What I learned at the hermitage #1

Just a week or two ago, I again visited my beloved hermitage for some time with God.

Of course, all time is God’s but, at the hermitage, time is special. It is hard to describe just how, but life flows differently at this holy little cabin surrounded by nature.

When I go there, it is like stepping out of the world and into the earth.

The world does not know understand how to live.

But the earth lives fully and correctly. And so to slip into the earth’s Way is a great delight – for one can truly see and hear and smell and taste and touch God in all of His creatures who follow the Way.

I always learn when I go to the hermitage, though seldom can I share the fullness of what I receive. Sometimes it is too intimate. Other times, there are simply no words or images to express it.

Yet something inside longs to share what my heart has received. And so I begin now a little series, not knowing how long it will last (or even if I will stick to it). This post is the first of the series.

I learned a couple of important things during this retreat – though they might not seem so important to the casual reader.

The first was a startling discovery. When I go to the hermitage, every once in a while I hear a sudden, loud, high-pitched sound coming from some creature outside.

Often it makes me start, so unexpected is the sound – and so much louder than the cries of the common birds I could see. Was it some unusual sort of bird?

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the only other place I ever heard this particular noise was in my backyard.

What creature could be producing this sound, so loud, so unique and be common to these two locations? (The hermitage is in a rural area and my house is in the inner city.)

Well, during this visit to the hermitage, my question was answered.

And to share the resolution of this mystery, I present to you the following brief video. (Cell phone assisted and we received the image from behind a closed door. You may initially think that there is no audio to the video – but think again – and keep your speakers on the ready…)

Yup, that sudden shrill cry toward the end of the video was produced by none other than…a groundhog!

I had read before that groundhogs are sometimes called “whistlepigs” but I did not know what their whistle sounded like. I assumed it was a little wheezy sort of sound befitting animals of their stature.

Boy, was I wrong. Remember that the sound you just heard was picked up by a cell phone through a closed door.

Now there was a second lesson learned from this experience as well.

My efforts at home to live cooperatively with the groundhogs on the other side of the fence are legendary.

Initially, I had no patience for them whatsoever. I considered them the enemy because they decimated my garden. No sooner did I put a plant in the ground than they had chomped it down to its roots.

I tried a capture and release cage. I caught birds, cats, squirrels and raccoons. All of which were quite angry, by the way. But among the groundhogs, if even one family member was lost to this method, a second one never was. They quickly learned mistrust.

Since that unfortunate experience, I have tried in vain to live cooperatively with them. I go over to the fence and talk to them.

I explain what I am trying to do with my garden and why. I appeal to their innate understanding of the need for other creatures to rear their young (e.g. Monarch butterflies on milkweed). I confess the sins of my race for creating this situation and point out my effort to make amends.

Then, when I find my promising young milkweed plants chewed to the ground, I tell them of my disappointment.

I put up fencing so that they could learn what is “garden” versus where they might obediently graze. Still, they wantonly stole from the garden.

However, as I watched and videoed this lovely groundhog family at the hermitage, I felt a true enjoyment of them. They are lovely little creatures, the chucklings so playful, their parents protective but not at all aggressive.

When I discovered that the shrill whistle came from them, likely an alarm because of my presence, I began to address them. As I left or approached the cabin, I would announce, “No need to whistle! It’s only me…”

And the whistling ceased.

I included them in the prayers I prayed from the hermitage porch, knowing that they were listening under the wooden slabs.

As I proclaimed aloud the Canticle from Daniel 3: 57-88 as part of Morning Prayer, I added a line for them (in italics):

 …You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord. All you birds of the air, bless the Lord. All you groundhogs, bless the Lord. All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord…

I came back home with a new love and compassion for my groundhog family, recognizing that they each need to eat one-third of their body weight every day. And there are at least two chucklings in this year’s litter.

I continue talk to them, despite their disobedience. I even gave them their own plant. I had seen one of them munching handfuls of it despite my fencing and decided that I could spare this one plant. So I dug it up, plopped it into a pot and put it by the place where they come under the fence.

I explained that it was theirs and that I would water it for them. If they allowed it to grow back, they could keep eating from it until hibernation time. (I know it’s not enough to feed a family, but it was intended to be a goodwill gesture.)

It must be difficult to be an inner city groundhog, living on a rather small strip of land between houses and highway. And it is not their fault that they need to eat so much. Nor is it fair to expect them to eat only grass when I have a variety of foods.

At the hermitage, they have plenty of space to roam and an abundance of grasses and wildflowers. Living in the earth, there is no need to “steal”. They are creatures among creatures, following the Way laid out for them.

And I saw this, while at this cabin by the woods. And I knew that it was me, not them, who had sinned.

May God have mercy on us.


2 thoughts on “What I learned at the hermitage #1

  1. Curious creature, was he looking at you? He seemed a bit twitchy. Maybe you were intruding on his own kind of meditating. (I talk to little animals too. You are right, they are holy in their way.) I’m glad you have made peace with them as neighbors in the city. Happy for you!

    And yes there must be something like sin in what we’ve built for our own “needs,” which of course are more like wants, regardless of anything else. But that’s neither here nor there at a hermitage, where desires seem to flower prayers. And blessings.

  2. It does seem like he (or she) is looking at me, doesn’t it? Groundhogs have an interesting way of doing that. Even when I am monitoring them from my kitchen window, they occasionally look up and seem to stare right at me.

    I must clarify that we are still in the process of making peace as neighbors. The mulberries have fallen to the ground now and they seem to enjoy those, most of which are in “grazing territory”. That helps. Also, I am working on making the garden less accessible, though they are good at getting around most any fence (“Fences make good neighbors” – R. Frost).

    So I learn how to be more loving – not without “boundaries”, but still loving. I surely need God’s help to do this!

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