I have just returned from my annual autumn retreat at the
Holy Wisdom Monastery, located just north of Madison, Wisconsin. This is a good time of year for me to take a brief retreat, coming in the midst of a heavy church schedule and right before the start of the holidays.
A week of wandering around prairies, glacial ponds, and thick woods is soul restoring. Pondering exploding milk weeds, photographing fall foliage, and admiring geese formations in a cloudless sky shore up my joy. Feasting on the delights prepared by the monastery chef, sitting at table with members of the Benedictine community, and joining in the thrice daily prayers is grace infusing.
While there I catch up on sleep, read, pray, connect with old friends, enjoy nature, and journal. But mostly I just let my mind and soul be still. God blesses our stillnesses.
The monastery there is a year older than me. In 1953 a group of Benedictine nuns moved to the rolling hills north of Lake Mendota and established a girls' high school, complete with room and board.
Then after many years, they discerned that God was calling them into a different kind of ministry. And so the humongous building with classrooms, dorms, chapels, offices, and dining areas was retro-fitted (as much as it possibly could be) for the sisters' new callings.
It became headquarters for environmental rejuvenation, ecumenical pioneering, spiritual retreats, daily prayer, community networking, and ministry to and for women. Males were welcome, but the neglected needs of women (for meaningful vocation and for justice) were forefront.
While the old high school edifice still dominated the top of the hill, a newer and more modest monastery center was built in its shadow.
I first wandered up to the monastery grounds in the spring of 1989, looking for a place to recover right after Holy Week. I had been going regularly to Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, (the week after Easter each year,) to their annual program for exhausted pastors. But that year the retreat was cancelled at the last minute.
I needed to get away, nevertheless, so on short order I scrambled to find an alternative...somewhere. For me, it wasn't just the seasonal tiredness a pastor feels the day after Easter: I was struggling that year over whether to stay in the ministry at all...and also trying to sort through some deep personal darkness and unhappiness.
I only knew about this monastery from an off-hand comment I'd overheard a couple years earlier. I'd heard that monasteries were supposed to take in strangers, no matter what. And due to a lecture I'd heard a couple years before, I was becoming increasingly intrigued and curious about monastic life. But curiosity is not knowledge. My knowledge about monks and "sisters" and monasteries at the time was zilch. Plus...in those days, there was no effective internet for learning about this monastery beforehand.
So I resolved to try out this Wisconsin monastery in complete ignorance.
When I called up there to see if I could stay for a week, they graciously told me to come on up and they would have a room ready. And so I left the gentle springtime of southern Illinois and regressed into Wisconsin's lingering winter. Miserable. The administrator (not one of the sisters) assigned me a room in the abandoned high school. And it turned out I was the
only resident in the building that week.
It was creepy at night, out in the country, in this massive and forlorn high school, with its dozens and dozens of abandoned rooms. Plus...I never did see any "sisters" associated with the monastery. I just walked the grounds, read, journaled, prayed furtively...and suffered. After merely four days my stay was so overwhelming to me that I suddenly abandoned the place and headed home.
I never said much about the experience to anyone. But somehow in the darkness my time there, God richly sowed some seeds of grace in my life. And thus it was that I surprised myself, when the next year, I inexplicably and impulsively decided to go back.
In my second visit, I again I got placed in the abandoned high school, again saw no sisters, again felt creeped out, and again left early. This time I vowed never to return.
But again God had planted seeds of grace and growth. And after several months the Holy Spirit nagged me to return.
So the third time I wizened up. Smart people in Saskatchewan may like Wisconsin in early April, but smart people in southern Illinois like Wisconsin in OCTOBER. When you go in October, you get a delightful preview of the fall foliage and an opportunity to sleep better during the cool nights. So in 1991 I observed my 19th anniversary in the ministry by heading back.
This time a new administrator assigned me a room in the monastery building itself and told me I could eat my meals with the sisters. That was when I met sister Joanne (my father's age) and sister Mary David (5 years younger than my mother.) They hadn't realized that I had spent my other visits in the purgatory of that old high school, so I think they pitied me and made amends with their kindness and attentiveness. It felt like the moment when the movie goes from black and white to color. The soul has its seasons of anxious night. And the same soul has its seasons of satisfaction in the sunlight.
In the years since, the sisters arranged to tear down the old high school and build a new monastery building. You should read about how 97% of the the old high school was recycled to build the new monastery.
In the years since, the sisters have expanded their ministry and grown their community. You should read about that too! In fact, you should try to take a few days and visit. I'll be glad to give you information...and some encouragement.
The sisters at the monastery are now among my dearest friends in this world. And my visits there are part of a holy rhythm each year that nourish me for life and continued ministry.
God have mercy on
Holy Wisdom. Thanks be to God for the spirit of joy and healing that flows through their place and community. And may God have mercy as I take up my work anew to bless my neighbors in these parts. Mike