January 18, 2010 | My Jottings
We have some friends who told us about a place they visit a few times a year for rest and renewal. It’s called Pacem in Terris (Latin for Peace on Earth) and is a silent retreat center about two hours south of where we live.
As I heard more about the acres of beautiful woods, the small private hermitages, and the quiet, I knew I wanted to go.
Late last fall I got everything squared away at home and drove south to Pacem (I had to get used to the way it’s pronounced – POTCH-em in TER-ees). I stayed for two nights in the middle of the week, so out of the sixteen hermitages available, only four were occupied. They are spaced so carefully and far apart that it’s possible to feel like you’re alone in the woods. My hermitage was about a quarter mile out and was named after the patron saint, St. Clare of Assisi.
Pacem is a Catholic/Franciscan retreat center; I was told that about half the people who visit are Catholic, about forty percent are Protestant (that’s me), and the rest are people who claim no faith but are interested seekers.
From the Pacem in Terris literature, I read this:
Why Make a Hermitage Retreat?
To be alone with God is vital to spirituality. Nevertheless, most of us tend to neglect or push aside opportunities to move deeper into intimacy with Him.
With fast-paced, noisy, hectic and over-scheduled lives, we struggle daily to meet our personal needs and to balance relationships. Listening to others (truly listening) seems almost impossible – and it is even more difficult to hear one’s inner voice or the voice of God.
Sometimes, we need to step away from the struggles and influences of a secular society into a simple “desert-like” environment of silence and solitude. The dedicated silence and simplicity of a hermitage makes it possible for each hermit guest to seek and enter into an intimate union with God. In that intimacy, God’s love heals, nourishes, guides and transforms lives. He delights as we offer Him our praise and thanksgiving, and intercede for the needs of His people.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited, but I knew I needed to be alone with God. My life is blessed, but I don’t have many opportunities to be completely by myself, in total quiet, and the older I get the more I seem to need this.
Here’s a photo of my little hermitage, St. Clare, although when I visited it was in the autumn and most of the leaves had changed, dried and fallen by then:
Above, you can see the little screen porch to the right. It was pretty cold when I was there, but I did bundle up and go out to sit in the porch one evening. The wildlife, the birdsong and the wind in the trees were the only sounds to be heard on these beautiful 240 acres of woods. There’s also a small prairie and a lake on the property.
Inside each hermitage is a comfortable twin bed, a large rocking chair, a wall heater that kept things toasty, and a gas burner for making tea. No electricity, no running water, no bathroom. There are extra clean outhouses scattered throughout the woods near the hermitages, and I was not as inconvenienced by them as I had anticipated I would be.
The closet has everything you need – extra blankets, a pillow, a first aid kit, tea, and so much more. Several jugs of fresh water are provided, and if you need more, the caretakers at “the big house” at the front of the property will bring it to you. Because you keep silence while you’re at Pacem, if you need something you leave a note on your outside box with a clothespin. At 1:00 p.m. each day they come to check your note and then bring back to you whatever you need. They don’t even knock on your door – they just hang it on the box and do not disturb anyone.
There’s also an altar and a Bible in each hermitage. I brought my own Bible and a journal in which to write.
If you’re a first-time visitor to Pacem, you get a chance to chat with someone before they drive you out to your hermitage and show you where everything is. The woman I met with told me that many people who come for retreat are utterly exhausted, and it’s not unheard of for some to sleep forty-eight hours at first. Our culture is so harried and loud and demanding, it seems our bodies don’t know how to thrive with the stress. She said that if I felt like sleeping a lot I shouldn’t feel guilty and that sleep is a gift from God too.
I don’t think I’m sleep-deprived so that wasn’t an issue for me, but it took me most of the first day to just get used to the quiet. No phones, no music, no chores to do, no other voices – it made me realize how noisy and busy our lives have become, and how unaccustomed to quiet most of us truly are. It was unsettling at first, and that fact alone made me a little sad.
The walking trails through the beautiful woods at Pacem are peaceful and well-groomed. Even in the woods, if passing a fellow “hermit,” you keep silence.
Anyone staying there is invited for dinner at “the big house,” and the first night I didn’t go. I wanted to rest and enjoy the solitude, and to pray and read. I did walk up to the house the second evening, and it was quite nice to meet two other people who were there on retreat. At dinner silence is broken, so we shared where we were from and why we were there.
I saw so many deer walking and even bounding and leaping through the woods outside my hermitage window as I sat and rocked in my chair. There were birds and squirrels everywhere too.
At dinner we learned about the Pacem fox who’s fairly tame and roams the property. I hoped I’d have a chance to see him and was so delighted when I did. I was walking up to the big house to take a shower (wonderful, clean facilities for this) one morning and the fox trotted across the path about twenty yards in front of me. I didn’t take this photo, but this is the Pacem fox, taken by the folks who care for the center.
All the hermitages are the same, and this is the view from the bed, near the entry. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit in this chair, watch the woods and animals outside, close my eyes and pray, read my Bible and ponder, knowing I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to but Jesus. At night I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit a candle and just sat and rocked, praying for my family and praising God for His goodness to me.
Each hermitage is thoughtfully stocked with a basket of food for each visitor. There are two small rounds of whole wheat bread they bake in their house kitchen, and a block of cheddar cheese, several pieces of fruit and a large, nutty bran muffin. If you want more you can put a note out in your box and they’ll bring more for you. I was content with what they provided, and the chicken dinner at the big house was delicious.
It was strange to go to bed with the setting sun and not have anything else to do. No nightstand light to read by, no calls to answer. A friend of mine said, “Oh, Julie, I don’t know if I could do it. I think I would have a hard time with all that quiet.” I understood what she meant, and it is strange to step into all that silence, but oh, it was sublime!
I would like to return to Pacem in Terris again someday. Our friends who told us about the place go there regularly, to keep sane in a crazy world, to renew, rest and refresh, and to listen to what God wants to speak to them.
Psalm 46:10 is such an appropriate verse for a silent retreat, and I was so aware of this invitation while I was there:
Be still, and know that I am God.