by Louise Sandberg
A tearful woman said, “I wasn’t going to come when I saw the snow, but I knew I had to be here. I had to do this for ME.”
I feel her intensity, her pain, as she struggles to articulate the chasm between herself and her spouse. This retreat on forgiveness is her hope to close that gap in time for Easter Alleluia.
It has been a long winter with so many cancellations due to snow after snow. We had struggled the night before to decide whether to go through with the retreat. One of the people who had agreed to provide child care was unable to come in the snow. But we decided to start an hour late, and all is well this morning, minus one child care provider.
There are more than 30 women on the retreat, even though it had snowed all night. It isn’t too cold and everyone came in a car. The women from poorer neighborhoods of Westbury and Hempstead are transported in cars by volunteers, friends and family.
My husband, Tony, is one of those volunteers. He bravely agreed to pick up the Spanish speaking women if “Matilda” would direct him. He is the best driver I know but he hates cleaning off his car, and his only Spanish is “si”,”gracias” and “pollo”. I went out early and cleared the car, but by the time he was ready to go, it was covered in snow again.
As each carload of women arrived, they are welcomed and nourished. We listen as one car empties with Spanish chatter, the next, English chatter, a third with lilting Jamaican accents mixed with an English speaking driver’s Spanish accent. An Irish volunteer adds her brogue, and delivers her passengers – an African-American woman in a head wrap, a grey-haired Spanish speaking woman walking with a cane, and the woman’s Home Health Assistant (don’t dare call her aid!)- and 2 dozen bagels to feed the retreatants.
Then a family drives up with husband, wife and a car full of children. The 3 year old gets out and Dad keeps the 4 month old and the 7 year old to give his wife a break. We have 2 retired teachers who have agreed to provide child care for the 8 children from 3 years to 11 years that have come with their mothers. We are blessed.
The retreat works its’ magic, making a crowd of disconnected groups into a loving, vulnerable, living body of women who share so much in common. As the retreat mistress seamlessly translates the English to Spanish and Spanish to English, everyone experiences the Pentecost of being able to understand the language of the other. Our coming together, sharing where forgiveness is needed, and renewing our commitment to healing is so prayerfully and lovingly facilitated. Pain pours out and forgiveness follows as women share their deepest hurts.
Before lunch the volunteers who are providing child care inform me that they have to leave at 2:30 PM. The retreat ends at 4! I am shocked as one told me she could stay all day and the other has not driven herself so needs a ride home from her daughter. I ask the second if she can stay if I find her a ride. She agrees.
I go to a couple of retreatants who have driven themselves and they make their excuses – leaving early for whatever reason, going directly someplace else. A good friend tells me her husband drove her so she cannot take the woman, and I express my frustration that I cannot be alone with the children because I need to be present to the retreat. Another woman at the table volunteers to drive my child care helper, and all is well. Or so I think.
After lunch, the women make mosaics from a 6×6 piece of tile gluing on some smaller glass tiles.They work meditatively, asking God to guide their work.
The pattern of our lives results in a gorgeous mosaic designed by God. Some of the pieces of that mosaic are rough or clouded or don’t seem to fit. We don’t even know that it is God that is fitting together the mosaic of our life, this little pain, this sharp incident, this lovely day. The women finish their art and share the meaning with the rest of the group.
I am with the children, but walk through the room where they are sharing in time to hear my friend who couldn’t drive say that she wanted to leave the retreat after she felt so humiliated. She had said “no” and the person she said “no” to was angry. Then she realized that she was being given the opportunity to forgive. That God was using this incident in her life to teach her to forgive.
I realize she is talking about me. On this retreat that is supposed to bring healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, I have brought her pain. I realize that my expression of frustration had been received by this woman as public humiliation. I feel the need to apologize publicly.
I do not interrupt her or the flow of the sharing, but when they are breaking up to move to the other room, I go up to the woman I had shamed and knelt, asking for her forgiveness. I was also driven there and could make no offers of rides without asking my driver. I am often driven by my husband and must consult him before I agree to drive someone else. “We are both in the same situation, and I was not understanding. Can you forgive me?” My friend embraces me and I hear her say softly so that only I could hear, “You will never humiliate me like this again.” I wonder what that means. Was she no longer my friend? Was she going to accept my apology publicly, but hold it against me privately? Was she going to avoid me? Withdraw her support? I let go of the need to know and just let myself feel love and compassion for her. She says in a normal voice, “You are my friend and sister. God is using this to teach me about forgiveness. I forgive you.”
I still wasn’t sure what that meant. I have sometimes forgiven someone without giving that person another opportunity to hurt me. I realize only time will tell. The next time I see my friend she comes up to me in church and embraces me in a genuine, deep, truly loving embrace.
In the church we both attend, there is a banner of the prodigal son where he is kneeling and the father is laying hands on the repentant son in a tender embrace. I felt at the retreat I was living that banner, and the loving embrace from my friend in that church sealed her forgiveness.
The retreat was for me, after all. To admit my sin and seek forgiveness, to be reconciled with my friend in my brokenness. I thank God. Darkness comes, morning follows, the next day brings resurrection and new life.
Louise M. Sandberg is a IVC Spiritual Reflector and Volunteer, as Director of the Mary & Elizabeth Center which reaches out to women in need on Long Island, NY. She is a pediatric home care nurse and facilitates Wildflower groups for women healing from childhood abuse, praying for healing of feelings and memories.