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Divine Language Illustration by Gérard DuBois.

Divine Language

Confronting the semantics of belief at a Christian retreat centre.

A few years ago, I went to a retreat centre in British Columbia that a friend had recommended. My friend, a long-lapsed Catholic, assured me that religion wasn’t a prerequisite, so I didn’t worry about my own state of lapsedness and booked a few days there. On arrival, the minister in charge welcomed me. He was soft spoken and asked gentle questions, mostly to do with how long I would stay and how was my journey there, but then he asked me what church I attended. I said, “None,” and thought I saw a small hardness pass behind his eyes.   

Later, he and his wife asked if I could please help them fold some sheets. Afterward, they invited me into their suite, where they gave me some juice. The man’s wife was rounded and smiling and kind. She told me about living in India, where neighbours would call to one another through the apartment walls and there was a lot of noise and busyness and company all the time. She missed it, she said, and, as she was talking, I missed it too, though I have never lived there, and I haven’t lived with neighbours calling to me since I was a child. I used to be sad a lot more often than I am now, and at that time I was sad, and so her kindness felt like an enveloping warmth. I felt accepted, not outside of their circle. Her husband, who was pacing the room, asked, “If you don’t go to church, what do you do?” He sounded genuinely perplexed, so I didn’t feel defensive, exactly, just uncertain. What do I do? And is there a way to describe it?

I didn’t go to the retreat centre again for a few years. I worried that maybe what I was doing there was wrong—not being Christian, that is. That thinking and being quiet and writing, feeling sometimes sad, but also happy to be alone and outside of my regular life, didn’t fit the retreat’s stated purpose of “spiritual renewal.” But time passed, and I reasoned my doubts away, and I went to the centre again, this time with a friend, Fiona.

After dinner, Fiona went to her room, and I stayed in the kitchen to make myself tea. A woman came in. I’d seen her before, but some people were there on a silent retreat, so I didn’t greet her other than to smile. “Hello,” she said, and I answered with my own hello, a little disappointed, because I’d been on a silent retreat myself once long ago, and had been looking forward to that satisfying mode of nonverbal communication—a few smiles, the odd gesture, a nod of the head and you’re done.

“How much longer are you staying?” she asked.

“Another day.”

“You’re lucky. I have to leave tomorrow.”

I said something like “all good things come to an end” and regretted it, being a cliché, but I was not able to think of anything better.  

She opened the fridge door and put her head inside. “We won’t be able to say that in eternity.”

“Right,” I answered, wondering if I’d heard her correctly. She pulled her head out of the fridge and looked at me. “Because they won’t come to an end,” she said. “They’ll just go on and on.” She was smiling. She had her food on the counter now and was half turned toward me. She looked happy, and she probably was, and I was happy too, but uncertain now because I wanted to say, “Why can’t good things just go on now?” But I didn’t want to argue with her, even though I felt in a small way that her remark was denigrating my immediate pleasure in tea and my book and solitude, and I suppose in a rather larger way I was denigrating her pleasure in imagining a future of total bliss. Probably she saw my thoughts on my face because her smile faded a little. I made some kind of noncommittal remark, and asked how long she’d been there and would she have a long journey home, and she answered, and so our conversation ended safely and pleasantly enough, but I went back to my room thinking about words and how we use them.

Years ago I studied Aikido, a Japanese martial art. At the beginning of every class, we would meditate briefly and then bow to a picture of a gentle-looking man with a white beard and soft eyes. “That’s the founder,” the teacher had said in our introductory class. “If it makes you uncomfortable to bow to a picture, imagine you are bowing to the best part of yourself.” At that point in my life, the best part of myself was pretty invisible to me—and still is, really, so it was a strange thing to think. But even stranger was the fact that “Thou shalt not worship false idols” had sounded loudly in my mind when the teacher first suggested bowing, followed by a brief worry that I might be entering some kind of cult. As it turned out, we would bow throughout Aikido class. We would bow to Sensei every time he taught us something, we would bow to one another before and after we began practicing, and when I went to Japan I would bow almost every time I looked at someone. I came to like bowing. I came to think of it as a neat and tidy gesture. In Japan, when a much older woman bowed all the way down to the floor in front of me (after I’d given her a small gift), I felt so humbled and awed by her seemingly complete and graceful obliteration of self that I folded down too. Later, I would realize that I must have made some kind of mistake because you should always bow lower than the person who is bowing to you. This woman couldn’t have gone any lower unless she’d somehow been absorbed by the floor. 

At the end of our stay, my friend and I were starting our walk down the hill, me with the pack on my back and my computer bag in my hand, Fiona dragging her little wheeled suitcase. We were feeling the weight of all this, the long walk ahead, the noise of the suitcase wheels, when someone called out to us. Do you need a ride somewhere? “Yes, please,” we said right away, and he took us to his car and then apologized for the mess of it. “You won’t believe this, but I actually cleaned this out, I mean really cleaned it, just a couple of days ago.” We chuckled and both of us said innocuous, understanding sorts of things, and then we got in the car, Fiona in the front, me in the back, and we started down the steep hill to the ferry. Fiona made polite conversation, and I looked out the window at the hill falling away beneath us and the curve of the mountains in the distance. I heard him tell her that he was about to go to Eastern Europe to run a church there for a few months. “I may stay longer,” he said, “if the Lord wants me to.” At first I thought he was mentioning someone’s name, and it took me a moment to realize he was talking about God.

“Do you speak the language?” Fiona asked, and he said no, and that it was going to be a problem possibly.

“Are you going to learn?”

“I’m going to have to pray about that,” he said.

“Why not just take lessons or get a book?” leapt into my mind, which, fortunately, didn’t leap out of my mouth. He was a nice young man, as my mother would have said. Kind and well mannered. After he dropped us off, Fiona and I talked a little about language: “Lord” and “eternity,” words that had been dropped around us over the past couple of days, and which I had just let lie where they fell, not knowing what to do with them, not wanting to pick them up under false pretenses.

A few days later, Fiona said we shouldn’t have been there, that we didn’t belong, not being religious, and I felt deep pangs of guilt, suspecting myself of transgressing against something that’s sacred—and now transgressing even more as I write about it. “Writers are always selling someone out,” Joan Didion said.

I look up prayer on Google, the god in my machine. “Prayer has the characteristics of a deeply meaningful conversation between two people,” says one site. “It’s communicating with God. It’s the practice of the presence of God,” says another. I read the retreat literature again, looking for clues to see if I’d transgressed. Years ago, when friends would talk about being lapsed Catholics and after I’d read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I remember feeling envious. There wasn’t much you could say about being a lapsed Anglican except that the Anglican god of my childhood seemed to be someone like Martha Stewart, good at making beds with hospital corners and knowing which fork to use. There was so much drama in a Catholic childhood. There was guilt, sure, but there was also forgiveness.

I call up the retreat centre to ask if they mind if atheists come and stay. Good atheists, I want to add, but don’t, figuring that the person on the other end of the phone, being a sympathetic person who cares about people’s souls, will understand by the way I’m asking that I’m a nice person, a sincere person and that, even though I don’t believe in God per se, I do believe in a lot of the same things that they do. The person is lovely. She sounds as though she accepts and has seen and can manage all manner of things, even atheists. “We don’t ask people that,” she says. “The people who run it are a Christian community but we believe in being open to all. We welcome everyone.” I thank her and book another retreat. After I hang up, feeling absolved, I realize that that’s what I’d been looking for all along.

We use the word “semantics” to describe a problem when people can’t agree on the meaning of a word or its connotations. That’s called logical semantics, which is about the meanings of words themselves, but you can also have lexical semantics, which is about how the words relate to one another in a sentence. I like finding this out. I like words. “In the beginning was the Word,” says the Book of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I like this too, though I don’t understand how a thing can be with—as in being next to—and can also be the thing it’s next to at the same time. But then I also have trouble wrapping my mind around quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s cat.