photos and story
by George Pence

One weekend last winter I spent time at a glorious estate, a piece of property in one of the most exclusive residential enclaves in Barrington, Illinois. For the entirety of my visit I listened carefully whenever I was spoken to, and I kept my mouth shut throughout my stay. I was on my very best behavior.

I am invited there once a year. For the last ten years I have seldom turned down the invitation. A room is traditionally reserved in my name on the second floor of this sprawling 125-room mansion. I spend Friday and Saturday with nearly 70 other guests. The grounds occupy twenty acres of beautifully forested countryside replete with streams and expansive meadows. Despite the fact that I am not wealthy, I am treated exactly the same as all the other guests. Each of us is admonished to remain silent, advised to reflect on our weaknesses, asked to hope for a better life, and then encouraged to go back home feeling grateful.

This is a typical Ignatian spiritual retreat, a program of reflection and renewal over 400 years old. This time-honored invitation to be silent for two full days is so popular that it requires a reservation.

Those who know me well know that I do not go there out of piety. I am not a pious person. In fact, sometimes I am not even a very good person. There are many wonderful things I will never do simply because I can't summon enough virtue. I attend this retreat simply because it gives me more peace than I can acquire in any other way. Friend, trust me, if you filled your life with all the mistakes that I have made, you too would relish a chance to make sense out of so much error. Probably no single thing can solve every human dilemma, but for me there is no other way to make so much progress in such a brief period of time.

Scene down a stairwell

Bellarmine Retreat House in Barrington, Illinois, is a setting of beauty and serenity that attracts over 3,600 retreatants yearly, many of whom have been coming for years, including the author.

I'm sure this must also be true for the 66 other men who were at Bellarmine the last time I was there. There is no adequate way to describe the process of discovery and redemption that such a retreat affords. The variety of human experience is much too individual for any attempt to be comprehensive or accurate. However, I can share with you some hint of the beauty and serenity of this place called Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House. It is a castle of simplicity and peace that affords a feeling of absolute and unmitigated safety. Perhaps you remember the verse from the twenty-third Psalm that reads, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul . . ." Well friends, Bellarmine is where you find those still waters, and it is here where the pastures are green, even in the depths of winter.

Though it was January, I spent nearly as much time outside as I did inside. In the patches of forest and meadow there you can hear even the sound of a bird's wing as it strikes a branch. One evening, when I was out on the grounds just before nightfall, three deer walked up to within a few yards of where I was standing. This happened without any planning. I had simply been there long enough and quietly enough for the deer to be unaware of my presence. They came so close that I could hear their hooves break the crusted snow. Finally one doe realized I was there, and she seemed to sense that I was far too close for flight to protect her.

Bellarmine grounds at dusk

She froze and stood there with her head held high, looking for me to make the first move. After a long pause, during which her friends did not notice me, she raised her right leg and three times pierced the icy snow. The other deer raised their heads and broke into a run -- the doe, though, did not. She seemed intent on having me make the first move. I was in a mood to be patient, but ultimately I rewarded her courage by making a gesture that had the meaning of a blink. At this she bolted away to a distance of about twenty yards. There she stopped again and looked back one last time in my direction. After a stare of several seconds she once more broke into a run, not so much in flight I thought, but to catch up with her comrades who were now some distance away.

By then it was nearly dark. Across the blue-white garden stood Bellarmine Hall with scores of incandescent lamps giving it a welcoming glow. I planted my tripod and took a picture of a view that I imagined reminiscent of Brideshead in that famous novel by Evelyn Waugh. The huge edifice seemed to float there above the snow in a pool of golden light that made it look insubstantial -- almost like a great dirigible made of brick and mortar. The whole building was elevated on a combination of light and my own exalted sensibilities. I felt suffused with a joy that superseded every other fact that could be used to describe me.

It was a pure moment of grace, and I have it with me still.

George Pence

George Pence describes himself as "a Catholic under constant repair." He lives in Winnetka, Illinois, and works as an executive recruiter. Some of his other writings can be found at his website: www.george.pence.com

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