Learning to soul-see the hard way

A view of the cloister garden and a statue of Jesus from one of the walkways at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. (Wikimedia Commons/NancyHeise)

A few years ago, I made a cross-country road trip. I stayed in monasteries and retreat houses, and I went to Mass every day. The retreat house at the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga., had shared bathrooms, and in spite of my daily devotions, I almost instantly conceived a violent resentment against the person with whom I shared mine.

She was with a church group, and I so had her pegged. Blonde perm, suburban, a spiritual lightweight -- just the sort who'd go on retreat with people.

I, a true pilgrim, was alone: draped head to toe in my usual black, weeping and praying over the mysteries of suffering, meaning, love.

The monks at Holy Spirit are Trappists, gathering in the church at intervals throughout the day to chant the psalms and pray. The entire monastery goes to bed at 8 p.m. so as to rise in time for the first "office" of the day: vigils at 4 a.m. The first night I went to bed at 8 p.m., too, only to be jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of explosively loud water pipes: My bathroom-mate was taking a shower and I swear stayed in there past midnight, brushing her teeth, drying her hair.

She was chatty, too, though we were supposed to be keeping silence. When I ran into her the next morning, she launched into a long-winded story about the fact that she didn't have an alarm clock and her girlfriend had lent her one and all she could say was this was her first retreat and it sure was a learning experience.

Then off she went with her social butterfly friends -- Mass at 7 a.m., vespers at 5:20 p.m., every time I went to church, she had the nerve to be there, too!

Still, the homily the first day at Mass was about the value of the small act: the smile, the kind word, refraining from the harsh retort. So, at dinner, when I found myself in line with her and she started chatting again, I mustered all my spiritual strength and bestowed a small, forbearing smile upon her before I went my way.

The second night she was at it again, flushing the toilet, running the sink. I slept fitfully and at 3:30 a.m. went downstairs for coffee. There she was, sitting in the semidark, all perky in a bright flowered dress and -- just as I could have predicted -- raring to talk.

"My husband was just diagnosed bipolar and he refuses to admit it," she announced. " 'Nothin' wrong with me,' he told the doctor, 'I'm just here for Irene.' "

"Oh," I said, groping for the sugar, "that's hard."

"I'm Polish," she went on. "My mother was in Poland when the Nazis started rounding up people and put her in an internment camp. You know what she used to tell me? 'When everything is taken from you, you still have your faith.' "

"I guess that's true," I replied.

"Yup, Mom was my odometer. Didn't seem fair when she got Alzheimer's, but God rest her soul, I nursed her the 10 years through."

Suddenly, I saw my bathroom-mate and me through God's eyes: she, cheerful in spite of her suffering; me, in spite of every gift, a self-pitying crab.

"I just joined the praise group at my parish," she went on. "Right now I'm praying for all the souls in inner turmoil, that they may find comfort and peace."

I thought of myself, fuming on my bed.

"Thank you, Irene," I said, laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Don't mention it," she replied. "That's just me."

[Heather King is a Los-Angeles based writer and speaker with several memoirs, among them Stumble and Stripped. You can read all of the Soul Seeing columns online at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]

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