Back in January, I signed up for a Spiritual Spa Day at Linwood – the retreat center three miles from my house run by the Sisters of St. Ursuline. I signed up far in advance of the May date. It was not just the content of the day, but the date that caused me to sign up. This Spa experience was being offered on Tuesday, May 11. By my calculations, that would be the first Tuesday that I didn’t have to teach Anatomy. What a great way to celebrate the end of the semester, I thought.
The brochure promised a day of “relaxing, praying, reflecting and sharing” with an opportunity for massage and/or reflexology. Sign me up! I said. Unlike my mother, it is not so easy for me to relax in my own home. I find a whole list of things that “need” to be done and do those instead of relaxing. For me, I relax best when I’m someplace else. Lucky for me, this someplace was just down the road.
I went by myself, so this counts as an artist date as it surely spurned some creativity and learning. The day started with a delicious homemade coffee cake. The brochure doesn’t advertise it, but one of the perks of these events is the food.
Then, we listened to a talk about the body/soul connection and how religion has at times connected or separated the two. The presenter talked about the natural connection between body and soul and read bible passages supporting this. She then asked us to think about our experiences of religion either encouraging or discouraging what our bodies naturally wanted to do. My first thought was sex and how the religion in which I grew up only had one thing to say about it: don’t do it until you’re married. The lack of discussion anywhere in my childhood about this topic has always bothered me. Yes, here I was in a room full of women – two of whom were pastors, and at least two of whom were sisters – and I was thinking about sex. In high school, I would have immediately squashed the thought as good Catholic girls are taught to do. But in this simple conference room overlooking the Hudson, God and I had a good laugh over my current state of mind.
Our next presenter was an Episcopalian priest – a woman. I’ve just about given up on the Catholics ever coming around to the idea of equality of the sexes, so the Episcopalians and any other religions that allow women to be ordained hold a special place in my heart. And should I ever decide to return to church, it will be to one that allows women to run things. I must admit when I had first walked into the room and saw the Reverend my first reaction was not too good. She didn’t look at any of us, had a sour expression on her face, and didn’t really seem so friendly. But once the morning was turned over to her, she just lit up and her presentation ended up being my favorite one of the day. Whereas our first presenter grounded us in the spirituality of the day, this second presenter brought body and soul together in us through music and movement. It will sound quite hokey if I explain it here but let me just say this: don’t knock something until you try it. God keeps sending me this message over and over again, and she’s right.
The presenter first set the foundation of a very welcoming space where nothing we could do would be wrong – that there was no right way to do what she was about to show us. How many times do you hear that in your everyday life? Not often enough I say! She then told us about the Taize music we were about to hear. Taize? Oh how I love Taize! I can’t recall when first I heard about Taize. But ever since then, I’ve wanted to go there. The music is a kind of chanting. But there are no complex verses and choruses to memorize. They want everyone to be able to participate so it’s just one or two lines repeated over and over again. In that way, you don’t have to focus on getting the words right as you can quickly learn them. Then, as you repeat them over and over you can really listen to the words, mull over them, pray with them, or whatever happens – and at Taize in France you can join thousands of young people doing this in community every single day. Locally, you can experience it on a smaller scale at Mount Saint Alphonsus on the first Thursday of every month.
But it wasn’t just that we were going to sing Taize music. We were going to involve our bodies in it as well. Most of us at this point are thinking, “uh…I’m not so sure about this.” But the women who come to these things come in part to step out of their comfort zones a little bit. So we were at least open to the idea. She showed us the simple movement we could do with our arms as the music played. “But you can do any variation on this – whatever your body tells you to do. If you want to walk around while doing it, or close your eyes, or dance, do whatever comes.” Oh boy, I thought. This is SO not me. But my sister wasn’t here to judge me. In fact, no one here was going to judge me. So I went with it.
I’d forgotten how much I used to like ballet. The arm movements were what I loved the most. And this brought that all back. One woman turned to face the river when doing her movements (I kept my eyes open – I wanted to see what the others were doing.) One was doing almost what looked like Tai Chi. Some were walking around moving their arms like a belly dancer would. And all to the rhythmic Taize music.
Our presenter lamented how many faiths require that you are still while music is played. Even if you feel it in your bones, you were taught to sit still in church. She took us through another piece encouraging us to now acknowledge the others in the room. We did our movements, but when we came to another, we put our hands in the prayer position and bowed to each other. We looked each other in the eyes when we did this and without speaking there was so much being said. One women I met was covered in tears. I would not find out what it was that moved her so, but it was a powerful moment to see someone able to show so much emotion in front of strangers.
Then we did a group piece. We were holding hands in two concentric circles,walking in one direction and then another. Then, we’d clap a couple times to the music and spin around. Oh how silly it sounds, but oh what fun we were having! And really not nearly as silly as I thought it would be.
Whatever you think about the whole thing, I will tell you I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to attend this woman’s workshops that she’s going to start doing. But isn’t this the best way to experience life? Step outside your comfort zone and discover something you never knew before? You experience something new and say either, “well, I did that once and that was enough,” or “wow – that was actually pretty cool. I want more of that.” I can tell you I’ve felt both many times. And no matter which reaction I have, I have never once regretted trying something new.