All Quiet at the Jersey Shore
Footprints on the winter beach at
Maris Stella Retreat and Conference
Photo by Deborah Fries.
Summer is nature’s long-awaited, clamorous, and transient season at the Jersey Shore. And after an unnatural East Coast winter shaped by the repeated drawdown of Arctic fronts that mixed with moist Nor’easters—depositing snow and ice week after week—I long to see the place where shore life is returning, multiplying.
Seasonal changes are underway. By March, the snow geese that wintered here are gone, flown north in a white cloud of wings. The lucky red foxes who found mates are welcoming new kits into the world. The itinerate humans, who will light like the hundreds of species of migratory birds visiting Ocean County wetlands, are booking their summer lodging. The landscape itself suggests transience: islands that are plastic, shape-shifting beneath the forces of storms and tides; marshes that morph; wintered beaches that must be replenished, undone by the push-pull of the ocean and the bay.
I want to be among the flocks of cars bearing LBI stickers as they cross the bridge over Barnegat Bay to reach the barrier island that brackets its lower half. I want to see the break between the islands at Barnegat Inlet, where the sea rushes in, cutting off the quieter Long Beach Island to the south from Barnegat Peninsula. Like other outer banks of the Atlantic coast, these have been domesticated into a discordant patchwork of dense development and preserved open space. And like neighboring islands to the south, significant land holdings of the early 20th century often belonged to the privileged, who invited their wealthy friends to the shore to take in its breezes and hunt its limitless waterfowl.
In 1959, Island Beach State Park, carved out of the lower ten miles of the Peninsula—once owned by Andrew Carnegie’s business partner, Henry Phipps—was opened to the public. Also in 1959, in the narrowest part of Long Beach Island, the Borough of Harvey Cedars, ten acres of land once owned by American Express president Frederick Small, was opened to the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth as a summer retreat called Maris Stella. Both properties have preserved a sense of immediacy, an earlier way of experiencing the shore.
Come to the Quiet! welcomes the reader who arrives at the website for the Maris Stella Retreat and Conference Center. In March 2008, that concept beckoned me to a weekend writing retreat facilitated by Sr. Deborah Humphreys. Six years earlier I’d attended a week-long workshop in upstate New York that featured tutorials with a Pulitzer Prize winner. In addition to classes and readings, there had been enthusiastic drinking, big personalities, and the posturing and scheming that accompany raw ambition. That was not the kind of retreat I needed in 2008. I wanted to trade in the known world for the shore in winter, with its empty highways and boarded-up shops, unrestrained weather and uncombed beaches. And I was looking for a place that would offer quiet acceptance.
I am not Catholic. I am at most a secular Christian who attended Sunday School and Lutheran summer camp as a child, and who once had a speaking role as the angel who appears to the shepherds. I regard my Judeo-Christian inheritance as a collection of rich metaphors, a point of view that I do not reveal to people of faith. Until I visited the Sisters of Charity retreat, the only nun I’d known had left the life years before I met her.
The Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth—also known as “New Jersey Sisters of Charity”—are one of 13 congregations of religious women who act out of the charitable traditions of Saint Elizabeth Seton, Saint Vincent de Paul, and Saint Louise de Marillac. They love the poor. They are social activists who take on the plight of immigrants and detainees, human trafficking, genetically modified foods, climate change, and violence in the Congo. They serve the poor. Their ministries might include teaching English as a second language, building a children’s park in El Salvador, being a social worker in Jersey City, or teaching health care management to college students. They are the Jersey Girls of the Catholic Church, who act on what they believe, recently organizing an Ash Wednesday march from Ellis Island to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
And after all that activist charity and hard work, they and their New York Sisters of Charity, and even the lay community, can come to upscale Harvey Cedars to sit on the beach, close their eyes, listen to the gulls overhead, be present with Creation.
THIS is my church, my father used to say. We were walking in the deciduous forests of Pennsylvania or on the beach at Hatteras, and he would try to explain, in moments of uncharacteristic expression, the awe and sacred immersion he felt in the natural world. I knew that unlike words in a Lutheran hymnal, he deeply felt the direct contact that connected him to the most holy: God of gray squirrels and morels, of tall oaks and watercress, of shelf fungi and teaberries; God of left-handed whelks and sandbars, of rapacious bluefish, bending sea oats and red sun rising over the Gulf Stream. Then and now, I understand best that sense of the sacred.
It was a rainy, cold drive through the Pine Barrens from Philly to Harvey Cedars, dark when I arrived, and hard to find my way to the right building for check-in. The Maris Stella property stretches from the Bay to the Atlantic, divided by Long Beach Boulevard. The bayside property features a recently-constructed eco-friendly community center and chapel, a dock where Sunday worshipers can park their boats, and several mid-century cottages that can sleep four to 13. The Atlantic side features older housing, including St. Vincent’s, a dormitory of sorts pressed up against the dunes. That first night in one of the bayside cottages, my housemate and I, unable to figure out how to lock the door, slept with it unlocked. Night on the island was abnormally dark, silent, and safe.
The life of the religious women I met at Maris Stella seemed very different from the conforming asceticism I imagined at seven, standing before the powder room mirror with toilet paper wrapped around my forehead and a towel over my head, considering how I might look as a nun. They shared the secular props and scripts of familiar everyday life—apartments and dogs, potted herbs in the kitchen window and battles with cancer. Most surprisingly, I met women whose ministry has included far more autonomy and personal expression than I had supposed. Like other writers I know, they’ve been able to enroll in low-residency MFA programs, publish books of poetry, have personal websites, teach, and attend the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.
The lay women who had come to the retreat were funny, smart, and good company. I was glad I had stepped out of my routine to be among them. Saturday, as Sr. Deborah led us through a series of meditative writing prompts, the raw wind and rain hit hard against the community center, and torrential sheets of water draped its huge windows, caging us in a world of contemplation. The next morning, with sand stinging my face, I climbed the dunes in the wind to see the wild winter ocean before I drove home. I wondered what Maris Stella must be like in summer, when the sisters have first dibs on reservations. In a few months, I’d find out.
The women who attended the March retreat were invited back for a poetry reading with Sr. Deborah and Sr. Anne Higgins in August. I was surprised to find the trip so different from my first. The last ten miles took more than an hour, queued behind SUVs and boats approaching the causeway. Long Beach Island was golden, fully alive with its summer crowd. The raw weather that met us in late winter had rolled over into bright sun and fresh breezes. Those of us who returned for the reading stayed in a fully-packed St. Vincent’s—nuns and civilians commingled, nearly indistinguishable on the beach, where Sr. Deborah waded in the surf in a red and black bathing suit.
After lunch, three of us drove up the island, past the $2 million pastel getaways, to explore the area around historic Barnegat Lighthouse. On that perfect August afternoon, we walked and talked and took in the smells of pitch pine and salt, the slap of water against the sea wall, the sight of children wading in tidal pools beneath a crisp blue sky. That night after the reading, we gathered on the beach, sorting stars, trying to delineate constellations.
Memories of that August trip to Harvey Cedars grew more precious as the autumn of 2008 closed in on me. I stayed in touch with Sr. Peggy Nulty, who then coordinated programming for Maris Stella. She’d asked me for ideas about environmental speakers, and I put her in touch with someone I thought she’d like.
Philadelphia native Fr. John Rausch is a Glenmary priest, working out of Kentucky, where he’s well known for his opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining. Like the Sisters of Charity, he lives his faith in the world—specifically, in Appalachia, leading eco-tours and advocating universal health care and generally caring about people and the earth they inhabit. I imagined him arriving in Harvey Cedars as I’d met him years before—in jeans and a baseball cap, explaining the difference between the world’s time and liturgical time as we drank coffee in a suburban bookstore.
In March 2009, Fr. John Rausch led a retreat at Maris Stella. His subject was “Observing the Sabbath.” As I packed for that weekend, I tried to convince myself that even though the milieu would be distinctly religious, I would feel at home there as I had before, and not like a kid with a towel on my head. But when we gathered in the chapel on Friday evening, introduced ourselves and explained why we were there, I felt noticeably heathen. Surface appearances were misaligned: unlike the other women, I was wearing makeup and a bright scarf; Fr. John was wearing his collar and dark, priestly attire; and I was the only woman who was not wearing a gold band on her left hand.
We read so much into appearance. Sixteen miles north of Harvey Cedars as the herring gull flies, in the Barnegat Peninsula town of Seaside Heights, MTV began filming its reality series Jersey Shore in the summer of 2009. The cast became immediately recognizable for their distinctive tribal look. Male cast members were heavily tattooed, their tanned backs and biceps sporting huge crosses; their clubbing gear included rosaries worn as necklaces over tight graphic tees and tank tops. Female cast members volumized their long, dark hair with extensions and shrunk their vacation wardrobe into tiny skirts, thong underwear and bright, skimpy bra tops. Their manufactured, hypersexualized style created a disturbing new brand for the Jersey Shore.
The March weather on Long Beach Island was again gloomy, windy and perfect for introspection. On Saturday, Father John led us through discussions about setting aside time for spiritual reflection, which appealed to me as it had when we once discussed living the liturgical year, chronicled so well by Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk. He spoke about carving out a place in our lives for contact with the natural world, and showed us a film about surface mining in West Virginia. He never spoke of God, but always of an entity called Loving God. I couldn’t read the other women’s reactions to his program, but it seemed like a hard room to play.
That afternoon, I gradually discarded my pantheistic self-consciousness and happily walked on the beach with Fr. John’s sister and one of the Sisters of Charity. We stayed up late that night, laughing and drinking wine. At some point, I confessed to his sister that I was not Catholic. She seemed truly shocked, and I realized that passing had only been a matter of smiling and listening. I slipped out on Sunday morning when everyone else was at mass, hugging Sr. Peggy, who would soon leave Maris Stella, one last time.
For a few weeks after that retreat, I tried to observe a secular sabbath by not turning on the television, but missed the Sunday morning news forums and soon drifted back into my crowded, over-stimulated life, the world of digital overload and the cognitive entropy that accompanies it. And even though I continued to remind myself that I should erect a seawall against unnecessary information, to hang on to some spiritual quiet, the spillway widened until one day in January, 2010, after I read Nancy Franklin’s “Jersey Jetsam” piece in The New Yorker, I began to watch Jersey Shore and to experience the phenomena that Franklin said “makes us feel as though we were anthropologists secretly observing a new tribe through a break in the trees.”
Maris Stella in March 2009, Atlantic side.
Photo by Deborah Fries.
But the digital overdose that came from parting the trees to view the comedic hedonism and relational disasters of the cast, even as a pretend anthropologist, was disorienting. Most of the first season of the show was filmed indoors—in messy bedrooms, crowded nightclubs, gyms, tanning salons, or a t-shirt shop. The outdoor shore world these young people encounter in the show is largely a man-made assemblage of depressing boardwalk attractions. We watched them try to navigate a loud, hunger-and-beat driven existence, fight, then drunkenly stumble home. Once inside, we watched them stumble and fight again.
If I really was an anthropologist, how could I reconcile the cultural extremes of the women whose nomadic destination is the Jersey Shore—those who gather in the spiritual quiet at Maris Stella and those who bump and grind the night away at the Seaside Heights club, Karma? What trip into the cultural relativism of shore behavior could explain the difference between the selfless and the self-absorbed, between those pilgrims who work on their souls and those who work on their spray tans?
If I was to peek between the trees long enough, I might see how the tides of the sacred and the profane approach and retreat in all our lives. I’d understand why I’d wanted to hang with the Sisters of Charity, to enter their secret world of goodness. I’d know why I would eventually watch every episode of the first season of MTV’s Jersey Shore, awestruck by the kids’ bad behavior and ashamed of being so far out of my demographic.
What is much easier to understand, however, is the timeless appeal of the natural world that exists on those two narrow spits of land that lie between the Atlantic and Barnegat Bay. I like to imagine that the day may come when Jenny, Nicole, Sammi, Angelina, and their successors—reality shows behind them and a real life stretching out before them—will want to retreat to a quieter version of the Jersey Shore.
Maybe they’ll visit LBI with their families, and introduce their children to starfish and harlequin ducks and beach heather, then climb up the steps of Old Barney with them or help them find a green crab in a tidal pool near the lighthouse.
Maybe, in whatever form of quiet they might someday seek, sacred or secular, they will recognize the enduring gift those barrier islands present: easy access to the God of eel grass and stinging jellyfish, of flounder and glossy ibis and plovers, of red cedars and osprey, sweet gum and magnolia. They offer direct conversation with the God of sassafras, balm of Gilead and Atlantic white cedar. They allow us to feel our connection to the God of places where you can touch down, like the ruddy turnstones who arrive in May to forage on the horseshoe crab eggs, then head north to breed, fully sated and restored.
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