There is a quiet place
Far from the rapid pace…
—Ralph Carmichael (1967)
Life’s a journey; that idea is not new, of course. People of many cultures and faith traditions have regarded life as similar to extended travel into new and uncertain lands. One could say we begin our sojourn at birth and then spend the rest of our lives learning to read the map and finding our way.
Another way to think of one’s life is as a tapestry made up of many threads woven together to comprise the entire fabric. Some of my past personal essays explored various threads of my tapestry. For example, I Got Rhythm examines the thread of music through my life from childhood to the present. Also The Muscles Remember and My True Center look at my connection with the game of golf, which traces over almost sixty years.
Drawing upon the tapestry metaphor, I’ve chosen to title this essay A Thread of Quiet Places. As the name implies, it describes special spaces where I’ve gone to make meaning of things since childhood. I may be more deliberate in this practice than some, but I expect most people can identify with the instinct to step back from the “rapid pace” of life to gain perspective. Maybe you can recall quiet places that have served this purpose for you. If so, may these reflections help to awaken your memories of them.
In this essay I’ve included some quotes from Indiana-based singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer. I discovered Carrie’s songs and writings about four years ago—and I haven’t been the same since. I have had the privilege of meeting Carrie in person and know that she is one who regularly seeks out quiet places and spends time there for the purpose of gaining insight into her life’s path. Some of her perceptive thoughts in these quotes have come through such times
Only when we return
To where we began…
I’m not sure of the first time I sought out a quiet place. It probably was during my childhood elementary-school years in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I discovered a small space beneath a spiraea bush in our neighbor’s yard. I went there whenever I wanted to remove myself from whatever difficulties I was facing at the time. In that secluded space, I fell invisible to the outside world. The word “sanctuary” was not in my vocabulary then, but I now realize that this was that kind of place for me. Although I don’t remember what all I did there, I do recall placing a small stone in the ground beneath that bush to mark it as my own special place. The bush is now gone, and I suppose that whomever removed it never gave my stone a second thought. Such is the way with these things; one person’s quiet place isn’t usually as meaningful to someone else. Sanctuaries are like beauty—defined by the eye of the beholder.
There is a difference between
A life of width
And a life of depth.
After college, I entered the Air Force and served four years as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch officer at a base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was the most stressful period of my entire life. Having responsibility for nuclear-armed missiles and all that went with that made it the most intense and difficult job I’ve ever had. It was also a period of deep searching and questioning—personal, vocational, spiritual—BIG stuff.
During this same time I began going “on the loose.” Whenever I got a short break from my Air Force duties, I usually left the base and drove to some destination with the intention of spending several hours thinking and regaining perspective. I mostly traveled lightly—a camera, a Bible, a sketch pad. I often went into mountainous areas of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming within a hundred miles or so of Cheyenne. These excursions also sometimes involved hiking or skiing, but I almost always went alone.
These “on the loose” times during my early-Air Force years weren’t as location-specific as that spiraea bush in our neighbor’s yard in Terre Haute—and I don’t recall ever placing any stones in them to commemorate their significance. Yet in their own way and time, taking these “on the loose” excursions helped to establish for me the habit of seeking places of solitude and beauty as a backdrop for going deeper through reflection and contemplation. It’s a pattern that is still with me now.
When was the last time I stopped, took a deep breath and really looked around?
During the first few weeks after I began graduate study at the University of Minnesota in 1974, I discovered a quiet place that has influenced my life for longer than forty years. Tennis was important to me then, and I had gone to play a game at a court located in a small park near my campus. Afterwards I noticed an especially impressive oak tree growing near the court; I immediately knew I’d found a very special place. I began returning to that park even when I wasn’t playing tennis. That bur oak tree and its associated park became one of the most cherished landmarks for me in all of Minnesota. Just a short distance from the tree is small park bench. Over the time I’ve been associated with the University, I’ve gone to that bench on many occasions. I’ve met many colleagues, students and friends there, and it has become known as my “branch office.” However, I went to that tree and park alone even more often for times of quiet and reflection. That College Park oak tree is more impressive in stature and longevity than the inconspicuous spiraea bush of my childhood, yet each met me in its own way at my point of need. So it is with a quiet place; it’s about context not just physical properties.
And for a long lovely second,
It was like a veil had pulled away,
And I could see something
That was beautiful
Another quiet place of significance in Minnesota came to me almost twenty years after my discovery of that old bur oak near my university campus. During the 1990s, I began participating in events at the House of Prayer, which was a retreat house located at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. St. John’s is a Benedictine monastery established in 1856. As my familiarity with the abbey grew over time, one place within the grounds became more special to me than any other; I returned to it time and again. It was the monastic cemetery located atop a small hill overlooking one of the area lakes. It was one of the most serene and sacred places I’ve ever known.
The graves of the monks who have died at the monastery over the past 160 years are all within this cemetery and marked by stones carved from native granite from a nearby quarry. On one side of each stone is inscribed the surname of a departed monk as well as his life dates. On the opposite side is the monk’s name that was given to him by the monastic community. Whenever I went to this cemetery quiet place, which was usually early or late in the day, I often sat on a rock just to the side and wrote in my journal. I found myself perusing the names on the stones and wondered about these departed saints with such colorful names—like Albanus or Hyacinth or Placid or Bonaventure. This abbey cemetery’s natural beauty combined with its distinctive human and historical significance sets it apart from other quiet places I have known before or since.
We sing our songs, which are momentary and mostly made of air, light and our best intentions.
Some of the most stressful times I’ve experienced in the past few years have occurred at my mother’s town of Wyckoff, New Jersey. Within just the past five years alone I’ve endured Hurricane Sandy, a snowstorm that knocked out electrical power to my mother’s house for a week, and several serious illnesses involving my mother and brother. I also was there during a time of deep grieving following the recent death of a close friend.
Thankfully my mother’s town is also the location of another significant quiet place for me—The Gardens of Wyckoff. I discovered these gardens in about the year 2000 and it became a place of refuge and comfort whenever I have visited there. I usually went to the gardens in the early morning before anyone else was there. Most of my quiet times there were spent beside a small brook that flows through the park, and it’s there that I’ve felt especially close to God during some of the most difficult circumstances. The sound of the water flowing over the stones that span the brook in that place, the rich morning sunlight, gentle breezes in the trees overhead and the occasional touches from wildlife that frequent the place brought me a strong sense of peace and assurance.
My mother has now moved from Wyckoff and it’s unlikely that I’ll spend much time at this quiet place in the future, yet I’ll not forget its importance to me. That’s another aspect of quiet places; they sometimes are given to us only for a season.
This is what delights me the most.
The pause, the moment…
For some reason I have a liking for grottos. I’ve only been to a few of them, but each time I encounter these curious places I’m enthralled. St. Edwards Grotto, perched high above Lake Washington near Seattle, is one such place. It has also become an emerging quiet place for me.
During the winter of 2014-15 Mary Ann and I lived in Seattle to be nearer our daughters and grandchildren. We also came to assist my mother in making her transition to an assisted-living residence there. We’d just lost my brother Phil to cancer the previous year, and in the aftermath of that sad time my mother concluded that her days of living apart from family in New Jersey were over.
I had only been to St. Edward State Park once, and that more than a decade earlier. Yet after settling into our rental house near the north end of Lake Washington, I began looking for a quiet place that might serve me during this particular season of my life. I understood that the four months we would be living in Seattle were likely to be a challenging time. My mother’s move to Seattle was a stressful one for her, and addressing the challenges was sure to be taxing on us all.
I thought of St. Edward State Park. Situated on over 300 acres of Lake Washington shore land, it was once the site of a Roman Catholic seminary. The principal buildings were constructed in 1931 and continued to operate as a seminary until 1977. The state then took over the site and has operated it as a park ever since. Although not strictly a monastery, St. Edward in its day shared qualities of other abbeys I’ve known. Among these was a remnant orchard—and a grotto. Although not as elaborate and fanciful as other grottos I’ve seen, St. Edwards Grotto seemed just right for its place. Constructed of glacial stones gathered from the area, the grotto was situated in a secluded place. It was the epitome of tranquility and peace. Whenever I was there, I could sense a presence of many faithful ones who had come before me to this grotto also seeking refuge and clarity.
Then there is the symbolism. Most of the quiet places I have known are highly symbolic for me—at least in hindsight. That small spiraea bush sanctuary in my childhood, with its small stone marker, was a fitting, simple beginning. Those “on the loose” quiet places of my Air Force days exemplified that early-20s period of exploring new horizons. That stately bur oak in College Park near my University of Minnesota campus symbolized an enduring journey—the “long obedience in the same direction” as author Eugene Peterson expressed it. It represents a rich time for me of putting down roots. The St. Johns Abbey cemetery quiet place offered vivid awareness of the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the biblical book of Hebrews. Memories of times there continue to inspire my journey forward. The idyllic brook at The Gardens of Wyckoff in New Jersey represents for me a stream of life that continues to flow beyond that place.
And St. Edward Grotto? It’s still too soon to fully know its significance, but it has promise. For now it’s simply enough to know that it is there, and as with my other quiet places before it, I know it can offer me solitude, comfort, clarity and a touch of the divine. Yes, that is enough.
When we release all that was
And embrace all that is.
That is when we catch a hint
Of something fine on the air…
My dog Pouncer has become my steady companion whenever I go to St. Edward Grotto. She was my brother’s dog before he died, and she has lived with my wife and me ever since. Pouncer is a very special gift.
Carrie Newcomer’s dog also accompanies her to quiet places she frequents. She has written:
A dog is grateful for what is, which I am finding to be the soundest kind of wisdom…She has shown me a calm and quiet place where I can press my own weary head into the welcoming sternum of something made wholly of Light.
Pressing my own weary head into something made wholly of Light? I can live with that.
After publishing this essay, a friend of mine from Minnesota called my attention to an episode from the PBS radio program “On Being” that was about a man, Gordon Hempton, who lives in Washington State. Mr. Hemption identifies and studies truly quiet places–places without sound. Such places, it seems, are quite rare. However, in 1984 Mr. Hemption identified 21 such places in his state; by 2007 only three remained.
Here is what Mr. Hempton has to say about his quiet places:
A quiet place is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of truth and beauty. A quiet place outdoors has no physical borders or limits to perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen even farther. A quiet place affords a sanctuary for the soul, where the difference between right and wrong becomes more apparent. It is a place to feel the love that connects all things, large and small, human and not; a place where the presence of a tree can be heard. A quiet place is a place to open up all your senses and come alive.
I can live with this too.
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2015. All rights reserved.