The idea sprouted in winter term 1983 during my second year on the Pendle Hill cooking team. I saw a student coming through the lunch line wearing a card on a string around his neck, its message politely warding off friendly conversational approaches by stating, "I am having a day of silence; thank you for understanding." Report had it that another student would stay in her room one day a week, posting a note on her door to ensure solitude.
Pendle Hill was then and has always been a place of intense and almost constant community interaction. That interaction, that give and take of sharing and listening, is part of what makes the Pendle Hill experience a renewing and healing one. Parker Palmer, the dean at the time, was quoted as remarking, not quite seriously, that Pendle Hill believed in salvation by community. The students who were devising ways to carve some space for silence and solitude within this community context were recognizing that they also needed the complementary element of reflection. I remembered that during my own Pendle Hill student year I had developed the habit of skipping lunch on Wednesdays and spending the time in solitary quiet on Firbank field or by the lily pool behind the great beech. I needed this time alone as a foil for community. Now I saw other students feeling that need, and I realized that if anything could be done to help them find the solitude they sought, then someone who stayed around longer than a student year would need to do something.
I knew that Avis Crowe, a staff member on the housekeeping hospitality team, enjoyed taking time in retreat at nearby monastic settings. Together we presented a proposal to the staff for allowing students to use the Brinton House conference center—when it was idle— as a place for silence and solitude. We would keep track of available days, make a schedule, and ensure that the plan made no additional work for anyone else. We had to persuade the staff, but we got permission to try it.
Students and an occasional staff member did use the opportunity we provided. By the following year, there was growing interest in the idea of setting aside a space for personal retreats. At the same time, the Brinton House conference schedule was filling up, leaving fewer empty days for such in-house use. A few students got the idea of reclaiming the old spring house on the Brinton House property for a hermitage. The maintenance department had intentionally abandoned the building as unworthy of its attention, and the students had to persuade those responsible to allow them to repair it, cleaning it up and replacing broken glass. A student from Alaska with experience in boat building was a key person in this project. The building had one room without any facilities other than electricity, so its first availability was as a quite primitive space. We had an electric heater, jugs of water, and a hot plate. We also invested in a Porta-Potty, which was placed behind a partial partition. There was a bed, a comfortable chair, and a writing table with a chair in front of a wall of windows overlooking wetland and woods. Sally Palmer, craft teacher, contributed a handmade plate, bowl, and mug for retreatants’ use.
Use of the space flourished. Avis and I cared for it, and we cared as we were able for those taking retreat time there. Before each retreatant came we would see that the Spring House was clean and leave a welcome note and a fresh bouquet. We provided a log book for persons to comment on their experience. After each retreat we emptied the Porta-Potty. If persons wished, we would talk with them about what they were looking for during their time of solitude, and we would reflect with them afterward about their experience.
As interest in the Spring House retreat program continued, more projects were undertaken to improve the space. The partial partition was replaced by a full solid partition, creating a more heatable room. Behind the partition, besides the potty, was storage space. A former student for whom the retreat experience was formative donated a small wood stove, making the room cheerful, comfortable, and usable through the winter. All of these initiatives came from students, Friends-in- Residence, or former students. Over the course of several years, use of the space for personal retreat away from but in the supportive context of the Pendle Hill community became important in the transformative experience of many students.
The Spring House project continued to be an aside at Pendle Hill, cared for by volunteers, without a budget, with any costs being donated, and with no fundraising on its behalf. Despite all this, the development director received an unsolicited donation— I remember it as $20,000—specifically for the purpose of improving the Spring House. These riches provided for a bathroom with shower to replace the Porta-Potty and jugs of water. A new door and window next to the door improved the entrance. The personal retreat opportunity at Pendle Hill had arrived. Another space at the newly acquired property known as Roadside, and named the Flower House, increased available facilities.
The development of the personal retreat program at Pendle Hill was significant in my own journey. After a couple of years of listening to retreatants as they looked toward or reflected afterwards on a time of solitude, I knew that I felt woefully inadequate in this role as spiritual guide. I wanted to do something to prepare myself better for it. This led to taking a term off from my job on the cooking team and using the time to study retreats and take some retreat experiences myself. Following that I enrolled in Shalem Institute’s two-year Spiritual Guidance Program. These experiences in turn led eventually to teaching in the School of the Spirit’s program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.
After Avis Crowe (then Vermilye) left Pendle Hill, I continued to care for the retreat program until Bill Taber and I retired from work there in 1994. Its care was then absorbed into the general hospitality and scheduling work. A flyer was put out creating the possibility for persons to come to Pendle Hill especially for personal retreat. And a few years later, my apology for the retreat experience growing out of its nurture during those ten years was published as the Pendle Hill pamphlet Come Aside and Rest Awhile.