I had traveled all day long to get to Vic, a town north of Barcelona, in Catalonia, Spain. My destination was the retreat house of a group of Catholic religious sisters, where I’d be staying for 12 days while working on a television program about the life of the Spanish saint, Anthony Claret. It rained for the better part of the drive up into Catalonia. I knew our digs at the retreat house would be spartan, to say the least, and the days ahead would be long.
When we drove up the cobble stone road to the side entrance of the long, two-story stone building, one of the sisters stood at the door and welcomed us in. It was quiet, very quiet, inside, which made the sound of the rain that much louder and imposing. The sister told us there was a group of priests staying there, and this would be the last night of their retreat. Their silent retreat.
And their silence, she said, would also be our silence. Which at that moment seemed to me a relief not to have to talk, and to be able to just settle in quietly.
That first night, after we were escorted to our lovely if ascetic rooms, where the windows were cranked wide open with no screens, we were asked to meet in the dining room for dinner after freshening up. I was handed a towel that looked more like a wash cloth and realized it was meant to last a while. I started to get concerned about what I’d find on the table for dinner. Going without words might also mean going without much flavor on the plate. And I was hungry.
The hush of the retreat house carried over to dining room, the first of many meals to be prepared for us by the nuns. Despite my hunger, this promised to be my saving grace after too much wine and too many tomatoes (yes, it’s possible) the prior week when I’d been traveling with Peg in Italy. My constitution was longing for quiet (albeit delicious) food as much as it was my newfound quiet environs.
The room was flanked along one wall with windows paned in black. The priests were already seated when a couple of us came in awkwardly and somewhat loudly. The group I was working and traveling with those weeks were funny, very hilarious, people and I worried I wouldn’t get through dinner without bursting out inappropriately. We shushed up and went to two tables at the far end of the room. Mine was along the windows where the patter of the rain lulled me into realizing that it felt just fine to sit there amid a room full of people, eating, in complete silence.
Without having to engage in conversation, I turned my attention to the food—the excellent food that I remember so well now probably because I went directly to my room that night, and each night thereafter, and recorded every plate that was placed in front of me by the brilliant sisters cooking back there, out of sight, in the kitchen. This first night there was a Milanese, thinly pounded chicken lightly breaded and fried crisp and golden. There were summer vegetables and a loaf of bread. And the wild card at the table: homemade potato chips! I couldn’t get over the chips, and based on this I started to get excited about what they’d be sending out for dessert.
But once our plates were cleared, there was nothing else forthcoming from the kitchen. Then I realized that the bowl of fruit sitting on the table throughout the meal was meant to serve as our quiet sweet. That would have felt like a quiet disappointment if I hadn’t spotted the most subtle, gorgeous peach I had ever seen. In the hazy twilight of our dinner, the peach seemed like an apparition. I went for it, and felt how perfectly ripe it was. I took the little sharp knife with a wooden handle that was sitting beside the bowl for just this purpose, and I cut the peach in half.
Generosity would have offered half to someone next to me; I did not. The flesh pulled away from the pit gracefully, and I saw that beneath the glowing pink skin, the flesh was white, with deep pink near the stone. This shade of pink is rare, with a radiance hinted at only in a certain type of pink-orange peony that my friend Karen could name off the top of her head and that you don’t often see, either. The flavor was incredibly delicate and sweet, different from yellow peaches. I had never in my life seen or eaten a white peach, and ever since then when I see them, as I do now up north, I’m surprised by them. I wonder if they’ve always been here and I just never noticed them until I was forced to be quiet and eat one with silent focus?
As I ate the peach that night, I looked around the room to see if anyone else was having the same spiritual experience that I was. It was difficult to tell, without the words. But that was the point, I suppose, the very antithesis of what we usually do at the table (commune) being appreciated that much more by taking it away. I always wanted to make another, real, silent retreat after that, but I never have. Thankfully I do have a white peach to quiet me down for a moment while it, and everything else, is amplified.