Sunday, January 01, 2012

Wernersville in the NYT.

Today's New York Times includes an intriguing report on a retreat at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Author Susan Gregory Thomas is "neither Catholic nor anything in particular," but thought that a silent retreat at Wernersville might provide "a solid period of quiet to recombobulate" in the midst of a busy life beset by various worries. Priced at $560, a five-day retreat at Wernersville struck Thomas as a bargain - a thought that may induce groans in readers who know how hard it is for retreat centers to stay open at a time when the cost of maintaining large, old buildings is going up and there simply aren't enough retreatants like Thomas to pay the bills.

As a Jesuit who knows Wernersville, I found it fascinating to read Thomas' outsider view of what goes on during an Ignatian retreat as well as to consider some fresh impressions of a familiar place. The paragraphs that I enjoyed the most had nothing to do with Thomas' impressions of the retreat itself but were concerned with the Jesuit Center as a building:
. . . [W]hile 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.
The last sentence made me laugh, partly because it made me think of the moment I arrived at Eastern Point Retreat House to make the Spiritual Exercises when I was in the novitiate. Taking a look at this old mansion surrounded by snow, I joked to another novice, "This reminds me of The Shining." It reminded me even more of The Shining when, during the retreat, we were literally housebound for three days after a particularly severe Nor'easter dropped enough snow on the property to cut us off from the outside world and the staff advised us not to go outside to avoid the danger of exposure.

The Kubrick comparisons end there, but I'm glad that Thomas picked up on the spookiness that I've also noticed in more than one retreat house. For the rest of her views on Wernersville, click here. AMDG.


At 1/01/2012 3:42 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

I have to admit I had that same thought about The Shining mid-retreat when I walked up to the back of Eastern Point at dusk in the midst of a blizzard!

My students noted that their first night at a mostly empty Wernersville (thunderstorm, a brief power outage) left them somewhat spooked. I wrote a bit here about a ghostly moment at Wernersville.

At 1/01/2012 4:19 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

I could also add that, during the aforementioned Nor'easter, one of my confreres wrote 'redrum' on a fogged window at Eastern Point. A whole book could be written about practical jokes and dark humor in the context of the Long Retreat, but it probably wouldn't appeal to a very large audience.

At 1/02/2012 8:03 AM, Blogger Robin said...

My first experience of Wernersville was one of being physically lost for days. I blamed it entirely on Michelle and another mutual friend, who had given me the most impossibly confusing grand tour ever upon my arrival.

But now, of course, I wonder -- maybe my very real inability to get from the west side to the east was indicative of what was going on in prayer?

I literally had to go outside and walk around the building many times, especially at night, to figure out where I was.


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