Into the Silence — Part 1
April 25, 2021 | My Jottings
It has been 109 months since she has been here. Nine years. She thought it had been seven, but no.
When she returned home she checked the dates in the back of her Bible and frowned slightly, thinking of all that had transpired since her last visit to Pacem in Terris, the Franciscan silent retreat center in the east-central Minnesota woods. The sale of a big house. The move into a smaller one closer to Lake Superior. The rapid decline of her beloved’s health. The hallucinations and delusional thinking that broke everyone’s heart who loved him. The hopelessness. The joyous birth of three more grandbabies. The utter despair in which she’d been engulfed, as she moved her husband to a skilled nursing facility an hour north, near the shore of the Inland Sea. The sense of failure. And Michael’s last week on earth, his last smile at her, the funeral, the burial. The new house with few memories that seemed to mourn silently with her because he would never walk there, lie there, sing there, laugh there, hug there, again. The transformation of her bedroom into a cocoon, where she retreated each day in hope that the stillness and nothingness would one day break open and lightness and color might emerge. The death of a precious granddaughter. The love and kindness and beauty of her grown daughters. The reluctantly attended grief support group for seniors. The surprise, the camaraderie. The edge of pain’s knife becoming duller. Nearly five years later, a new marriage. A kidney donation. Cataracts, crooked fingers, cpaps, creakiness, calm, yes, and contentment.
So much has happened these nine years.
She last came with her sister-in-law Christy in March of 2012, when there was still snow in the oak woods surrounding the sixteen little hermitages. They were a few hundred yards apart; each stayed silently in their own cozy cottage, asking God to show them how to walk the coming years out.
She arrives at 11:00 a.m. on a Friday, checks in at The Big House, gets the key and hands over her two bags to the staff who drives them back to her hermitage porch. He asks if there’s any prayer intention she has for her stay and she answers instantly, “Yes, for the well-being of my family.” That’s always it, anyway. Three daughters, two sons-in-law, ten grands. And Michael’s two daughters who have shown her such love, who bring tears to her eyes… their husbands, their children, their concerns. The whole family’s spiritual, familial, physical, emotional, marital, vocational and mental well-being are there in every prayer of every day. They bow their heads and pray in the parking lot, asking for what always lays on her heart. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
She knows the way to the hermitage even though it’s been nine years and she’s never been here in the spring. She walks up the dirt paths winding through the winter-bare woods, past the grass prairie with the huge wooden cross at the far edge, past the first hermitage named after St. Michael the Archangel. Her eyes gravitate to the evergreens in among the tall oaks, and she reaches out to grab a few long needles of a white pine so she can smell what she thinks is the most heavenly of all scents.
The woods are just budding and there aren’t visible leaves yet; she can see part of the wooden siding of St. Peter and St. Paul, then St. Anthony the Hermit and St. Mary Magdalene. She stayed in St. Mary Magdalene in November of 2011, aware of her sin and her inability to put it to death herself. She wanted to be in a place named for a woman who knew the delivering power of Jesus, and was the first one He spoke to after He rose from the grave.
She can see her brightly colored Vera Bradley bag on the porch of St. John the Beloved, and feels a flutter in her chest about the two days and two nights ahead, where she believes Jesus has called her to be alone with Him, in a tiny cabin named for the disciple known for how loved he was, and how much he learned to love because of his Savior.
She unlocks the door and steps in, carrying her bags with her. There is the twin bed to the right, against the wall, with a window above and a small crucifix hung above the pillow. The bed has a warm green bedspread, and folded at the foot is a cream colored crocheted afghan. Toward the end of the bed sits an empty book shelf with a gas ring burner on top, along with a shiny tea kettle, where she will make tea a few times a day and hold the mug to warm her hands. She stows her bags on the shelves below. To the left of the shelves is a gas heater on the wall, which she knows will keep the hermitage toasty. There is no electricity.
The grain of the wood floors glow in the morning light. On the opposite wall from the front door is a huge window, almost the entire width of the hermitage, with two crank-out windows on either side. Placed in front of the window is the familiar large wooden rocking chair on a plain rug, with a brown leather foot stool. Next to the rocking chair is a small side table with a votive candle in dark green glass, set in a carrier with a wooden handle.
Under the table is a woven basket with several items in it. The book Poustinia By Catherine D. Doherty, a couple of suggested prayers, a small zippered pouch with a rosary, a pen, a pencil, a tablet with blank sheets of paper, and the latest newsletter from Pacem, with two testimonies she reads and finds fascinating and inspiring. One is about a high school hockey coach who has stayed at Pacem in Terris eighty times, and considers his silent times there some of the most instrumental in his Christian life. Another is about a Special Education teacher who felt the Lord asked her to commit coming to retreat there every quarter, and she has done that, joyfully, for decades. She says the Lord spoke like a thunderbolt to her, “A different life is possible for you,” and indeed that was the beginning that made the difference.
To the left of the chair against the wall is another small table, with a good-sized open Bible placed upon it, a votive candle in amber-colored glass set in an intricate gold stand, two photo icons hung above, and a large wooden cross on the wall.
On the opposite wall from the bed and the shelving with the gas ring, is a tall cabinet with two doors and many well-stocked shelves inside. They think of everything. She surveys the things she’s seen before… a rain poncho and umbrella hanging on a horizontal pole. A broom, dustpan, dry mop. A beautiful carved walking stick. A knife, fork, spoon, metal plate, cup and bowl, and a dark green ceramic mug with the Pacem logo. A diminutive sewing kit, a first aid kit, dish soap, disinfectant spray. An extra long handled lighter for the candles and gas ring. Writing materials. A laminated map of the trails and locations of the hermitages and outhouses. A flashlight, extra batteries, and a bottle of holy water to put into the tiny ceramic font that hangs on the wall to the right of the door. An extra pillow and blanket. An extra set of sheets, towel and washcloth. A slotted wooden box with single-serve coffee bags, Lipton tea bags, powdered creamer, sugar and stevia. A checklist hangs on the inside of the closet door to help each hermit know how to make the hermitage ready for its next occupant.
Next to the tall closet is a wash table, wooden and waist high. A bottle of liquid hand soap sits next to the same sized gel disinfectant. There’s a framed mirror hanging on the wall above the shelved table, and a towel rack with a forest green towel and washcloth are affixed to the left on the side of the closet. A roll of paper towels hangs under the table, and three gallons of delicious spring water sit on the floor.
She knows what will be in the basket on top of this wash table because she has savored the feast before. Two loaves of home-baked whole wheat and oat bread, small boules slightly bigger than softballs. Three navel oranges. Two apples, two bananas. A block of parotid-activating mild cheddar cheese, and one good-sized whole wheat bran muffin with a little valley of gooey date mixture splitting the top, and three toasted walnuts filling that valley.
She unpacks her Bible and journal and places them on the table next to the rocking chair. She moves the box of Kleenex from the closet to the table too, knowing she will probably need to open the second box before she leaves for home on Sunday.
She takes off her hiking boots and puts her Acorn slippers with the quirky embroidered moose on her feet, wincing as the swollen, broken toe is brushed. She takes off her long black cardigan and opens two windows to let the breeze blow through. The woodland scene outside is calming. The forest floor is thickly carpeted in a layer of dried, golden oak leaves. The glint of the shallow lake a few hundred yards away shows through the bare trees. The drumming of a woodpecker, then its echoing call. Squirrels keeping busy, putting their whole faces beneath the leaf cover to look for a stash, then running off to do the same at another seemingly random spot.
She pours a cup of water, then opens the side door of the hermitage to step out to the screened porch with the wooden Adirondack and matching footstool. She sets her bottle of Stok cold brew, the Organic Valley half and half, and the Torani hazelnut coffee syrup on the porch, knowing it’s the coolest place for them. Remembering her one lone and struggling kidney christened Verna, she drinks the metal cup of water down as she stands on the porch and feels the chill that helps her decide to go back inside.
She has brought her Community Bible Study lesson with her, and settles down in the rocker with it open on her lap. John, chapter 21. Jesus appears to some of His disciples and makes a simple breakfast for them over a charcoal fire. She wonders if Peter remembered when he last spent time near a charcoal fire. One scene was of his denial and shame, the other of restoration and fellowship, and Christ’s sober prophecy about where Peter would ultimately end up.
There are scenes of denial and shame in her memory as well. Lord Jesus, will you come and sup with me too? Will you prepare me for what is to come, and help me live out my days in joy and obedience to you? Will you strengthen, heal, and protect my family? Will you do the same for me? Here I am, Lord.
She reads, turning pages and pages. She writes, praying over what might begin to shimmer there. As the day wanes and the sun goes down, she gets up to close the windows and turn up the wall heater’s thermostat. Its comforting clicking commences, and in minutes the hermitage is delightfully warm. It’s supposed to be 35 degrees tonight. Perfect for sleeping. She pours water into the kettle for tea and sets it on the gas burner, turns the knob and hears the whuff as she holds the lighter underneath and the blue ring of flame spreads. She peels an orange and marvels at how miraculous it tastes, having come from a simple basket delivered to a tiny hermitage in the woods where she is being prayed for by the dedicated staff. She lights the candles. She writes in her journal all the names she always does, plus more. Chris. Sharon. Cullen. Eleanor. Margaret. Louisa. Jeremy. Carolyn. Clara. Elijah. Vivienne. Audrey. Miriam. Hannah. Levi. Sara. Bob. Buffy. Emma. Bryce. Joe. Daphne. Jordan and AJ. Josie and Robbie. Friends near and far.
She puts down her journal on the side table. Brushes her teeth at the mirror, rinses her toothbrush with occasional splashes from the jug. Washes her face with the leftover warm water in the kettle, and gets ready for sleep. The little digital clock in the closet says it’s 8:30 p.m. but she thinks with the dark and the circumstances she’ll doze off quickly.
She does not. She is awake for hours, thinking of each loved one, all the needs, her own drifting days. She thinks of the baby eaglets being tended in their nest in Decorah, Iowa, and how blissfully unaware they must be of all things COVID. How their parents care for them and feed them and warm them, and how they grow and sprout new spiky feathers every day, fantastically visible via a live webcam. How one day they’ll grow featherpants too.
She pictures how they’ll look when they finally sit on the edge of that massive, intricate nest and take their first flights. She wonders what that would feel like and wishes she would have another flying dream. She has had only one in her life, and it was wonderful. She remembers that her old friend Leslie has flying dreams regularly, how in her sleep she can just tell herself to have a flying dream, and then she runs and takes a little leap, and off she goes up into the sky, at will.
Just wonderful. I would love to do something similar but have never heard of a retreat like that in Europe. One day. I’m looking forward to the next instalment. Sending hugs and prayers from afar, Helen xx
That is beautiful Julie. All of it…….
Thank you Helen and Christy! Hugs to you both. Part 2 coming soon hopefully. 🙂
I loved reading this! Thank you so much for taking the trouble to write it so fully and carefully. xx
Sometimes I write down all the details so I won’t forget them. I’m getting forgetful in my old age! Thank you for stopping in, friend.
Thank you for sharing your visit to the hermitage. You clearly paid attention to every sight, smell, sound and thought during your visit. Then – somehow – you let your readers enter into your experience. A rare gift. I just might lead a petition drive to change the name of your blog to “Just Julie is Hardly That”
Hahaha — thank you Steve. It’s nice to have a friend who is biased. I’m looking forward to reading more of your words. xox