Hidden away in the Wisconsin woods among the deer and the Amish of Clark County is a ramshackle collection of hermitages with names like Peace, Love, Joy and Wisdom. This is the Christine Center, an improbable place, one of the rare refuges left on earth where you can still get lost, unplug, and tune in to “the ear of your heart.” A place where spirit messages rise up like fireflies in the dark, and the strongest signal comes in, not from the Internet but from the Source.
It takes three and a half hours to drive there from Madison, a little more if you stop for coffee and ice cream at The Mocha Mouse just off I-90 at Black River Falls. (The Mocha Mouse is that other improbable place where you can sample free candy in crenelated cups, browse a funky second-hand book store, or pick out a fez from a hat- tree full of cheesehead hats.
Once past Merillon, Humbird, a nudist camp and a supper club, Highway 12 gets lonely as it climbs north and winds into the woods. You may see a trio of deer flash by, or a flock of eagles foraging in a ditch, but the only stable landmark will be a shed quietly imploding by the side of County Road I, itself a meditation on impermanence.
The road was pitch, hemmed in on both sides by a wall of pine and hemlock the first time I tried to find the Center on a bottom-heavy night in early fall. Fog had settled down in all the low places, making it impossible to penetrate the gloom. By the time I turned into Mann Road and pulled up at the Guest House, I fell exhausted into the arms of Sister Margaret who had been waiting up for hours. (Margaret’s Lane is named for her.)
Those who have relied on GPS to find their way over those remote county roads have been known to end up in a cow pasture. People say location is the Center’s biggest drawback. But shouldn’t a pilgrim be expected to confront some kind of ordeal? Arriving at a monastery in the old days, you might have had to stand out in the rain and cold for three days to prove your intention.
Sister Virginia Mary, the Wheaton Franciscan who founded the Christine Center, never bothered about location. Convinced of a divine calling, she simply threw a dart at the map of Wisconsin. When it landed on Willard with its one church, a garage, and two bars, it was there that it stayed. That was nearly forty years ago. Four Sisters still live in Willard, “aging in place,” faithful to the Center’s Franciscan roots while welcoming and learning from many other spiritual paths. The place is female to its core.
I was attracted to the Christine Center by an article Tenaya Darlington wrote in Isthmus about the time she spent living in Earth while working on her first novel. Earth is a rustic hermitage appealing to artists. It used to be painted white and could be seen glimmering through the trees as you drove up the dirt road toward the entrance. Open Earth’s door, you might think you had stepped into Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles: a bed, a chair, a table, a box of firewood. Tenaya was right about the Center. It is an ideal writer’s retreat, and so much more.
All sorts of improbable things happen quite regularly here. Healings, insights, revelations. A man in his fifties might look up at a peerless blue sky in October and realize with a shock that his mind is just as limitless; a woman in the middle of a Robert Sardello retreat might decide overnight that she wants a green burial instead of the cremation she had planned. People dream dreams, see visions, discover new direction for their lives. What else would you expect from “a sanctuary for spiritual deepening and global transformation?”
I brought a dear friend on my last visit, a Blake scholar living in Oxford whose life has been de-railed by a series of bereavements. We shared Mary’s Villa for four days while enjoying sessions on Rumi and Kabir led by the brilliant and provocative Andrew Harvey. Susanne prayed each day in the light of the jewel-box chapel, bathed in rays emanating from stained glass windows that replicate the colors of the seven chakras. She met the Sisters, walked the land, ate delicious vegetarian food, sank deeply into the silence. By the time we left, the place had worked its magic.
For my part, I was shaken to the core by the depth and intensity of a meditation I experienced under Andrew Harvey’s direction. In an afternoon session dedicated to contemplative practices, he introduced us to the Shahadah, the profession of faith central to Islam – La ilaha illa llah- there is no God but God. We recited it again and again, and were instructed to go home and meditate for an hour that evening, chanting the Arabic words over and over. Astonishing things happened.
Lah! eeLa-hah! Eee-lah-a Allah!
Lah! eeLa-hah! Eee-lah-a Allah!
There is such power in the rhythm of that mantra, sacred sounds whispered or chanted. There is music, movement, laughter, uproarious and light, a lullaby, a baby rocking in its cradle. Shouts of joy, outrage, exultations, hymns, ecstatic declamations. There are stars spinning in an endless night, galaxies spiraling below, a desert suffused with the presence of God, no God, no God but God. There are no gods in God. Nothing. No thing. Nothing but God in God. No God. No Thing. No God but God. No God but God No God No God No God. There is no God but God! God has knocked down all the idols, all the baubles in their cradles. No him. No Him in Him. No thing! Nothing but God in God. In a place of limitless perfection, surrounded by that huge First Nothing,*these words form in my mouth …
You are the perfume of the desert
You are the open door
You are the whirlwind
You are the eye of the storm…
The next morning, just as I am turning the corner at the end of the road and starting up the hill, miraculously, of their own accord, those same words reverse themselves, and are mirrored back to me:
I am the perfume of the desert
I am the open Door
I am the whirlwind
I am the I in the eye of the storm.
I am dancing in the Void.
The blessings that accrue in the course of a retreat are often fleeting. They begin to dissipate even before one arrives home. In this case, they abide. The impact of the Shahadah endures. It speaks to me of my true self and seems now to be part of my substrate. I marvel at the change. A lover of Catholic iconography all my life, steeped in saints’ stories, I have undergone an unanticipated transformation. Now I am more like the Snowman “with his mind of winter” in Wallace Steven’s poem,
…………….who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
There aren’t many places I know of that can bring you to such depths in a matter of days. The Christine Center is one of those places. It receives us in our brokenness and sustains us in our glory. For those of us aware that we living in apocalyptic times, it is a necessary place. Not a perfect place, but a necessary place. Let us be grateful and do all that we can to preserve it, so that, unlike the shed collapsing slowly into itself by the side of County Road I, it will be sustained, ramshackle though it may be, still standing on level ground for many years to come.
*from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”