The summer I turned fifty, as a birthday present from my wife, I spent a month on the Oregon coast doing the Ignatian silent retreat. This was at the Nestucca Sanctuary, a Jesuit retreat house I’d been going to for years and knew and loved. My director was a dear friend of mine, Father Andy Dufner. I was the last person he ever led through the exercises. He was going through chemotherapy then and died a few months later.
I stayed in a prefabricated shed fifty yards from the main lodge, where I’d go for mass and to eat. The shed was in an elderberry thicket above Nestucca Bay. There was electricity, so I was warm and I could make myself coffee. What I’d do each day is go through five or six of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, a sixteenth century priest, founder of the Jesuits. I’d read a passage of scripture and journal about it or pray about it in some other way, and I’d see Andy once a day to talk about what was happening. Otherwise I didn’t talk to anybody, except to make a little small talk now and then when I was in the lodge, with the others who had come for shorter retreats.
The idea was to discern God’s call for me at that point in my life by paying attention to what was going on in me day to day as I went through the exercises. One night I dreamed I had fallen in love with a dark woman. I woke up in the darkness saying no, no, no, but the next day Andy said that he thought this might be God speaking to me and calling to me. Another time, about two thirds of the way through, after days of struggling in my mind, I was walking on the road that led from the lodge to the main highway, and I saw a common yellowthroat hopping in an alder tree, the same one I’d been seeing every day I walked that road, and for some reason all the things that I’d been struggling with just fell into place in my mind. I had this strong sense of what my life was telling me, and when I came to Andy later and tried to explain it to him he smiled through his white beard and said: yes, that’s it.
Always there was the sea and the sound of the waves.
When I had finished the exercises, but a few days before my family was coming to pick me up, Andy loaned me his old truck so I could go into Lincoln City to watch a movie. He said I really needed a break. As I drove down highway 101 I kept turning to look at the waves coming into shore, creaming as they curled. Standing in line at a McDonalds I felt this intense love for everybody who was there, the grubby children, the sad, bedraggled parents.
The movie I went to see was Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds, which had just come out that summer. I was the only one in the theater. There may have been one or two other people, but I remember sitting there feeling very present and very alone as I waited for the movie, smelling the stuffy theater smell of stale cloth and buttered popcorn. I was intensely happy. I loved every minute of the movie, every shiny surface and glimpse of sky and camera angle. When the first giant tripod rose out of the earth and stood on its three ropy legs, high as a building, I had the sense of its physicality and its weight. It seemed very real to me.
The movie is full of violence and death and destruction. The world is being destroyed. Tom Cruise is a father trying to save his children in unimaginable circumstances. Crashes and screams and groans kept rumbling through the sound system. But sitting there I felt completely and utterly joyous. For the whole two hours. In a way it was the most wonderful moment of the retreat.
I kept thinking, soon I will be home. Soon I will be home.