Holy Wisdom Monastery in Dane County. (Photos by Mary Bergin)
Holy Wisdom Monastery in Dane County. (Photos by Mary Bergin)

Now a retreat for single or multi-day visits, it offers spiritual solace, natural solitude, and environmental stewardship.

[Editor’s Note: Contributing travel writer Mary Bergin continues her tour of Wisconsin getaways that have made modifications to emphasize safety during the coronavirus outbreak.]

The signage is minimal along nature trails at Holy Wisdom Monastery which can make the  unmarked, mowed crossroads perplexing. Where does each path lead? Will we get lost? What’s there to see–or miss–by deviating?

My guy and I sidetrack here and there, through restored prairie, oak savanna, and woodlands on the monastery’s 130 acres near Middleton. These gentle circuits are not billed as an outdoor labyrinth but, in hindsight, sure felt like one. 

Along the way, I mull value: What do I expect or hope to see? What would make this walk more than a fleeting memory? Or is that inconsequential? What is the significance of ordinary moments, here or elsewhere?

We end with more questions than answers, but also with the knowledge that no singular route is best. It’s a lot like life, especially this year. 

To the east, at Holy Wisdom’s hilltop, are wide views of Lake Mendota and–on a clear day–the state Capitol and the rest of the Madison skyline. Two miles northeast is Governor Nelson State Park. Wildflowers enrich the terrain with bright pops of color beyond the many shades of green.

In back of the monastery is a recovered glacial lake and glimpses of rabbits and turkeys, but no people. Fences, to discourage wildlife, encircle large and handsome gardens that provide harvests to fortify the monastery’s all-vegetarian meals.

Holy Wisdom is an independent, ecumenical community with deep Benedictine roots that has earned international recognition for environmental stewardship. It welcomes visitors of any faith to take a break and contemplate for an hour, a day, overnight, or longer.

My recent summer hike was my second visit this year.

As 2020 began, I was not sad, anxious, or unsettled, but felt compelled to begin the new year in retreatlaone and silent, with no distractions beyond what was in my head.  

Coming soon was a milestone birthday, a reminder that more good years are behind me than ahead. It was a wintertime motivator to re-assess and rebalance priorities. 

Mary David Walgenbach, Joanne Kollasch, and other sisters at Holy Wisdom have done their own share of reassessments. The motherhouse began as a high school for girls on 40 acres in 1953 and was converted into St. Benedict Center, a retreat and conference center a dozen years later. 

Restoration of 100 acres of prairie and wetlands got serious and focused during the 1990s, after the developer of a nearby gated community and country club in the rural neighborhood offered to buy the monastic property.

No, thanks, the sisters decided. 

Their spiritual home continues to help others find their way, without preaching or trying to convert. It is an antidote for a world that feels more and more contentious.

How to retreat? Just like those nature trails, there is not just one way. 

A silent retreat means wearing a tag that alerts others to not start a conversation. I attended evening prayer but did not speak or sing. I sat at a table by myself for dinner,shared friendly nods but no words during continental breakfast.

Others might seek spiritual guidance, which is not the same as mental health counseling. The goal is to enrich spiritual life, not dissect or solve personal problems. 

Sparse but tidy retreat house accommodations are a reminder of dormitory living, 1970s style: twin bed, standard desk, cushioned chair. No TV. Cell phone use is discouraged. 

Another option: Booking a hermitage, one of two modestly furnished cabins in woods, for a minimum stay of two nights.

Nature trails are free to roam. Retreat house rates start at $62 per weeknight. Hermitage rates start at $89 per night.

The pandemic narrows business. Prayer service access for guests is limited and by reservation. Dinner is plated, not buffet style, and each guest has a separate table. Breakfast is delivered to accommodations. Large-group retreats are not possible, for now.

What we gain here is some precious solitude, a respite from the world’s woes, the opportunity to wander aimlessly, and perhaps to focus mentally on whatever confounds.