I spent Monday afternoon through Wednesday morning in a space called Pacem in Terris, a spiritual retreat center in central Minnesota. Its roots are in the Catholic tradition and its doors are wide open. My seminary offered students a blessed discount rate for this experience and after discussing the opportunity with my wife, I elected to go. I’m so grateful to her for saying “Yes, and…” to this one. She elected to hold down the fort at home so I could try to surprise myself and be open to God surprising me, too.
What follows is a brief reflection on my hermitage experience. It’s stream-of-consciousness style and just as much about my processing the experience as it is hoping to entice you to try such an experience. Whichever reason shows through clearest, I hope you’ll enjoy. Stick around for a gallery of photos at the bottom of the post and you can click each photo for a much larger version and then scroll through them. You can also click any of the photos in this post for larger versions.
What Got Me There.
I needed a break. I’d been in full-time classes for six months straight. My supervisor is on sabbatical so I’ve led the ministries we usually co-lead solo. I’m about to dive into another full-time semester tomorrow. Personal issues crop up when you least expect it. And I’m in the midst of a new spin on my personal theology which is leading me to consider many ideas and actions, including why I’m going vegetarian for Lent. When I saw my seminary was offering this experience at a rate that can’t be beat (the suggested per night rate is $90 and the sweetheart deal was $25 for a two-night experience – “affordable” doesn’t even begin to cover this amount of generosity!) for this tiny half-week between J-term and spring semester, I knew I had to give it a shot.
Thirteen people all met in the main lodge for a shared meal, prayer, and orientation. We ate dinner with the Pacem staff, a tremendous meal of cheesy potato ham soup, an assortment of home-baked breads and egg salad, mixed greens salad, and double desserts due to a participant’s birthday cake and tres leches cake (new to me – almost too sweet!). On our departure morning, we had a short debriefing in a cozy-yet-regal chapel space and Pastor Nancy led our group in communion (I was asked to serve the cup, in the spirit of ecumenicism). When that gathering ended, we all went our separate ways again. I say “again” because, aside from those two group pieces, we were each in our private hermitages, our private worlds.
Alone together, in solitary solidarity.
What My Hermitage Was.
One-room cabins with a bed, a rocking chair, a gas-powered hot plate and a tea kettle, a gas heater, a gas lantern, a basket of fresh fruit, bread, cheddar cheese, and a muffin. A cold toilet seat in an outdoor biffy fifty feet from the hermitage. Bare-naked trees sticking up out of smooth, shiny snow. Crunching footprints. Wildlife tracks. Steamy breath. Foggy glasses. Warm blankets. Me. God.
I thought of the whole experience like a labyrinth. In a labyrinth, there is one entrance, one exit. One enters with something on their heart, takes the weaves and twists in the path, weighing the something, molding it with their mind and heart like hands working clay, and sometimes one reaches a new conclusion by the time they reach the heart of the labyrinth. There, one does reflection, prayer, etc. Then, walking the path out, one considers his or her plan of action, what will they do once they emerge from the labyrinth.
For me, the path into the labyrinth was the solo drive up, the walk by moonlight to my hermitage, even, in a way, the first few hours of settling in. The heart or center of the labyrinth was around 4:00pm-8:00pm on Tuesday when I came to new understandings about my something(s). The rest was a sort of “walking the path out,” a slow emergence from the labyrinth.
I also framed the hermitage experience by reading Paddle Whispers by Douglas Wood, a book about his musings on canoe trips in the BWCA. In my first hour, I read part one, “Going In,” on the full day I read “Markings,” and in my last hour I read, “Going Out.” His thoughts on nature and meditation, even on doing nothing, filled me up. This, coupled with the metaphor of the labyrinth, served my time and space in the hermitage quite well.
What My Hermitage Wasn’t.
No electricity, no plumbing, no clock, no neighbors, no noise, no deadlines, no due dates, no worries or burdens except the ones I wanted to explore. It wasn’t a time to get leftover work done or purposefully avoid dread. On more than one occasion, I thought of something Yoda told Luke when he ventured into the swamps of Degobah: “Your weapons. You will not need them.”
I also, several times, reflected on something I once read that comedian Steve Martin said: “The greatest thing you can do is surprise yourself.” This happened over and over. Not only did I surprise myself but God surprised me, too. So in this, my hermitage wasn’t always what I expected – and thank goodness!
What I Did: Nothing.
Our group’s host, David, asked us what we hoped to do, what our expectations were. We all had great ideas. Reading, walking, meditation, prayer, music, and so on. He affirmed these things are great. But please, do nothing. We so seldom have the gift of time standing still so we might do nothing. It is in this nothing that big ideas can emerge, be played with, and new conclusions reached.
I couldn’t quiet my mind or my expectations enough to do only nothing. But I did do some nothing.
And it was amazing.
To sit in a rocking chair out at a forest older than you, that will be there long after you’re gone. To feel the soft pressure of the rug as you push up on your toes to rock you back and the gentle release as you relax your feet to rock forward. The absolute still of quiet that you don’t get at home, at work, in the city, in your car. The air that’s as fresh as you could ever hope for. And nothing and no one telling you that you’d better make the most of your time or get to work on something or make that deadline. I’d say that aforementioned 4:00pm-8:00pm on Tuesday was a special space of “nothing” though it was filled with so much. Perhaps what made it nothing was that in leading up to and leading out of it, I was able to be fully present with that space. It was nothing else but this something, and in that, was the gift of nothing.
Because time takes a time out and lets space be space.
And so I did nothing.
What a gift!
What I Did: Something.
Beyond the wonderful nothing, I did a few somethings, too:
- I took a walk along some trails in the woods and around the perimeter of the prairie. These served as a sort of miniature labyrinth within the greater labyrinth and served the motif quite well in their weaving and twisting nature.
- I accidentally partook in a spiritual ritual. I ended up on a dock / walkway leading to the edge of frozen Lake Tamarack (more of a pond with beaver houses everywhere and too much thin ice to walk on). There I wrote three words on pieces of paper, crumpled them up, lit a small candle I had in my pocket, and burned them. Someone else had written, “JESUS LOVES YOU” in the snow surrounding the edge of the dock and I threw these burning emotions to Jesus. Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, positioned my body out toward the smooth white snow of the lake, and looked up to a dark blue sky with the North Star before me, shining bright and alone. Tears were shed. Smiles were shone. God was felt. One of my favorite moments of the hermitage.
- I drank a lot of tea! I was on a tea kick when I was in my early teen years and have enjoyed it now and again as an alternative to coffee but for this hermitage, tea was perfect. Calming, soothing, non-caffeinated liquid relaxation.
- I read the aforementioned Paddle Whispers by Douglas Wood. It’s a book I’ve read a few times since it was introduced to me during my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and I bring it with me to camp, too.
- I played my ukulele. Mostly some camp songs and Pearl Jam songs. Songs which fit my pensive mood. Rise. Alive. Black. Sanctuary. Come and Find the Quiet Center. Gather Us In. Here I Am, Lord.
- I read a great deal of Saving Power by Peter Schmiechen and really enjoyed it. He presents ten major theories of atonement and offers thoughts on why they have worked for some people and why they could be potentially problematic for others. The reading is both accessible and dense so I wasn’t able to plow through it the way I had hoped (again, surprises).
- I got a good start on a book about marriage, audio version, on the drive to and from the hermitage and it’s given me a lot of excellent things to think about.
- I read pieces of Scripture including The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), Isaiah 5, Psalms such as 67, 23, and 130, and the book of I John.
- I read a prayer to St. Paul provided in the hermitage. Each hermitage is named after a Catholic saint and I was in St. Paul.
- I read some poetry from retired Moravian Pastor Larry Christianson’s collection, East of Nowhere, many of which are also inspired by / written in nature settings.
- I prayed silently, out loud, in writing, and tried a little lectio divina.
- I started 11/22/63 by Stephen King and enjoyed that quite a bit, too. It’s been quite some time since I’ve taken time to sit and savor fiction so this was a lot of fun (NO SPOILERS in the comments, please! He’s just arrived for his third trip…).
- I was pleasantly surprised by how slow and meticulous my actions were inside the hermitage. There was a place for everything and everything in its place. Each motion was methodical, ritualistic. Making tea, for example, was near-sacramental an act. It reminded me of that old miming exercise in which one can’t do something without reciting out loud exactly what he or she is doing (I lift my arm, I place my palm on the handle, I close my fingers, I tighten my grip, I turn the knob…). This was probably one of my most favorite parts of the hermitage experience.
- I sat in the adirondack chair on my porch for about sixty seconds. It was simply too cold. Pity. I love those chairs and really hope to have one someday.
- I followed the instructions for preparing the hermitage for the next pilgrim and again, found myself entrenched in the meticulous method of it all.
- I wrote a poem about trees. It’s okay. My first poem in a long while.
What I Would Do Different Next Time:
This is simple:
- Pack less. I brought too many books, too many items, etc. Too many options, too many choices. “Simplify, man!”
- Expect less. Truly, set aside expectations as best I can and be even more open to surprise.
- Do more Nothing. This was one of the greatest and least re-creatable pieces of the hermitage experience. I don’t want to squander it.
I may have to offer more reflection in the future, but it is late and I must go to bed. Semester begins tomorrow. I’ll leave you with some photos and I hope to add some captions soon. If you get the chance to do a hermitage experience, I hope you will do it.
And when you do it, do nothing.
Click the pic for a larger version and to scroll through the gallery.