The silent retreat was not going well.
We had just been sent out to spend time alone somewhere within the rambling, multi-story retreat center run by the Sisters of Mercy. So far, though, every cozy chair or nook I found had already been claimed by another — often, just as I approached. And despite our commitment to silence that day, I also wanted to find a place where I could be alone.
Grumpiness started to mutter inside me, a reminder that I was weeks into this latest bout of sleep deprivation. A few years before, on my first and best silent retreat, I’d spent most of the weekend taking catnaps in one of the many overstuffed chairs that filled the large common room at an elderly northern California retreat center nestled in the redwoods — the aptly named St. Dorothy’s Rest. It had been glorious to be able to yield every time my body begged for rest, though my friends later teased me for nodding off so much that weekend.
This retreat was only scheduled to last six hours. How many precious minutes had I already lost in my fruitless search for a chair? Retracing my steps almost to the door through which I’d entered the building earlier — late and slightly damp from the rain outside — I turned down a staircase by the gift shop.
As I neared the landing, a window showed the rain still pouring down outside, splashing on trees and some of the rose bushes planted liberally throughout the sprawling grounds. This retreat center had been built amid the rolling hills of Burlingame, south of San Francisco, but near enough to the city that devoting so much land to gardens seemed like an old-world luxury.
Emerging from the stairwell, I continued down a dim, unoccupied hall that looked slightly different from the rest of the building. These walls showcased more of the framed art prints that turned the center into an informal museum, but I didn’t see many chairs about. Perhaps guests weren’t expected in this section. Hadn’t we been told we could go anywhere, though?
Ahead, an overhead light showed that the hallway opened up and extended right. Would I find a chair at last? But the clank of metal pans through a doorway on my left alerted me to the kitchen, where they must already be preparing our lunch. I didn’t have much time.
Reaching the end of the hall, I looked right. And there, in a glow of warmer light, sat a slim metal chair keeping watch by the darkened doorway in which the hall dead-ended. Walking closer, I suddenly found myself in a small alcove filled with plants that someone was starting in the indirect outside light of a large raised window.
We must have been in the building’s basement, but some long-ago architect’s thoughtfulness had given this corner enough natural light to serve as a handy indoor potting station. To the right of the window, a wooden plant stand held a stack of terra-cotta pots, presumably waiting for the starter plants now growing in several clear glass containers of water chained to various hooks.
I sank into the chair and closed my eyes in gratitude. It wasn’t the seat I had pictured, and I soon discovered that the plumbing thundered loudly every few minutes — but the spot still felt like it had been saved for me.
I’ve never been a great gardener. Though I managed to bring a small bamboo plant and a couple other cuttings in a Ziploc bag of water on my flying move from New York to California, all those plants eventually died. I often joke about my basil graveyard, and after a recent move to my first solo apartment, even the long-lived, seemingly hardy rosemary plant I’d kept alive in the kitchen window for several years gave out, too.
I long to grow better, though. My grandmother has had a thriving garden for years, although it’s much smaller than it used to be. And ever since I lived with a female painter in Brooklyn, I’ve wanted to recreate the houseplant she kept in her bedroom — an artful mass of leaves and vines that emerged from a large carafe of water the roots had completely filled. I think she brought it with her when she moved to New York from her home in the south. It was one of those quintessential houseplants I’ve come to think of as “water plants,” but something about its shape and habitat charmed me.
The starters in the alcove were all the same kind — tangling green vines that ended in large, tear-shaped leaves, some gently streaked with white. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying not to wince at explosions in the pipes nearby.
It seemed I had barely found a comfortable position when I had to leave the plants and thundering plumbing to make my way back to our meeting room because the group was scheduled to reconvene and get instructions for lunch.
Walking back, more happily now, I noticed other plants stationed at regular intervals along the walls — not quite as thickly as the pictures were, but often enough to provide a great deal of watering work for someone. And all of them looked so healthy! How could I learn the secret to plants like that?
After lunch, we were sent out for another time on our own. This time, perhaps because we’d just eaten, our leader gave us explicit permission to nap, stressing that we didn’t have to “perform” spiritually but should feel free to use the silence as the Spirit — or our bodies — seemed to prompt.
It was welcome, if unusual, advice for one born into a North American Bible church. For most of my life, the quality of one’s spiritual life has seemed to depend on how much work you put into it. When an early college honeymoon with God began to fade, I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t “fix” things just by plotting out a new spiritual program for myself, the same way I’d been choosing class schedules each semester.
Even once I finally regained a sense of closeness with God a few years later, faith continued to seem like an old person’s strength: something you would lose unless you used it very regularly. Being with God without talking to Him — doing something — was difficult to imagine. How else could you be sure He was there?
When I left New York for California, I began attending a church that regularly used the Book of Common Prayer. After years without a good structure for daily devotions, I found the prayer book’s Daily Office appealing — especially its combination of prayer and Scripture lessons.
Some prayers were harder than others, though; from my evangelical upbringing, I’d learned suspicion of rote, prewritten services, which seemed Roman Catholic and therefore dubious. Ritual, in my mind, usually indicated a dead or fairly empty religious practice that contrasted starkly with the sincerity of spontaneous word and action, which were inherently more genuine. (I went to church every Sunday, of course, and expected fairly consistent services, but I still suspected rituals on policy.)
Then again, most of the Daily Office’s “fixed” prayers came from the Psalms — which my pastor pointed out that Jesus prayed as well. I couldn’t argue with that.
In my first few weeks with the Daily Office, I did not expect much of fixed prayer. Why would God show up before my “free” prayers. Wasn’t everything prior to spontaneous prayer just reading?
He proved me wrong. Although praying the Psalms rarely felt profound, any free intercession afterward felt not like that first, painful how-long-can-I-make-it mile of a run, but the stretch 10 minutes in when your muscles relax and you finally start to find a good rhythm. Somehow the fixed prayers of Psalms seemed to warm up my spiritual muscles.
So, after lunch at the badly begun silent retreat, I found the first open chair near our room, and let myself sit without trying to pray. Before long, I fell asleep. At one point I woke enough to briefly fret about whether I was wasting the time I’d paid good money to spend here, but the thought of that first, sweet, nap-filled retreat soon soothed me to rest again.
Toward the end of our designated solitude, I decided to go walk the outdoor labyrinth our teacher had highly recommended. The rain had stopped when I went outside, but the overhead skies were still thick with gray clouds.
Making my way past lilacs in early bloom, I looked for the hedges I thought would form the labyrinth. Instead, the signs led me to a small gravel circle with stones marking the characteristic, winding path. Several others were already walking in and out along their way to or from the center. My heart listed again. Was I going to leave this few-hour retreat disappointed?
The leader had said people sometimes collected a few stones at the start of the labyrinth, each representing a care in life that one laid down along the walk to the center. After spending time with God at the center, you then re-collected your stones on the way out, a symbol of reclaiming your cares through the new perspective God had given you at the center.
By this point in my life, I had a well-established habit of periodic prayer walking, but that usually involved a more free-form, multi-block course around my neighborhood. And I always prayed alone. Could anything happen in this small, crowded space? I eyed the labyrinth doubtfully, then shrugged and found the entrance.
I didn’t use any physical stones, but those few minutes walking in circles proved far more profound than I ever expected. Something happened inside me that felt like I’d remember it for some time later. And as with the Daily Office, I realized that God had shown up well before I myself began to move. Somehow, just through the simple posture of opening myself and longing for Him, He’d been there — working even during my nap to prepare my heart and mind for the labyrinth and beyond.
Thinking ahead to a future day when children or other changes might keep me from my regular prayer walks, I had a sudden vision of putting in a small, backyard labyrinth instead.
As I walked back to the building a few minutes later to rejoin the rest of the group for our debrief time, I thought again of the plants inside . . . and then of the seed potatoes I was trying to grow in two plastic garbage cans outside my apartment.
So far, I’d only added dirt, bone meal, and periodic water, then parked the cans in a sunny spot to see what happened. Yet thanks to this minimal work, green shoots were already seeking the sun, requiring me to add almost daily scoops of more dirt to cover the rapidly growing stems. Water plus dirt made mud in most other settings, but here were these plants, charting almost miraculous growth despite so little work on my part.
Maybe I grew like that too.
Before leaving the campus that day, I covertly broke a length of vine off one especially healthy plant and smuggled it home inside my coffee thermos. Thanks to occasional fertilizer and a sunny window in my kitchen, its roots are starting to fill the antique jar it now lives in. And during a birthday garden party I hosted this past weekend, I gave away little houseplants I started from several small cuttings in water I put in the sun.
Several years ago, I met a woman who said she prayed for her plants. It sounded slightly kooky at the time, but friends said she had a beautiful garden. I’m finally starting to understand why.
Anna Broadway is a writer and fledgling gardener living outside San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she contributed an essay on doubt to the forthcoming Disquiet Time. She hopes to harvest potatoes very soon.