Photo: Denise Civiletti

As I write this column, I am sitting in the chapel of Villa Immaculata, a beautiful house of prayer which sits on a wooded property high on the cliffs of the Long Island Sound.

The house of prayer is run by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, “a community dedicated to the renewal of family life.” The sisters make their home here and open their doors for programs and retreats, welcoming pilgrims like me who are seeking solitude and peace.

Villa Immaculata is just five minutes away from home — which gives me solace considering the sometimes emergent needs of my youngest daughter.

I’ve come here quite a few times over the past 20 years — but not enough for my busy life and my weary soul. It’s a funny contradiction that calls people like me to places of solitude. The busier our lives become, the more we need time alone to reconnect with God and our very own soul.

Today is my birthday, placing me on the other side of 50 nearing closer to 60 years old. Many people like to celebrate their birthdays with family and friends. I’m among them — but only after I’ve spent ample time alone.

I first started retreating on my birthday when I turned 21. While most kids that age hit the bars hoping to get carded, I sequestered myself in a cloister in a simple room that was adjacent to a chapel where I could pray in my pajamas alone with God.

My only human contact for the next 24 hours was through a tiny cabinet with two doors, where my lovingly prepared meals were placed with a note of encouragement from the cloistered nuns behind the veil.

This silent retreat day and overnight of solitude characterized the best birthday for me and a turning point in my life.

I knew I needed more of God in my life and time away to remember He who created me in my mother’s womb and to discover the purpose for my life.

I stayed in touch with the cloistered sisters over the next year and returned the following year engaged to be married. They sent me a prayer of consecration to the Holy Family which my husband and I prayed together on our knees at the altar, shortly after reciting our marriage vows.

My next birthday retreat was an easy commute as my husband and I spent our first two years of marriage living in an apartment adjacent to a house of prayer where I worked as a retreat director and member of the staff.

The chapel was a short walk through two kitchens and looked out through the woods to a river that led out to the Atlantic Ocean.

My 24th birthday retreat I brought my infant son with me into that same chapel as the delicate balance of motherhood and mysticism echoed in my soul.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve learned to find the time to balance the responsibilities of marriage, motherhood and an ever-evolving career as a writer, speaker and coach — with the deepest cry of my soul for solitude.

I’ve found the key to solitude is in the realization that I am never alone.

The presence of God dwells in me and surrounds me even in the chaos of this world.

These words from Isaiah bring this truth to my mind and heart:
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Do not be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
(Isaiah 41:10)

No matter where I am, God is with me. Sometimes I just forget. Days like these remind me.

Overnight retreats and days of silent prayer like today remind me of who God is and who I am apart from all the roles and responsibilities of my life.

Retreat days help me to connect the dots of my encounters and experiences, with prayer. Here, I can see a bigger plan at work and find purpose even in the seemingly meaningless tasks of everyday life. It’s like turning over the messy stitches on one side of a blanket only to discover a beautiful tapestry on the other side.

I’ve learned these past 35 years that I’ve been retreating from life, that even when I can’t get away — God remains within and all around me.

These times of solitude feed me for the crazy times when I’m surrounded in Manhattan or overwhelmed by chaos at home.

It is the truest gift of Christmas: Emmanuel.

For behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Matthew 1:23-23.

As the quieter days of Advent draw to a close in the clamor and excitement on Christmas Eve, I challenge you to find the time and space to recognize the gift of God with you.

Whether you light a menorah or advent wreath the miracles of life in God are shared. And if the sense of God escapes you, then there is even more reason to pause and discover the presence of Emmanuel — God with you.

I believe none of us walks this life alone. Take time away — if only a walk outside or drive to the beach or tucking into a chapel nearby. I promise you: You will discover miracles at work in your life and a greater plan and purpose will unfold.

Emmanuel — God is with us. The time for miracles is now.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen