Danusha Goska has reached the end of her rope. She has no money, she can’t find a job, and she has lost the three people she could depend on to help her. Under the shadow of these events, she contemplates what has gone wrong in her life and her options, even briefly considering suicide. Instead, she decides on a retreat. “I decided to take my problems to God and ask for guidance. I wanted to be someplace silent so I could hear any reply God might provide.”
In the preface to God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery, Danusha Goska describes the book as an account of her “strange” experiences at Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville, Virginia, but her week-long retreat is only a small part of the book. The first half of the book reads a bit like a tragedy, describing her abusive Polish-American family, unhappy childhood, and struggles to publish her dissertation. She joins the Peace Corps, traveling widely through Europe,Asia,and Africa and returns to graduate school to get her M.A. and Ph.D. Woven throughout the book is Goska’s love of birding, her devotion to Catholicism, and her identification with her Polish roots.
When Goska reaches Berryville (via hitchhiking and Greyhound Bus), she is both fascinated and taken aback by the behavior of the monks and other retreatants. She has come to the monastery for guidance, plain and simple. She wants someone to tell her what to do, but when she approaches two different monks, they are distant and don’t seem to understand what she’s seeking, leaving her disillusioned. To her surprise, a brief conversation with a fellow retreatant whom Goska dubs “The Theologian” offers her the meaningful connection she is hoping for.
People go on retreats for a variety of reasons: to have quiet time for reflection, to get away from family, friends, and work, and to deepen their spiritual life. The only time Goska gets away from the worries and frustrations that cloud her life is when she ventures away from the retreat buildings and out into the nearby woods with her binoculars.
Cliff swallows were winging under the bridge over the Shenandoah. Clinging to the bridge were their nests: gourd-shaped, pebbly-textured structures made of individual beak-sized pellets of mud gathered by both male and female. The intricate pattern of the cliff swallows’ plumage, one I have to believe some artist’s hand lingered over—buff forehead, striped blue back, light rump—was distinctly visible as they flew with effortless skill and grace, and perhaps also joy and daring, so very close to me. I watched them, and my eyes and heart took flight and participated in their beauty.
It is in these moments Goska finds escape from her life and her writing shines.
God Through Binoculars is not just a book about one woman’s retreat. Although she is a devout Catholic, in this book Goska criticizes the church, monks and nuns, and the monastery. She even takes a swing at Thomas Merton, the famed Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, and social activist. Undoubtedly, some readers will disagree with her on many points and even be offended. Goska’s strong opinions on culture and religion are scattered randomly throughout God Through Binoculars, and there is an arrogant tone ingrained in the book that makes it difficult to sympathize with Goska’s misfortunes. Still, there is much to identify with and many readers will find God Through Binoculars an interesting and thought provoking read.