Retreating At The Retreat

They found the body in the late afternoon on Saturday.  At least, I think they did.  All the information was coming third-party so its reliability was less than absolute.  The majority of us had arrived and were standing on the porch, chatting and smoking, around six, and his end could not have come more than twenty to thirty minutes after.  We know this because he was both seen standing on the ice, fishing pole in hand, and then, without the knowledge that there had been a tragedy, not standing on the ice, within that time frame.  Additionally, and this is really the piece most difficult to sit with, a few in our group claimed to have heard what they believed to be  someone yelling something (they claimed that it may have been “help”) right around the time that he had initially submerged into the bone chilling water after falling through the thin ice.  The thought of him violently splashing, gasping and hyperventilating, yelling for help as we sat on the retreat center’s porch, not a football field away, laughing and communing, fills me with a sickening sense of regret and powerlessness even as I write these words.

It was nobodies fault.  No one could have known.  A distant figure, there and then gone.  A phantom cry from somewhere in the distance.  No one knew.  No one realized.  And so, no one acted.  This was a retreat full of sober, spiritual men.  I knew some of them advance; I got to know the rest over the course of the weekend.  I feel confident in saying that there was not a man there who would not have risked his own life to save another if he had been aware of the situation.  This is, quite frankly, what makes this young man’s death all the more tragic.  The level of courage and heroism his survival required was close at hand and yet the gap could not be bridged.  He was unaware of our proximity and we were unaware of his peril.

Considering that the retreat was based in drawing closer to our higher power, I only understand two ways for this event to be interpreted.  Either God radically fucked up or God had a plan.  I hoped and prayed then, as I do now, that it is the latter.

I had never been on one of these retreats before.  My process of recovery has spanned two decades and multiple organizations, but I had never managed to make of one of these.  I’ve never really had a 9 to 5 sort of life and weekends have historically been work filled, so taking off a Friday, Saturday and Sunday has never come easily.  And, quite frankly, it did not come easily this time.  But the prompting of my closest friend (a longtime member of this particular retreat group), the scholarship offered by a generous man who I have come to like very much, and the support and love of my beautiful bride combined to make me an offer that I could not refuse.

This particular retreat had been taking place two or three times a year since its inception in the mid-seventies.  I was one of five “first-timers” with everyone else ranging from guys at their second or third retreat on up to one man who was at his 125th.  “New guy” is not a role which I naturally cotton to.  I spent the first two decades of my life resisting this role by using my intelligence, charisma and confidence to recruit others into granting me authority.  Enough humility has made itself available to me over the years that I have learned to generally veer from that approach.  Unfortunately, I have found that, like most addicts, the only other option initially evident to me was at the other extreme- investing in the new guy role to the point of aloofness, if not utter disappearance.  Today, when placed in new situations where any kind hierarchy, real or imagined, is at play, I work hard to long for neither the top or bottom man on the totem pole, but one among many.  This is never easy.

This duality revealed my first theory regarding the meaning behind the death immediately preceding the retreat.  It occurred to me that, metaphorically, the two states of being most easily understood by me are shining to the point that those about me believe that I can walk on water and the experience of drowning and failing to exist.  Further, I have come to understand that when I find myself failing to accomplish the former, I slowly lapse into experiencing the latter.  The idea that this young man had attempted to walk across the vast lake and, in his failing to do so, lost his life felt personal to me in a way I was powerless to voice to anyone.

An additional piece of the puzzle is the entirely male dominated culture of this retreat.  I don’t so much care for men; as a population, I mean.  The majority of commonly understood male attributes are ways of being that both confuse me and fill me antagonistic desires.  And, yes, I am well aware that I am a man and that a part of my dislike of most men is rooted in some level of self-hatred.  Regardless, I have always understood myself to have a strong feminine side and have, consequently, found myself innately more comfortable in the presence of women.  So the fusion of a new environment replete with nothing but men was, for me, a brewing emotional storm.

The villa was stunning.  Vast and sprawling with warm, inviting housing and celestial natural surroundings.  Additionally, while the overall experience of that many men was immediately discomforting; individually, there were a handful of guys I felt a strong connection with and, in retrospect, it was these individuals who inevitably kept me from fleeing.  The structure of the retreat took shape quickly.  Around  8pm, after much socialization, we all gathered in the large common room for the opening salutations.  The retreat leader immediately set a tone, which would remain consistent over the next two days, using spiritually minded music, passages, prayers and a movie watched in 30-45 minute snippets as a means of generating inner and outer processing.

After an hour or so, the entire membership randomly counted off into six collectives which would serve as our small discussion groups for the remainder of the retreat.  Our next task, after a short break, was to join with these groups around a series of questions stemming from the portion of the film we had just viewed.

Our  group consisted of six men.  In short of order, one of them revealed that he had a daughter who had incurred a deep violation from which, years later, she was still incapable of moving past.  Another man spoke of a child lost in the excruciating world of mental illness and self-harm.  Then there were two in early sobriety, both speaking freely of difficulty in connecting to and understanding the spiritual program of action.  I appreciated the transparency and the courage.  My connection to these men felt powerful and our small group interactions would serve as the cornerstone of my retreat experience.

Over the course of Saturday, it became clear that the rescue crews who had disappeared from the enormous table of ice enveloping the lake had done so, not because a body had been recovered, but because the dark night had demanded that they resume their hunt in the light of day.  The ongoing reality of this young man’s death undercut the retreat experience with a heaviness felt by all, but spoken about by few.  It seemed as if the death had systemically awakened in the group the core of what we most fear; abandonment, loneliness, anxiety, and of course (most predominantly among those new in recovery) our lives being taken from us by a force beyond our physical and mental control.

It’s always been my sense that for many people, specifically people in recovery, spirituality, in the absence of a true understanding of its very nature, can become something of a trap.  This is to say that when first awakening to a relationship with a higher power, the initial jolt is generally quite electric.  After years of isolation and self-flagellation, the recovered man often feels nearly superhuman with joy and peace and serenity arriving like a ten-foot wave drenching them in the sunlight of the spirit.  But this is no more our natural state as humans than is the pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization of our addict lives.  We are neither less than human nor are we more than human.  Our journey as spiritual beings having a human experience demands that we will always have both assets and liabilities.  We can, and do, tip the scales very much in our favor, but this does not mean that recovery brings with it a life devoid of pain and fear and harm.  These realities are not the absence of spirituality; they are an integral part of spirituality.  Yet, many who are graced with transformation, somehow get it into their minds that a man in pain is a man who is not spiritually fit.  Correspondingly, they shield these parts from their sober brethren in fear that they will be taken in as “not working a good program.”

To an extent, I wondered if the reluctance to broach the death in a deeper way was a product of this very trap.  The overall design seemed to call for an awareness that God is in charge and we are all on a path and all is well.  Fundamentally, I understand this to be the absolute truth.  I am also aware that my imperfect humanity is incapable of holding this truth at all times.  As I sat in each of the events, I began to wonder if there was enough psychic room in the retreat for people to own and experience their human terror along with their human salvation.  This is not to say that such room was non-existent or that none of them men gave voice to their pain.  It more felt that God, in the very first moments of the retreat, had given us something very powerful to work with; something beyond the realm of human understanding; and we collectively handled it with kid gloves.  One or two of the more forthright members requested that we pray for and remember the deceased man and his loved ones, and that was assuredly appropriate and lovely.  Yet, we seemed so committed to our agenda that shifting course and perhaps asking some harder questions of the group like, “What does the death bring up for you?  How do you deal with death?  How do you understand, or not understand, this death as part of God’s plan? was a place we just couldn’t go.  This, of course, was simply my experience and may have been evident only in my own heart and mind.  Also, I am aware that my own fears about abandoning my “new guy” role and authorizing myself to declare this wish to process the death more transparently only contributed to whatever reluctance the group may have been holding.

As Saturday progressed, I kept thinking that our journey inside this vision of our own mortality might very well have been easier if at least one person in the membership had an even cursory connection to the deceased.

And then God provided.

Upon retrieval of the body sometime late Saturday afternoon, news of who this man was began to spread its way through the very small town.  Whether word of who he was reached the membership through the spoken or written word, I am not sure.  Either way, the message arrived; and it arrived with the loudest siren call for one individual in our membership who not only knew the man but knew him in a way which fit our retreat in an almost jigsaw puzzle-like manner.  As I understand it, our group member (let us call him Greg) knew this man during his active addiction days and had harmed this man in a way which he came to understand, upon arriving at the ninth step, demanded a proper amend.  With no way to locate the man, Greg had, after a solid block of time in recovery, come to believe that a direct amend was simply not in the cards.  As it happens, Greg happened to be sitting alone outside the porch of the retreat house the last time the man was still observable on the ice.  By all accounts, Greg was probably the last person to see this man alive.  And, all the while, he had no idea that he was staring out at a man that he not only knew; but was connected to in a deeply spiritual way.  Through a couple of comments, I became aware that Greg, upon coming to understand all of this, was emotionally devastated, and borderline inconsolable by the small group of close friends who were attempting to support him.

I found myself longing to go to him; to help him.  There were three things which kept me from doing so.  One, I wasn’t sure what kind of help I could offer.  Two, he was already with people who knew him far better than I.  And three, there was something very specific that I needed to tell him- and I didn’t yet know what it was.

The final session of Saturdays scheduled events began with a burning ceremony, in which people wrote the names of those they wished to pray for on little slips of paper and dropped them all into a can where they would be set afire in offering to God as all the members sat in a circle with arms around each other, swaying, and singing along to a lovely piece of music.

The deepest feelings of loneliness I had felt over the course of the retreat had me firmly in their grip during this ceremony.  I stood outside the circle watching and resenting the camaraderie which, in the moment, I felt utterly incapable of availing myself of.  As the ceremony’s conclusion, as the men filed back in the doors for whatever was next, I loped back to the detached retreat house, feeling no less detached than the building itself.  For ten to fifteen minutes, I sat on my temporary bed in my temporary room in my temporary place of residence and became patently aware of my temporary time on this planet.  The man’s death once again presented itself as a gift, granting me the awareness that whatever awareness; whatever learning; whatever healing God was making available for me at this retreat did not lie in the room I was currently occupying.  It lay in the building I had, moments before, abandoned.  The 11th Step prayer (The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi), which had been read numerous times during the retreat, tells me that where there is darkness; I am to bring light.  I was feeling an overwhelming amount of darkness.  I wondered, from a systemic perspective, whether I might be holding that darkness on behalf of the group.  And if there was darkness being held in the group what it might look like to provide light.  I knew not this answer.  What I did know was that without my presence, the chances of my providing light were near to impossible.  So in spite of my darkness, I returned to the common room.  And what I found was darkness.

All the lights were out.  A small candelabrum held ten or twelve votive candles providing just enough light for people to move around without chaos.  Soft meditative music was playing.  As I entered the room I could barely make out the location of the members of the retreat.  Near as I could tell, about half were sitting in quiet meditation, while the other half were lined up in order to individually approach the retreat leader and receive what appeared to be a sacrament of some kind.  As the institution hosting our retreat was decidedly Christian, and that themes of Christianity had been quite evident throughout our time there, I was quite sure that the folks in line were receiving Communion which, as a Jew, only increased my sense of isolation.  I declined the opportunity and sat quietly on one of the couches.  The retreat leader was not more than seven or eight feet from where I placed myself and while what he was saying to each of the members was whispered, I could still make out some of what he was saying.  I could not locate him offering any physical representation of the body or blood of Christ nor could I make out any words which resonated as decidedly Christian.  I decided that, in the seeming absence of anything which would betray my current belief system, that I ought to go join the line.

When my turn came, I apprehensively approached the retreat leader.  He turned my hands upward and told me that I should forever remain open, teachable and prepared to serve.  He touched the middle of my forehead with his index finger which he had dipped in a small tin of salve, took me in his arms and told me that he loved me.  Then, the retreat secretary, who I felt quite close to, hugged me as well, telling me that I was a good man and that I should continue my search for God.  The power of the moment was intense and I returned to me seat feeling far more plugged in and “a part of” than I had since the retreat began.  Once all who had chosen to be anointed had been blessed, everyone found their seat as the ethereal music played on.  After a fairly lengthy stretch of communal silence, one of the men began to pray out loud.  He asked God for the healing of his family, for the care of his fellow retreat members and for the wherewithal to stop smoking cigarettes.  Another few minutes passed and another voice gave thanks for this what he learned from the retreat experience.  Still another followed, praying for the love and care of those close to the man who had fallen through the ice to his death.  One by one, each man voiced his own set of requests, wishes and gratitude to their higher power.  When I finally found my voice, I essentially summed up the words from one of my favorite prayers, written by Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist Monk, as a part of a lengthy piece called Thoughts in Solitude.  The day before, I had asked the retreat leader if I could share it with the group, and he had agreed, but had apparently forgotten.  It seemed that the time was right to take it upon myself to share these words which mean so much to me and perhaps bring some light to the group after all:

While I did not recite the prayer verbatim, it reads:

God- I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will, does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Late that evening, I took a walk with my best friend who had told me about this retreat in the first place.  We smoked cigars and talked about our experiences of that evening.  As I shared with him my difficult journey, he seemed to be smirking as I spoke.  I asked him what he was finding amusing about my words and he essentially told me that his experience of me was generally that of my holding a leadership position within the communities of my everyday life, never struggling with knowing how to fit in.  He said that there was something about seeing me flail in this way that was sort of adorable.  I told him that, whether he realized it or not, what I was telling him about had been deeply painful and that I felt a need for him to not find that adorable.  He understood immediately and gave voice, as he has in the past, to the idea that, in spite of my transparency in sharing it, he sometimes has trouble remembering that I experience pain and struggle.  He’s not alone in this.  One of my many burdens in recovery has been that the affect of confidence which I had so carefully developed in my youth as a means to hide behind, is so pervasive that it seems to persist even when I sense that I am doing everything in my eviscerate it.  The power of this affect is such that people are able to hear me speak openly about pain so brutal that it has me entertaining suicidal thinking at times and still somehow have trouble locating it as real pain.  I understand that I am the common factor in all these situations and therefore do not believe that I have no part in it.  Though it’s still quite difficult, agonizing at times, to understand what my part is.

Afterward, as I walked back into the retreat house, a large group of guys were playing a card game and laughing uproariously.  In my tender state, I quickly grasped that it was simply too much stimulation for me to safely make myself available for.  So, without a word to anyone, I ascended the stairs to my temporary room, climbed into my temporary bed  and found temporary solace in the comfort of my slumber.

I awoke on Sunday with something of an emotional hangover, wanting to remain in bed until it was time to get back in my car and leave.  Instead, I took a walk down by the water, looking out onto the ice wondering about the life and death of the man who had been lost.  Other than being buried alive, drowning is about the most frightening way that I can think of to die.  The horror of desperately attempting to rise to the top to get any oxygen possible in an instinctive attempt to preserve life, realizing that you are drawing water into the larynx, triggering yet another instinctive bodily response: swallowing.  And with each swallow needing that much more oxygen and, therefore, frantically breathing in all the more, taking in yet more water, making it harder and harder for the body to rise northward.  The absolute torture of failing to quell the bodies instinctive drive to panic, all the while knowing that it is the panic itself which will inevitably kill you.  For a bunch addicts at a retreat, it is an image we have much experience with.  After all, what is the alcoholic doing but giving in over and over to physical and mental instincts beyond his control even while realizing that these instincts are leading him nowhere other than the end of his life?

The final group session was set to take place in the communal room of the retreat house rather than the common room which had housed all the previous large groups.  A few more songs were played, a few more readings read; and then the proceedings were turned over to the membership- giving everyone a chance to speak to their overall experience.  It was clear that many lives were effected, if not drastically altered, by our time together.  Once again, I felt a bit cast out, realizing that the electric high which often comes as a result of an elongated, intense experience like this had simply not been my path.  Regardless, in an effort to keep from disappearing yet again, I spoke of the many challenges I had faced in our time together and felt lovingly received by the group.  Still, there was some sense of closure I was seeking with no idea how or whether it might come to me before we all went our separate ways.

And then, again, God provided.

The retreat secretary asked Greg if he would be willing to share with the group the details of his connection to the man who had fallen through the ice.  With great courage and eloquence, he did just that.  After summarizing the details of his experience, he said something like, “I kept asking myself what God’s plan for this man could have been.”

And that’s when it hit me.

A line from The Big Book was the first piece to hit my consciousness.  In the chapter entitled “Bill’s Story,” Bill Wilson describes the experience of welcoming his higher power into his heart with the words, “It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years.”  Next, I was struck by my difficulties with Christianity, specifically the notion that Jesus Christ had been sacrificed that we may find a way to live in peace.    I began to wonder if, within these two notions, there was data providing insight into Greg’s question.

Was it possible that this stranger had been sacrificed to afford this group of men the courage to melt the ice of their own spiritual blockages rather than fall through it and perish?

It felt like a loaded, and perhaps inappropriate, metaphor to give voice to in front of the entire membership.  I feared being seen as morbid or disrespectful.  And then I was brought back to the third reason that I had shied away from approaching Greg during his moment of crisis.  I felt strongly that this was the specific thing that I needed to tell him.  Once we had all gathered in a circle and swayed back and forth to the song “Lean On Me,” I found Greg and shared my insights with him.  Gloriously, he had intuited similar notions within himself.  I told him that it had always been my sense that when people experience a death, especially of someone they knew, the most difficult question is often how they can participate in the person’s life, and death, having meaning.  I shared that it was my understanding that what this group of men had done in the last forty-eight hours was just that.  We had taken this potential sacrifice and utilized it to generate growth, learning and healing in 37 men who can now venture back out into their everyday lives and carry God’s message that much more powerfully to many others.  And that gift, in part, I believe we had the fallen man to thank for.

The movie which had been screened over the course of the retreat was “Have a Little Faith,” a made for TV adaptation of Mitch Albom’s best-selling book.  It was about as pleasant as one can expect from these Hallmark Hall of Fame type offerings.  It was driven by a wonderful cast (Martin Landau, Laurence Fishburn, Bradley Whitford) which more than made up for some of the more treacly elements in the script.  As the main character wrapped up his closing voice over, I felt that, while the movie had been pleasant to watch, I had not really taken anything particularly powerful away from it.  And then came the last line of the film:

I have fallen in love with hope.”

It is now written in big block letters just above the words “Chapter Two: There is a Solution” on page 17 of my Big Book.

There are certain times in life where a word or phrase that you had somehow, unknowingly been searching for to grant language to something you feel deep within you shows up without warning.  This was one of those moments for me.  It perfectly sums up what it is that I love and hunger for so intensely in my work helping those who suffer as I had.  It’s not so much driven by seeing people get better or recover, because so many of them don’t.  It’s not the gratitude and compliments they grace me with, because that is fleeting.

It’s the opportunity to bring hope to the hopeless.

If I can spend even a short interval with a person displaying just a modicum of willingness, I can act as a conduit, allowing God to demonstrate for them that there is hope.  And once they have that, it’s theirs forever.  You can’t un-know what you know.  No matter what they do with it, it is theirs.  Even if they proceed to drink themselves into an early grave, they will do so knowing that there is hope.  And with that hope, there is always a chance; a chance that in this life, or perhaps in the next, they will use that hope to awaken as I have.  No retreat, no group of people, no tragic death have the power to alter what I have been granted and is mine always to have and to hold- the awakening that I am nothing more and nothing less than an imperfect child of God navigating this human shell the best that I can as I walk this big blue spinning rock with no handbook; a person among people; a worker among workers.

For me, that is hope.

And I am very much in love with it.

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