The people called it “The Monastery.”
It sat on the edge of a town called Marathon City, WI, recessed from the road and surrounded by a stone fence, in a deep part of the woods where few people wandered. Two huge wooden doors were at the front of the building, like something out of a movie. No one I knew ever saw anyone go in or out. It looked like an old castle. There was an air of mystery around it and an actual occasional mist that would shroud it.
At a time in my adolescence when religion was unspoken in the small, rural towns of Wisconsin and “monks” were something that existed in another (very ancient) time, the monastery stood as a monolithic symbol of everything I feared about religion.
When my friends weren’t around, I would secretly ride my bicycle — a white BMX dirt bike that I was very proud of — to the old monastery and explore the trails that snaked through the woods behind it.
On winter days, the trails behind the monastery were slick with ice and snow, and catching air by jumping the small hills along the path and taking the wide corners and curves as fast as I could was especially thrilling.
Sometimes, I would see smoke billowing from a small building along the trail and smell the boiling of maple syrup. Sap from the maple trees would be collected into wooden pails that were nailed to their trunks and eventually transferred to the small shack for cooking. The smell always reminded me of mornings at my grandmother Dorothy’s house. The summers I spent with her, she would make pancakes every day for breakfast until I got tired of them.
Elsewhere along the trail were huge piles of stones, taller than I was, and when they were covered in snow they resembled burial mounds. In fact, the entire property in winter took on a graveyard-like quality.
In spring, when the trails had thawed, I would discover that the piles of rocks weren’t gravestones at all, but shrines of some sort — containing statues and carvings of Jesus and Mary. And, if I followed the trail closer to the river and walked carefully down a flight of moss-covered stone steps, I would find a cave-like altar containing more statues and carvings.
Eventually, the monastery became my refuge and when life got hard at school or at home, I would get on my bike and ride the trails or just sit by the river and think.
More than twenty years later (in 2015) after moving to Florida, marrying my wife Jennifer, and having two children of my own, we decided to take a family vacation to Wisconsin so that my wife and kids could see the places where I grew up.
I had done much inner work to heal the relationships with some of my estranged family members and had come to see the conservative, midwestern, small-town life in a different light. I was now a prayer chaplain and an interfaith minister, with a small church of my own, and I was ready to take the steps toward reconciling my past and my future.
Plus, Grandma Dorothy wanted to see the kids.
In planning the trip, we made a short list of places I thought they must see. It included Medford, where my grandparents lived and where I spent many summers. It included Warrens, where my father lived and where I had lived with him for a short time. It included Jellystone Park, home of Yogi Bear, and the swimming pool where I took swimming lessons. It included vast stretches of farmland (cows and barns we knew the kids would love), the cranberry marshes where they farm the floating berries to make cranberry juice and the swinging rope bridge over the Rib River.
Then, it hit me. What about The Monastery?
A Google search yielded nothing for “Monastery Marathon WI,” but it did turn up something called “St. Anthony’s Franciscan Center.” On their website, it said St. Anthony’s was founded in 1918 by a group of Capuchin monks where they worked and studied together and tended the land. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, St. Anthony’s trained and turned out a number of friars preparing for priesthood. In 1971, it was converted to a retreat center, and in 2013, the Capuchin Order announced that they could no longer maintain the property.
My heart sank. The monastery was gone. I couldn’t believe it.
Then, I continued reading. In that same year, a group of 80 volunteers came together to form a new non-profit and to re-open the newly-branded “St. Anthony’s Spirituality Center.”
It was settled. We would fly into Wausau (where I was born), rent a car, and stop at St. Anthony’s outside Marathon before heading on to Warrens and Medford.
Pulling into the driveway of The Monastery over twenty years later was quite a shock. The stone fence that seemed so tall and foreboding as a teenager was only about three feet tall. The property was neatly landscaped and manicured, but didn’t differ too much from other churches or conference centers I’d seen. The huge old, wooden doors had been replaced by two nondescript glass double-doors you might find on the front of any office building.
As I got out of the car, my first instinct was to run down the path that curved back around behind the building as I had done so many other times on my bicycle. I wanted to feel the wind in my ears and the gravel beneath my feet and to roll in the pine needles and smell the maple syrup.
Instead, I stood in front of those disappointing-looking double-doors for what seemed like forever, as Jennifer and the kids got their things together and eventually took their place at my side. And then I did something I’d never done before. I opened the front door of the old monastery and I stepped inside.
The office staff welcomed us, and I was eager to tell them my story. I told them about the trails and my bicycle and the river and the syrup.
One of the female staffers said, “Oh, so you were one of those boys.”
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “Boys? There were other boys doing what I was doing? And you knew about us?”
We took a self-guided tour of the monastery, which included a small chapel, a kitchen, a library, a room for arts and crafts, a room full of cushions for meditation. It was really lovely — like a beautiful old castle where companies could come and do team-building exercises on the weekends.
We thanked the staff, grabbed some brochures on our way out the front door, and once outside, Jennifer gave me a knowing smile. She knew what we had come here to do, and she knew it was killing me. It was time to walk the trails.
The staff at St. Anthony’s had told us that the syrup-farming had long-ended. In fact, they barely remembered who would have been doing such a thing. But, as we made our way around the side of the building, it all came rushing back to me. The earthy, red-brown gravel (nothing like that exists in Florida, I assure you), the pine trees, the trails, the benches positioned for seated reflection along the river. The river itself was actually more of a creek than I had remembered it. Actually it was more of a trickle.
And then, I saw the first station.
Carved out of white marble and encased behind glass — at eye level — was clearly the figure of Jesus surrounded by his accusers. This delicate vignette was set into a tall structure made completely of large, round stones. I could see them now, scattered along the trail throughout the woods. These were not shrines, these were not burial mounds. They were the fourteen stations of the cross. The fourteen depictions of Christ during his final days. Observant Christians will sometimes make an actual pilgrimage to Mount Calvary to retrace his steps, or walk these stations in prayer and contemplation of Christ’s passion.
And they had been here, exactly like this, for years. They were exactly as I had remembered them, but not how I had seen them.
We walked the stations as a family, the kids taking turns running ahead or lagging behind, and I recalled to them all of the memories I had on this trail. I realized that this trail was indeed a refuge, but it was not my own. So many others had walked this gravel to pray or stop and rest to contemplate their own pain, suffering, longing, addiction, separation or loss.
Eventually, we came to the last station and to a fork in the trail. The left path clearly led back up to the main building and back to the small towns beyond it. The right path offered to take us deeper into the woods. We took the path to the right, which led to those slippery, moss-covered stone steps. At the foot of the steps, we could see a small wooden bridge that crossed the river. The steps had not aged well. They were steep and even more slippery than I had remembered. Jennifer had our one-year-old strapped to her chest and she suggested that she stay up top and wait for us, but I encouraged her, and eventually the entire family made their way (one step at a time) down those old stone steps.
Safely at the bottom and just before we crossed the bridge, I turned back to check on everyone and gasped out loud. Carved into the side of the small cliff was an alcove, large enough for all of us to step into and completely lined with those same large round stones. I had nearly forgotten about this grotto. What I remembered as a cave was actually an altar to Jesus’ mother, Mary. A large statue of Mary stood on the altar as well as two others, looking down on us from either side of the entrance. She was surrounded by glass pillar candles, wristwatches, lighters, lottery tickets, matchbooks and various other items.
So many others before me had come here to pray and pay tribute to the one who birthed a new consciousness into the world. They came to honor and invoke her name or they came to simply be held in the embrace of the Divine Feminine. We explained to the kids the importance of Mary’s role in rearing and raising the boy who would become The Christ.
I had brought my family here to give them an experience with this land as I thought I knew it. What I ended up receiving was a new pair of eyes, a beginner’s mind and a heart that held more space for others.
I felt a warmness throughout my body, a sense of peace and gratitude. As I stepped out of the grotto, rays of sun broke through the canopy of trees and I heard a rustle overhead. Spiraling down toward me was a single feather, which I caught as it landed gently in my outstretched hand.
And in that moment, I prayed aloud, “Thank you. Now what would you have me do?”