The Happy Hermit: Call it a retreat, a poustinia, or a Walden

I left home for six weeks, intentionally.  There are several reasons for this, but I’m not going to talk about those–I am going to talk about the experience.

My home-away-from-home is an off-season rental at the beach.  It’s chilly here, even though it’s early April.  It’s also quiet–vacationers won’t be here for another two or three months.  Only the die-hard beach-lovers remain, and the restaurants and gift shops that line the main street are open, but certainly just biding their time until the tourists hit.

Not many people take advantage of stepping back from their lives to examine them, yet I would highly recommend it.   As a mom and a wife and the owner of my own consultancy, I’ve lived nearly my whole life pulled and pushed by the urgent matters of the day.  I’ve tried to be available to the needs of those I love, and I certainly don’t regret it–I love that I have very special people who depend on me at times.

The last time I remember I had no such responsibilities was when I was in high school.  I went through high school like a kid in a candy shop.  I took art lessons, sewing lessons.  I acted in school plays and I cheered the football team.  I had caring friends, and I signed up for committee after committee.

As any grown-up will tell you, once you graduate from high school and college, and say “I do” and start having babies, the focus on you flies off like a hat in a tornado.  All of a sudden, it’s about your spouse, your children, your boss–an inevitability that’s not necessarily bad.  But if you are the kind of person that just becomes a sponge for the needs of others, you lose yourself, inevitably.

Then, if you’re like me, one day–decades later–you wonder who you are, actually.  You wonder if your actions still reflect your values.  It might manifest itself as a mid-life crisis for some, but for me, it’s about an inner pull to hold the conch up to the ear and listen to the heart.  At first all you hear is silence.  And that’s all you should hear.

I’ve been on one religious retreat.  I went with my husband for a few days at Weston Priory–a Benedictine monastery in Vermont.  They don’t have guided retreats or seminars.  Basically, they give you a room and a prayer schedule–they pray five times a day.  You join them for prayer, if you so choose, and also share their silent meals with them.  Then you go back to your room, where there is no TV, no traffic, no radio, no computer, no noise except for the noise in your mind that all of a sudden seems deafening in the absence of the distracting kind of noise.  My husband, an extrovert, admits that it was freaky to confront his own mind in this way.  I, an introvert, admit that, yes, it was freaky.  I thought I was used to solitude, but as it turns out, solitude is a relative term.  Just try sitting for hours in a room where the ringing in your ears is all you hear.

My goals on this sojourn to the beach were to reconnect with me.  To quiet myself down and listen to my Higher Power.  To maybe explore if my old creative ventures in sewing and art are worth salvaging.  To connect with others who will support my effort–like the nuns at Stella Maris who have many really cool events at their retreat house on the shore nearby.  I feel a little like Thoreau, and my goals for this experience are not dissimilar to his–even if I my methods were not quite as “Spartan-like”:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Catherine Doherty was a social activist and foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate, a pioneer of social justice and a prolific writer of hundreds of articles and books.  One of her best-known books is Poustinia.  A poustinia is a small, sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone in the presence of God for 24 hours.  I haven’t done much fasting, but I’ve spent time praying and reflecting in this little sparsely furnished cottage, where I have just what I need, no more.

The good news about this poustinia concept is that according to Doherty, you don’t have to get away for six weeks like I did.  24 hours will do nicely.  So, I think when I go back home, I’ll make it a point to go to a poustinia from time to time–maybe once a season.   Because if I find myself on the rumble strip of my personal path, I want to be able to get back on the road before another couple of decades go by.

I think maybe poustinia was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit himself. Though I thought only of our staff, I guess the whole, wide world is hungry for God. For a place without noise. A silent place, for some solitude. Yes, the poustinias will grow in our land — all across its face, because there is within it a limit that man cannot cross. A limit to their ability to go without prayer. A limit to be without God. A limit to their ability to take noise. A limit to their ability to be always in a crowd. — Catherine Doherty

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