In retirement I started going to Trinity’s weekday music. However, I went more often to St. Paul’s, a chapel of Trinity located four or five blocks north of the church. St. Paul’s, too, is a historic building. Its cornerstone was laid in 1764, and it is the oldest church building in New York City. The AIA Guide to New York City says it “is as close to the original as any building requiring maintenance over 200 years could be.” The WPA Guide’s description is still accurate: “The light, spacious interior is handsomely decorated with a barrel vault carried on slender columns, and a gallery on each side.” St. Paul’s looks and feels much different from the neo-gothic mother church. (A painting marks George Washington’s pew. Immediately after his inauguration Washington and Congress went to a St. Paul’s service. The first president did not go to Trinity Church because no church building then stood on the Trinity site. The original building had been destroyed by the fire of 1776. By the time the second building was constructed, the federal government no longer met in New York.)
At first I resisted the signs that told me there were regular concerts at St. Paul’s titled “Bach at One.” I have infrequently attended classical concerts and have found my attention almost always wanders at some point. And while Mozart, Brahms, or Mahler might conceivably have had some appeal, Bach did not sing out to me. On the other hand, as I learned that these choral concerts were only an hour long and free (which always appeals) I urged myself to try at least one, especially since they were easy to get to, and I almost never had any plans in my retired life at 1 PM on a winter Monday or Wednesday. When I finally went, I found that the sixteen-person professional Trinity choir performed two Bach cantatas accompanied by the professional Trinity Baroque Orchestra playing period instruments. The more I went the more I enjoyed. I did not always revel in the solos, but I loved the choral music. I became something of a regular.
This made me even more interested in Trinity’s music, and I logged into their website frequently and signed up for their emails. I learned much about the church from this, including that they held retreats out of the city a half dozen times a year. Most held little interest for me, but then I showed the spouse the notice for one that was to be a weekend-long study of the Song of Songs and how that love poem had influenced poets through the centuries. It was to be led by a Canadian graduate student who was about to get his Ph.D. with a dissertation about John Donne.
This did not look like a devotional retreat as much as a literary one. Poetry and I have seldom seen eye to eye, but I thought that forty-eight hours might put us on a more equal footing. And a winter weekend in the countryside seemed as if it could be nice. The spouse and I decided that we could at least tolerate it and perhaps we might even find it interesting. Hell, oops, heck, it might even be fun. We decided to go.
With only a bit of bickering about the route, we crossed the covered bridge, turned right, and entered the 55-acre Trinity Retreat Center at 4PM on a January Friday. We entered a deceptively modest looking building, which was in fact the equivalent of a 25-room hotel. (Hotel-like but without a bar or a minibar.) Our room with a king size bed was spacious and modern and overlooked the Housatonic River (no TV, of course). The public areas were furnished as I thought a country retreat should be: comfortable sofas with mis-matched chairs, window seats, tables with worn finishes, patterned but slightly worn rugs that would have looked right in a child’s playroom, and fireplaces with seasoned-wood blazes so good they looked as if they might be fake (they weren’t). Everything appeared to have been recently updated with fresh paint, gleaming floors, state-of-the-art fire alarms, new plantings. Wrap-around porches faced the river, but it was too cold on this January weekend to use them.
Meals were eaten at a collection of communal tables, one of which was set aside for non-talkers who wanted a hint of a silent retreat. The food was prepared by in-house cooks with fresh ingredients. In summer their own gardens provide a farm-to-table menu. The food was healthy and delicious. Its bounty was its only flaw; I overate at every meal.
I was in the second week of a three-week cold and did not feel strong enough to hike the grounds. I did not even walk the prayer labyrinth, but I did make it to the barn, which housed six rescue donkeys. We got in the pen with them, and they seemed to enjoy being petted and scratched for a while, and then they seemed to indicate either satisfaction or boredom and started drifting away. (I now own a Trinity Retreat Center t-shirt with cartoon depictions of these gentle creatures.)
(continued January 27)