Wernersville praised by New York Writer
A beautiful tribute to a place I've been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time, two years as a novice and, over the years, hundreds of days on retreat. Peace, Fr. Rick
In Pennsylvania, a Quick Shot of Peace, on a Budget
By SUSAN GREGORY THOMAS December 29, 2011
LATE in November I arrived at the Jesuit Center in the reclusive hills of Wernersville, Pa., on a blindingly dark and stormy night to begin a silent five-day retreat. Such a scenario might have compelled someone more compos mentis to turn around. But that was the point. As a 43-year-old mother of three wrung out from three years of panic attacks triggered by the specter of financial ruin, I needed a solid period of quiet to recombobulate. Cheaply.
I am neither Catholic nor anything in particular, but I yearned for a snippet of the no-frills spiritual solitude. The Jesuits, I’d read, were the guys to go to concerning such matters. Indeed, to engage in periods of quiet contemplation with a full-stop break from everyday life was central to the philosophy of the Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). It still is. Today, some 200 Jesuits are engaged full time in directing spiritual retreats at more than 20 centers in the United States.
But there were other reasons I’d opted for the Jesuit Center in Wernserville over, say, a spa vacation, yoga retreat or vision quest. For one thing, the center advertised an Arcadian setting and drivable proximity from my home in Brooklyn. For another, the cost was $560 for five days, including room, board and a daily hourlong conversation with a spiritual director, who would escort me through Scripture-based prayer and meditation.
Moreover, the more luxe-sounding excursions I’d considered often seemed to involve a time commitment of a week or more, along with New Age locution that somehow did not sit right. A solo quest during which animal “spirit guides” could conceivably rip out my pancreas after the sweat lodge? No.
But while I’d had the notion that it would be tough to keep quiet for five days, I realized, on arrival, that I had not developed a textured sense of what I was getting into. The facility itself, an English Renaissance-style building constructed in the late 1920s, was gigantic and dark — attributes intensified by the resident Jesuits’ ubiquitously posted wish to keep the light bills low. Fantasies of sequestered holy men tending to herb gardens and homemade beer stills were combusted by industrial platters of green beans and pigs-in-blankets provided by Sodexo, the integrated food and facilities management services behemoth.
But there was also an ineffable sphinxiness about the place. For example, I got there an hour and a half late the first night, and there was no one to tell me where to go or what I should be doing. The only signpost was a list of names and room numbers tacked to a corkboard, so I found mine and rollerbagged down the building’s spooky, caliginous hallways until I tracked down my assigned spot. I creaked open the lockless door and found a jumbo crucifix resting on the bed pillow. If Stanley Kubrick had found this place, he’d never have shot a movie anywhere else.
And there were crucifixes everywhere. It’s a Jesuit center. But as someone not only dimwitted enough not to have anticipated a lot of crucifixes at a Jesuit center, but one also whose main visual encounter with crucifixes was watching “The Exorcist,” I found it surprisingly tricky at first to suppress the feeling that blood was going to start gushing down the walls. This was not an apprehension my fellow retreatants appeared to share. Mostly women my mother’s age or older, and to my eye, clearly devout and knowledgeable, they were not talk spoilers. In fact virtually no one made eye contact.
But by the end of my five days, I’d come to see my room as my sanctum sanctorum. I would regard crucifixes as heralds of human suffering and spiritual light. And I’d come to feel a strange closeness with my silent companions. All this was chaperoned by my spiritual director, Sister Barbara Singer.
I met Sister Barbara at 1:15 p.m. my first full day in a tiny, sunlit office on the building’s third floor. An upbeat grandmotherly woman with a plumose crown of lovely white hair, Sister Barbara calmly invited me to sit down across from her and asked me to tell her what had brought me there.
I told her about my stress-related illnesses, which had hospitalized me twice earlier that year; about my sparkly-minded children; about watching my Lear-like father die in front of me; about my divorce, subsequent remarriage and unexpected conception of my son; about my dip into poverty; my husband’s unemployment; my darkest fears; of aloneness.
Sister Barbara listened closely and then said, “What I hear you saying, Susan, is that you feel forsaken.”
Not dealing with abandonment issues: forsaken. Sister Barbara did not then press me to process my relationship with, say, my mother or to consider that I should “own” my feelings.
Rather, she opened her Bible and turned to Matthew 3:17. This is the verse in which Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, and God opens the heavens and says, “This is my son, the beloved; my favor rests on him.” Sister Barbara read the passage and closed the book. How would it be, she asked, to personalize this passage — to pray with the words, “You are my beloved daughter, Susie; my favor rests on you”? How would it feel to know that God loves you as you love your own children? And then I wept and, finally, cleared my throat. It would feel pretty good. Sister Barbara advised me to go outside, walk, and pray with this. “See you tomorrow at 1:15, and we’ll see what God says,” she said and then chortled.
I followed her suggestion. I brought a pack of cigarettes, Thomas Merton’s “Book of Hours,” and a paper cup of coffee with hazelnut nondairy creamer, and I walked. The grounds of the Jesuit Center in Wernersville number some 250 acres of Wyeth-esque country, replete with undulating hills; groves of shy trees; a pond that’s home to monster koi; a cemetery. Benches positioned perfectly for quiet contemplation appeared providentially every so often.
I sat on one of these at the top of a hill, closed my eyes and sat. I don’t know how long I was there, not meditating “on the breath” or deliberately clearing my mind, but simply internally rolling over the words of my custom-tailored Matthew 3:17. Slowly, though, I grew to feel still and happy.
Later that night, I peeked into the center’s adytum, a dark and lovely stone chapel whose altar glowed with candlelight. I approached a pew and knelt. I thought about my closest family and friends and how Matthew 3:17 might be custom-fit for them, too. Again, time evaporated. That night, I slept 12 hours straight. I hadn’t slept half that much in more than a decade.
But by the third day, I was antsy. How were my children doing? What e-mails was I missing about that cable show and screenplay I was supposed to be working on? I was in the midst of selling my house in Brooklyn and closing on a place in Philadelphia. Were real estate agents going ballistic trying to track me down? How was any of this going to get done?
It had been a bitter morning, so instead of walking outside, I ducked into the center’s craftsy Art Room and busied myself with assembling a collage from magazine cutouts like a psych ward patient, I scoffed. I arrived at my appointed meeting time with my handiwork. “Oh, you made a collage!” Sister Barbara chirped, before turning to Exodus 36:4-7. It was a description of Moses and crew building the sanctuary, as instructed by God. All the volunteers were stuffing the place silly with offerings, causing the construction workers to complain to Moses: “The people are bringing way too much material for doing the work that the LORD has commanded us to do.” Moses agreed. “So the people were restrained from bringing, for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.”
HAD I considered, Sister Barbara wondered aloud, that perhaps I already had enough to do all my work? I doubted it. “Ah, that’s the whole ball of wax, isn’t it?” Sister Barbara said. “To believe, with all your heart: to know.” Then, she asked the startling: Did I believe in Jesus? Sure, I did; in fact, as a punky, truant teenager, I had believed that Jesus was the greatest anti-establishment radical of all time. Sister Barbara laughed and clapped her hands: “Great — so you can relate!” she said. She exhorted me to talk, pray to Jesus directly, with the Scripture from Exodus in mind. “Just see what comes to you.”
That afternoon, I ventured into the chapel again and stayed a long time. It would be awkward to report on what I experienced there; possibly, implausible. Suffice it to say, I left with the strong feeling that I did, indeed, have everything I needed — if only I would stay quiet long enough to remember.
I left the Jesuit Center on a clear, icy night, turning on my cellphone just in time to receive a call from my husband hollering that he and a fellow he’d hired needed to be picked up at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, followed by a call from my daughters’ father saying that financial aid applications needed to be completed by the next day, latest. Seven voice mails and 108 e-mails left. O.K. For now, at least, I had more than enough to do all the work, and more.