their parents.
When I returned this February, I found the cygnets gone, off to start families of their own no doubt. But the parents are still here, living in Niles Pond. Once I saw them fly around the pond together. They soared and glided and then landed as gracefully as small birds, yet they have a wingspan of almost eight feet. These swans are their own witness to the majesty of God.
For the retreatants' use, the dining room has two pairs of binoculars and a copy of the Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Birds. It says that the mute swan, unlike other swans, is usually silent. How appropriate. We retreatants are usually silent too, except for liturgy, which is celebrated before dinner each evening.
The Jesuits have been offering adult retreats at Eastern Point ever since they converted it from a retreat center for boys about 30 years ago. They have been so successful at what they do here that they can offer the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius every January and July. I made the 30-day retreat in January 1998, the only married woman among 18 Jesuit novices, three seminarians, and two professed sisters. The fruits of that retreat, one of the high points of my spiritual journey, still nourish me.
Eastern Point isn't my first connection with Jesuits though. When I was still an ex-Catholic and searching for answers, I became friends with Ed Ingebretsen, SJ, now an associate professor at Georgetown University but then a grad student at Duke.
I was in grad school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and met Ed through a mutual friend. He talked to me of the spiritual life and inspired me with his vision of a loving God and encouraged me to nurture my own hunger for all things spiritual. He also helped answer the many questions I had about rejoining the Church, which I finally did after a fourteen-year absence. Ed and I have lost touch, but I have never lost my respect for or interest in Jesuit spirituality.
In 1985, I met my future husband in North Carolina and moved to upstate New York a year later. I began looking for a retreat house and read about Eastern Point in a book called Sanctuaries. It mentioned the "atmosphere of silence," the "closeness to the sea," and the staff of six Jesuits. I made a weekend silent retreat the year before and found that it was too short -- eight days of silence at the sea sounded good to me. So I made my first directed retreat in the fall of 1991. I've been coming back ever since.
Bill Devine, SJ, director of Eastern Point during most of my visits here, has done a wonderful job of attracting capable, dedicated women directors along with a host of excellent Jesuit directors. He has, with courage and grace, directed Eastern Point for the past seven years; he departed last February for a much- deserved sabbatical.
I've had some of my best experiences with direction in this house, especially from Nancy Sheridan, SASV. She was on staff at Eastern Point for a number years in the mid 1990s and not only directed several of my eight-day retreats but also my thirty-day retreat. After making that retreat, I understood why Jesuits sometimes refer to their relationship with God as one of "hearts on fire." Retreats are not always peaceful or easy. God often challenges us to grow in those areas where we are having the most difficulty. Facing those difficulties can be very painful. After I made my thirty-day retreat, I had some serious issues come up between my husband and me. They took a long time to resolve, but now we are more content and peaceful together then at any other time.
Eastern Point is a place where I've always been able to confront the challenges that God lays before me and celebrate the gift of love that God freely offers me. I am grateful for this place with its talented staff and guest directors who keep nurturing souls in the rich tradition of Jesuit spirituality. I will continue to return to this house so that God can continue to renew and refresh me and change me in whatever ways need changing.