The dark green hermitage is compact and sparse, but better stocked than I expected. Named Jesu Rama (loosely translated as "Jesus' room"), it's got a twin bed, a kitchenette (with a refrigerator, coffee pot and complimentary Folgers), a full bath and a desk.
The sisters at Benet Hill Monastery have been kind enough to open this space to me for the day at their Benedictine Spirituality Center so I can rest, journal and meditate in between wandering their 44 acres of Black Forest land, or just stay dry should the impending summer storms hit.
Out of 33 women in this monastic community, 22 reside on the grounds, where Benet Hill moved five years ago after 44 years on North Chelton Road. This particular ministry, which originated in Atchison, Kansas, has had a presence in Colorado for 100 years, and its hospitality is open to all — of any, or no, faith tradition.
Visitors come individually or in groups to seek spiritual guidance, relax, or just emotionally and physically detach from day-to-day life. Some stay a night; others, a week or longer.
In the labyrinth
Sister Mary John Thomas tours me around their main building, from the cafeteria at the west end, past offices, a cloistered garden and the infirmary, to the library, conference rooms and Our Lady of Peace chapel on the east side. On Sundays, she says, they often have 100 to 150 worshipers for 10:15 morning mass.
Today the space is quiet, aside from the soft patter of a five-foot-tall running-water sculpture. Art like this can be found all over the facility. I'm quite taken by a massive and colorful mosaic reflecting the "herstory" of the Benet Hill founders, which Sister Mary John tells me was originally constructed by one of the sisters in 1967, and carefully moved from their former location.
Sister Mary John gives me a walking map guide, and then I'm on my own until lunch, when I will meet with another of the sisters.
There are 10 designated meditation sites on the grounds, and I've got one in particular I'm anxious to visit. So I head into the woods east of the main buildings, where Benet Hill's labyrinth sits.
At the entrance to the outdoor path is a wood podium with a storage box. I open the lid and find, among assorted brochures and pens, two cards on how to walk the labyrinth. The first reminds me that this is a spiritual tool, "meant to awaken us to the deep rhythm that unites us to ourselves and the Light within." The second describes the "Butterfly Goddess Way to Walk the Labyrinth," giving lines to chant at different points about spinning cocoons, living through fear, and spreading my wings.
I grab the second and enter.
When it was built, the path was integrated into the hilly forest floor, and it is not unusual to find a Ponderosa pine in your way. After catching my hair on an overhanging branch, I realize that when I walk, I spend much of my time looking down, perhaps missing other details around me. I intentionally focus my eyes up or straight ahead, and feel an uncomfortable unsteadiness.
Living alone, together
It takes about 25 minutes for me to get to the center, where I meditate upon one of four stone seats, and then head back out the way I came. When I step at last out of the labyrinth, I feel lighter.
Part of me wants to walk it all over again, but instead I head to a nearby rock and spend some time journaling.
From here I make a circle of the other eastern-edge sites: a towering, wooden cross; a white sculpture of St. Scholastica (St. Benedict's twin sister) that proclaims, "Seek peace. Pursue it."; one of two Zen gardens; and the 14 Stations of the Cross — wooden carvings hung upon individual trees on a path to the Benet Hill cemetery, where sisters are buried in circular patterns around a central cross.
I pause for some time at a Ute prayer tree, one of six that have been identified on the grounds. It is said that the Ute tribes who passed through the Black Forest area tied down young saplings into tall arches at sacred spots and used them as identifiable places to offer prayers to the Great Spirit during tribal migrations through the land. I touch the wood, stare at the intricate markings, and once again feel a sense of calm.
I take lunch with the sisters (an option for all retreatants, three meals a day, for a minimal fee). Today's selection: a taco bar, watermelon and chocolate and tapioca puddings. Sister Rose Ann Barmann, Benet Hill's development director, chats with me as we eat, introducing me to many of the women, including current Prioress Clare Carr.
"Benedictines, through history, have always been about the arts and music and education. The things that are so important for culture," Sister Rose Ann tells me. "And we try to help women. We help men too, but not to the [same] extent." An excess of both genders work the grounds today; there's a regular group of volunteers, she says, who help with forest fire mitigation.
After lunch, I wander the southwestern side of the campus — sit in a wooden rocking chair and gaze at Pikes Peak through the trees; circle a natural limestone rock garden; and pay my respects to a statue of Our Lady of Fatima tucked within a stone grotto. Her head bowed in prayer, she is the embodiment of the peace that informs the sisters' ministry, as Sister Rose Ann describes it: "We live alone, together. Our call, or our vocation, is to community and prayer and contemplation."
Thunder rumbles overhead and lightning crackles across the sky. I take this as a sign to head back to the hermitage. One chapter of Cheryl Strayed's Wild is all I can manage to read before dozing off for a bit, then awakening to a cool breeze slipping in the screened window.
I've only got about an hour left of my time here, and there's one place still on my don't-miss list. I head back up to the main building and wander into the library. It's not particularly large or elaborate, but many of its holdings may surprise the casual visitor.
Yes, there are Bibles of many versions, and an assortment of Benedictine tomes. But also on these shelves are a host of subjects, ranging from Feng Shui to human sexuality to ecofeminism. And many of the same authors whose books take up space in my home reside here: the likes of Emily Dickinson, Julia Cameron and Oriah Mountain Dreamer.
When I give my hermitage key back to Sister Mary John, I tell her that I'd like to start reading the books from the top left corner and just work my way throughout all of the titles. She laughs and seems pleased.
Come back any time, she tells me.
I can't wait.
Day retreatants are welcome at Benet Hill at any time, free of cost, and may join in for prayers or mass, though the sisters request a check-in at the main building's information desk. To reserve the hermitage or other spaces for a day or overnight stay, fees range from $25 to $80; reservations can be made by email through benethillmonastery.org.