Lessons from a Religious Pilgrimage

Commentator Heather King, a Catholic convert, recently attended a religious retreat and describes how she overcame her extreme dislike for another participant.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Get over yourself. Maybe you've thought that, even said it to some friend or a coworker. Well, commentator Heather King has actually been trying to do it -get over herself, that is. She sent us this story about a recent retreat.

Ms. HEATHER KING: I recently drove cross country on a religious pilgrimage. I stayed in monasteries and retreat houses, and I went to Mass every day.

The retreat house at the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia had shared bathrooms, and in spite of my daily devotions, I almost instantly conceived a violent resentment against the person with whom I shared mine. Blond perm, suburban, a spiritual lightweight - just the sort of person who'd go on retreat with people. I, a true pilgrim, was alone, draped head to toe in my usual black, mourning and weeping over the mysteries of suffering, meaning, love.

The monks at Holy Spirit are Trappists, gathering in the church at intervals throughout the day to chant the psalms and pray. The entire monastery goes to bed at 8, so as to rise in time for the first office of the day, vigils at 4 a.m. The first night, I went to bed at 8 too, only to be jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of explosively loud water pipes. My bathroom mate was taking a shower and I swear she stayed in there past midnight. She was chatty too, though we were supposed to be keeping silence.

When I ran into her the next morning, she launched into a long-winded story about the fact that she didn't have an alarm clock, and her girlfriend had lent her one, and all she could say was this was her first retreat and it sure was a learning experience. Then, off she went with her social butterfly friends. Mass at 7 a.m, vespers at 5:20, every time I went to church, she had the nerve to be there too.

Still, the homily the first day at Mass was about the value of the small act -the smile, the kind word, refraining from the harsh retort. So at dinner, when I found myself in line with her and she started chatting again, I mustered all my spiritual strength and bestowed a small, forbearing smile upon her before I went my way. The second night, she was at it again, flushing the toilet, running the sink.

I slept fitfully and, at 3:30, went downstairs for coffee. There she was, sitting in the semi-dark, all perky in a bright flowered dress and, just as I could have predicted, raring to talk. My husband was just diagnosed bipolar and he refuses to admit it, she announced. Oh, I said, groping for the sugar. That's hard. I'm Polish, she went on. My mother was in Poland when the Nazis started rounding up people and put her in an internment camp.

You know what she used to tell me? When everything is taken from you, you still have your faith. I guess so, I replied. Yup, mama's my odometer. Didn't seem fair when she got Alzheimer's, but God rest her soul. I nursed her through. Suddenly, I saw my bathroom mate and I through God's eyes - she, cheerful in spite of her suffering, me, a self-pitying crab.

I just joined the praise group at my parish, she went on. Right now, I'm praying for all the souls in inner turmoil. I thought of myself fuming on my bed. Thank you, Irene. Don't mention it, she replied. That's just me.

NORRIS: Heather King lives in Los Angeles. She's the author of "Parched," a memoir, and the forthcoming, "Redeemed."

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