By August 2014, I was halfway through the year I fondly refer to as “the worst year of my life”. It was six months post-separation and three months after the revelation that infidelity had been part of the end of my marriage. I was limping through that summer. Trying to find my center and hold on to something as my life swirled around me in one awful soap opera worthy episode after another.
I talked my best friend into joining me for the trek out to the desert to a Benedictine monastery for a weekend retreat themed around the imagery of the Sacred Heart. I was not familiar with the Sacred Heart but it sounded interesting enough and mostly I was craving the silence and solitude that a desert monastery in the middle of summer can offer.
We arrived late in the afternoon and checked into the sparse accommodation. A simple twin bed, a sink, and a religious image on the wall made up the room. But already I could feel the silence and the desert start to creep over me like a cozy blanket. By the time we set down our bags, the bells chimed to call us to the evening prayer before supper.
All the retreatants followed the monks into the chapel in silence. The crucifix on the other side of the altar immediately transfixed me. It was carved of wood and painted in a southwestern design. Jesus was looking straight ahead while an angel held a chalice to catch the blood dripping from his side. It felt too earthy – more like a ritual for some animistic practice than something you would find in a church. I mumbled my way through the liturgy. My eyes barely leaving the image of the angel and the chalice.
When the service ended, I walked up to the crucifix. Closer up, I could see that the hole in Jesus’ side was hollow and from a certain angle you could see past a couple bony wooden ribs to the carved heart inside. The heart was lovely. Intricately carved and painted a deep red. I understood why the angel with the chalice stood there so patiently waiting for each drop. The mystical side of me wanted to reach up for a drop of my own. Just one, I thought. Maybe one drop will quench the desperate love-thirst I have been feeling. Or two. I could stand here and wait for two drops. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so alone and abandoned and unloveable.
I sheepishly noticed that everyone else was gone at this point and the last monk was waiting just outside the door for me to follow. I hurried out – overly concerned about the extra minute I made him wait for his dinner. In the refectory everyone stood near their spot at the table for the blessing. We sat and then the monks took turns serving each person. An older monk with a crooked back and wise face brought me a soup bowl. A younger monk followed him with the soup pot and ladle.
The friendly monk with the soup pot smiled at me and asked, “Are you hungry?” I nodded. He ladled up a big spoonful of vegetable soup into my bowl. I looked up to thank him but before I could, he had already spooned another ladle full of soup into my bowl. “There you go,” he said and moved on to the next person. I stared at my full to almost overflowing bowl and could feel tears stinging my eyes. No man had served me dinner since my husband left our table to cook dinner for someone else. I felt silly that this simple gesture had moved me so deeply.
All I asked for was a drop and now I have a bowlful. All I asked for was a drop, I kept thinking. I ate the soup in grateful silence – tears still in my eyes. Just when I thought I was full, more monks appeared carrying plates of vegetarian lasagna. The double ladle of soup was just the beginning. All weekend long, at lunch and dinner, the monks served us our meals.
The times of prayer, the contemplation of the imagery of the Sacred Heart, the hours of silence in the desert were all beneficial. But what really moved my heart and brought me healing that weekend was men serving me food. I was essentially a stranger to them. We never spoke aside from the liturgy we read in the chapel and my whispered thank yous at the table. They did not know my story or why I had sought out their hospitality in the desert. But they loved me – through the simple gesture of welcoming me to their table and handing me plates of food.
Through the ladles in their hands, I glimpsed the Sacred Heart.