Leading Students to Hermitage:

About this article

In an interview Sr. Mary Farrell, SC, describes how she has made a hermitage experience available to ninth grade students. The idea originated in a church history course in which the lifestyles of the desert fathers came up. A room for solitude and reflection is set up, and the space is blessed. Students sign up in advance, secure parental permission, and make arrangements to complete school assignments with classes that they would miss during the three-hour hermitage. The moment the student enters the room, shoes are taken off (holy ground), jewelry is removed, pockets are emptied, and a simple cross is given to the young hermit. The story of this incredible teacher and her hermitage program reminds us that our students are spiritual beings, and we must seek both new and old ways to bring them to the sacred.

Editor's note: A few months ago I met (by mail and phone) Sr. Mary Farrell, SC, who has taught at Saint Peter's High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for thirty-six years. Much of that time, she taught French and sewing courses, and for the last five years, she has taught religion courses as well.

Sister Mary told me about the hermitage experience she began in 1996 for her ninth graders, described in part in the following interview. I was intrigued to hear that teenagers could be enticed into spending three hours in silence. Then I found out that the hermitage experience was the kids' idea!

A secret ingredient is at work here to make this happen, I thought. Something quite wonderful is going on within this teacher. I wondered if that ingredient could possibly be bottled, or even articulated. A lot of people might be interested in it.

So I asked Sister Mary to tell me her story--to tell me about this woman who, at age sixty, is having the time of her life leading young teenagers to silence, solitude, and prayer. I don't think the interview totally uncovers the secret ingredient of this remarkable teacher. I suspect only God knows that completely. But here are some hints.

What has your inner journey been like, as a person, a religious, a teacher? Tell me about some key experiences or turning points.

As a young person, I knew that producing something was good. As a young religious, full of zeal and wishing to please, I was determined always to be doing something of use and value for someone. I was convinced that being a helper was the way to go, and I never thought I needed anyone to do anything for me since I felt self-sufficient. My frame of reference was perfection, which I required of my students as well as myself. And I felt good because my students were excellent and I got lots of affirmation for my clear, organized way of presenting the subject--French, at the time.

I'd say I had a tight grip on things, a sense that "I'm the only one who can do this or that thing right." In whatever project I undertook, I had my ducks lined up in a row, and it worked for me for quite a while.

But then in 1983, something happened that made me start to "loosen the grip," to try to be less controlling, and to take more risks. My brother was killed by a drunk driver. He was a good family man, well organized, successful--seeming to have pretty good control over his life. Then poof--it was all gone. So why shouldn't I take a risk when a poof could annihilate me as well? After my brother's death, I started to say yes to opportunities that came from whatever direction. And each one has branched out to another one down the road. Life has gotten a lot more interesting. In 1992, the opportunity came up to teach religion, and the time was right to explore that risky territory.

So "loosening the grip" meant teaching religion?

I suppose! But a couple of years ago, my soul was really tested when control was taken away from me in the form of illness--cancer. The cliché of "Nothing happens by chance" kept ringing in my ears. Things happen for God's good reason--not always our own. I had surgery, and then I had a long period of recuperation in a quiet, nurturing environment. I did jigsaw puzzles, sewed, listened to tapes by various spirituality authors, read. I rested, watched countless old movies on the American Movie Classics channel, and when people came to visit, I had a little something for them to take away--a book to borrow or a paper to think about.

Thoughts were continually swimming around in my brain. A good friend gave me a blank book and suggested that I keep a journal. "Just begin, Mary, and the thoughts will come; you can do it." She was right. Since then I've begun to write creative prose, and I've had a couple of my meditation pieces published. Writing is now a key part of my spirituality, even writing letters to friends.

I also began to walk during that recovery time, and I am now up to walking two miles at least four or five times a week. Walking is an exercise in interior base-touching. I've become quieter and somehow more in touch with my dormant inner person.

When I returned to school after that splendid recuperation period, it was with a slower style and a sense of my own need for silence and solitude. I also realized how much my students need such quiet, they who live in such a fast-paced, overstimulating environment--an MTV world.

What kinds of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time, things that nourish your spirit?

I love camping and travel with companions. I've camped the tent route and the hiking trails from Maine to California. Waterfalls, sagebrush, magnificent vistas, and numerous ranger shows have left lasting impressions on me. I share these experiences with the students as much as I can, and they never cease to amaze me with their appreciation of nature and their insights into truly spiritual values.

I used to fear traveling alone, but now I've done that, and I've met some really interesting folks along the way. In the summer of 1996, I traveled to France and spent a week at Taizé as a pilgrim. I'm still savoring the experience, letting it work inside me. The quiet there was so deep, and the Taizé music chants are a favorite way of praying for me. Which reminds me: each year I have my ninth-grade class learn "Ubi Caritas" as a centering prayer. They really love it.

I have some other interests that feed my creativity. Photography, for one, and of course my sewing, and I also create hair decorations and offer them for sale for the benefit of the school.

What effect do you think your experiences have had on your hopes for and your relationships with your students?

What I hope will happen for my students is that they will know this: Inside them, deep in their core, is a place of inner peace and strength where they can retreat whenever necessary, no matter where they are physically. That is the God dimension in them, and I want them to feel that they have a home in God, that God will always be there for them.

There's also a communal dimension to being "at home" in God. We are all connected. We've been trying to strengthen that communal experience at our school, especially for the incoming ninth graders. (Saint Peter's has 220 students, and it is coed, multicultural, and multiracial.) We're conscious of making our school different from the big "factory" schools. We want the students to know that they have a home base here at the school, even after they leave. They can always come back, and someone will be here for them.

I try to be real and to laugh and cry with the young people. I announce to the classes each year as we begin, "My time and my talent are yours." I offer to do things for them, like sewing or making a hair decoration. But I'm also strict; my discipline is low-key but firm. Students know their boundaries from day one and exactly what's expected. I want some seeds of self-esteem to be sown in them, and I want them to have confidence in expressing themselves. I'd hope for my students to not only know themselves but also to be aware of and to ultimately explore the possibilities that surround them. They are their own World Wide Web.

What image of God helps you relate to the students?

I think of God looking at us with love, being such a beneficent God. In loving all of us, God looks for the lovableness in each person and tries to bring it out. God is playful! If we're going to love the kids like God loves them, draw out the lovableness in them, we need to be playful at times--but in a protective way, like an inviting host. So sometimes I'll be playful, doing silly stuff that makes them play along. It's one way of drawing out their lovableness.

What about the hermitage experience with your ninth-grade students? How did that get started?

I was teaching the ninth-grade course in church history in February 1996, and the topic of the early desert fathers came up. The notion of solitude and living a life in that mode was a curiosity to all the fourteen-year-olds in front of me.

I asked them if they thought they could sustain silence, pin-drop silence, for a few minutes. Then I stopped and didn't even move. Enthusiastic yesses about "let's try it" were tempered by my innate suspicion of fourteen-year-old manipulative ploys. We tried it, and sincere interest continued.

Meanwhile, I'd been cleaning out a room in the school that had been used for the proverbial "whatever." When the ninth graders said they wanted to try a hermitage notion, my brain put the idea together with the now-cleaned-up room and ran with it. My principal supported the idea.

I put out a call for paint, rugs, furniture, and anything else that could enhance a room used for silent contemplation--a space of possibilities for prayer and thought. I wanted a few lovely items for students to touch with their hands or eyes that would be helpful for memory recall. Gifts came, and the room was ready in almost no time at all.

In March our pastor blessed the space, and the first hermit went in the next day. He loved it, and so did others who took the risk of a new venture.

What arrangements must be made for a student to go to hermitage?

Students who want the experience sign up in advance for a scheduled three-hour time during the school day. This might be once in a couple of months for a student. They notify their teachers, who give them an assignment to make up the class work. They must do the work, and they can't go to hermitage if they have a scheduled test at that time or if they are on academic ineligibility. I give them preparation sheets in advance, including a letter to their parents.

How do you get the students into the hermitage experience? Is it structured in any way?

The hermits come to the room at their scheduled time with a bottle of water, paper, pen or pencil, and their prayer partner (who also gets their class notes for them). The hermits dress in nonschool attire. The room is not a schoolroom, and I want the atmosphere to reflect contemplation and interior work. A prayer partner comes with them and participates in the brief opening ritual. I begin with a prayer, and I ask the hermit to remove his or her shoes, as Moses did when coming into the presence of God on Mount Sinai. This is holy ground. I ask him or her to take off any jewelry and empty all pockets, symbolic of going to God alone, without adornment or possessions. The prayer partner then slips a wooden cross over the head of the hermit and offers a short prayer for him or her.

I want the hermits to be aware of the globalness of prayer and the importance of their prayer. So I ask each hermit to pray for a particular person in our parish community-it could be a teacher, a member of the school support staff, or a parish staff worker. (I'm sure the cemetery workers are quite surprised to get a prayer note later.) We have a box in the room with prayer requests for intentions from members of our school and our parish community, and also from my friends who write to me--requests from all over the country.

The prayer partner and I leave, and the hermit is alone for three hours. The hermits spend the first ten minutes sitting on the rug doing a breathing exercise to calm them down and to get rid of interior noise. The first time they come to hermitage, I encourage them to do something with their time--do some journaling, pray for others, handle the objects that have been placed there for them. This helps them to get used to the quiet and aloneness. The next and subsequent times that they come, I encourage them to spend less time with the objects in the room and more time in silent prayer and contemplation. As our first hermit, Al, has said: "Each time you go to hermitage, you use less of what is there. The next time it will be just me, God, and a glass of water." Another student, John, says: "When I went in the first time, it was all about me. I guess I was being selfish. The second time it was more me and God."

Hermits may leave the room to use the bathroom, but only when the other students are in class, and they must come back to the room right away. (In 180 hermitage experiences, only one student I know of has ever broken the rule.)

At the end of the three hours, I go in to ritualize them back into the mainstream of classes. The look on their face is usually serene, and I'm greeted with, "Is it time already?" or "I really don't want to leave." I say a prayer, usually pertaining to a particular talent they have, and then another prayer for leaving a time of solitude.

The students who have gone to hermitage are very happy about their experience, and those who have not can tell you on cue when their hermitage date is. They are preparing their heart. Students are wonder filled, and they will inspire us if we listen.

What kind of reaction do you get from the faculty and staff?

Administration, faculty, and staff are most supportive, even more so now that they see how the Spirit moves. Some adults have asked me how I know what the hermits do when they are alone. I answer that I don't know, but that someone took a risk with me once so why shouldn't I take a risk and continue the cycle?

Do you have any closing thoughts--on life or on your experience in high school ministry?

Recent events in my life, like the hermitage project, have made me more alert to possibilities on my path. I try not to say no when I can possibly say yes. I do try to recognize my limitations, and I find that I work better when I can make my own time line. I try to be practically grounded, and I have a tendency to cut to the chase and get things done rather than wait until the product is perfect. The product can always be refined, but one must have material to refine.

Many people come into the life of a teacher (it is said that a career teacher touches nine million lives), and I seem to have been invited into the life of many of them. Some are new on the block, others have come back after a time of separation, and some turn over my heart and make me rebelieve in myself. There also have been those who have seemed to want or need something I couldn't give. If they are negative, I try to respond in a positive way. But it's part of the growth process to acknowledge that we can't get through to some.

I continue to look around the corner--cautiously--for whatever is next. Each of us always has a next. When people talk about being burned out, I often suggest that they think about a time when they were ablaze and get in touch with that moment. Then, I say to blow on the coals of that experience and rekindle the fire.

For more information see "Forms for the Hermitage Experience."


(Copyright © 2000 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for the free use of this article for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the written permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095, or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.)

Published October 1, 1997.