Our new senior pastor had an idea for after Easter this year: what if our staff took a getaway to a retreat center together? After the busy season, we needed time away, to recharge, to rest, to pray. He even had a place in mind, a favorite of his: Pacem in Terris, just a few miles north of the Twin Cities.
He was very excited about it. It sounded beautiful, and restful.
I confess that I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, having time for rest and silence amid the beauty of nature sounded wonderful. I wasn't even that concerned about the lack of telephones. A day without wireless devices sounded like a good after-Lent fast to me.
On the other hand, where I live, the beginning of April it can still be rather cold. The hermitages are primitive: no bathrooms. There's an outhouse very close to each hermitage, but that's it. I'll be honest, I wasn't wild about that.
Our senior pastor assured us that the main lodge was well-equipped, with even showers and all of the amenities. And that was true. It was also a little hike from the lodge to your hermitage. Also, the main lodge is closed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The hermitage staff was gracious and inviting. The idea is to be alone with God: no noise. No books, except the Bible, either, they cautioned. Not that anyone was going to check, but books can be another kind of noise. Judge for yourself, they said.
The evening meal is shared, and delicious. But for other meals, there is basket of simple food brought to your hermitage door: fruit, bread, a muffin, cheese. Each small room is well equipped: a gas lamp, a gas burner and tea kettle, means to light them. There are a couple of candles, soap, a few gallons of water, a wash basin and towels. A rocking chair faces the window. The lake is still pretty quiet early in April.
Before he left, my host told me he would pray for me.
Then it was quiet. No footsteps. No creaks. Not even the sound of water. I understood the idea of no bathrooms.
That evening I lit the gas lamp and read the Bible, prayed and wrote in my journal. It got dark early, and I wrote a lot. I read the Psalms of Ascent and the resurrection story from John 20, holding my flashlight, seeing just a few words at a time with its small round light. Suddenly, my flashlight went out. I discovered that the hermitage was equipped with another.
I was determined to use as little as possible during my stay at the hermitage. For some reason, I didn't want to use anything. I would get up and go to the lodge as soon as it was open. If I didn't use anything, I wouldn't have to clean anything. That was my plan.
In the morning, though, I ended up using the cold outhouse, anyway. Afterwards I heated up water, both for tea and for the washbasin, so that I could wash my face and hands. I sat in the rocking chair and listened to the silence, eating fruit and bread. I walked. I changed my clothes. I wrote some more. I swept the floor and shook the rugs and made the bed, in preparation for the next hermit. Something about these simple actions calmed me as much as prayer.
The retreat was not quite 24 hours, and I was back on the road again. I had no great revelations about God, or about myself. But here is what I remember: washing my face with water I had heated myself. The small circles of light on a page, illuminating just a few words at a time. The noise of the pen scratching on the page. The window and the beauty of the still barren landscape. Fragments of possible poetry, a small image to return home with:
Thomas, sitting around a fire with Peter and Bartholomew, telling stories about Jesus, remembering his hands with ragged scars, and how he saved them, once.