I had decided to pay a visit to my brother, who had recently moved with his family into a new home. I rang the front doorbell, and my sister-in-law answered the door.
“Joe’s upstairs,” she said, “in the closet.”
In the closet? I climbed the stairs and followed the sound of turning pages. Sure enough, there was Joe, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a walk-in closet, with a news magazine on his lap and a cup of espresso in his hand. Beside him were a Snickers wrapper and, inexplicably, a cartoon-a-day box calendar, four years expired.
“Welcome to my space,” he said. He went on to explain that the strain of the move was getting to him, and that he needed to step back. “This is where I go when I’m feeling stressed.”
He smiled dreamily at a bare light bulb on the closet ceiling, then threw an affectionate glance at a chrome clothes bar. “It’s a great place to unwind.”
This, I thought, is bizarre.
But in the 40 years that have passed since that visit with my brother, I’ve learned what Joe had already discovered: that each of us needs a place set apart, his very own “cleft in the rock” (Exodus 33:22).
I came to appreciate solitude while Mike and I were raising our nine kids. In those days, I could snatch some peace only by scurrying down to the basement and into the dingy boiler room.
The room smelled like tar bubbles and old oil, and it held a furnace that would periodically produce a startling clang followed by a thunderous roar. The boiler room spooked the young children and bored the older kids, so it was a perfect hideout.
I could sit in one of its warm corners and read either Charles Dickens or Charles Schultz, and nobody would know or care. In the boiler room, I could eat ice cream straight from the carton and not be judged. And if I decided to lie on the soothingly rumbly boiler room floor and stare glassy eyed at the ceiling, I wouldn’t hear a little voice cry, “Everybody come here! I think Mommy’s dead!”
Of course, it isn’t always either practical or possible to retreat to a place of even relative solitude. Just ask St. Catharine of Siena’s mother, who raised 22 children of her own. It’s said that, when the unending noise and bustle overwhelmed her, she could only stop what she was doing and throw her apron over her head.
With household sounds muffled and household sights obscured, she could place herself in God’s presence just long enough to draw from Him the strength she needed. I imagine that her hurried prayers were abbreviated, if somewhat frantic, versions of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “surge of the heart … a simple look turned toward heaven.”
St. Catharine’s mom improvised a place of her own under a swath of apron. It wasn’t soundproof. It wasn’t pretty. But in it, she managed to commune with her God. Her “cleft in the rock” was almost comical in its crudeness, but God was with her as surely as He was with Moses when He passed by him on Mount Sinai.
Every one of us needs a place set apart, whether that place is a roomy walk-in closet, an off-putting boiler room, or a pocket of breathable air beneath a grubby apron. In that place, we can accept the invitation of our loving Lord, Who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
We need only to dispose ourselves to receive the respite and refreshment that, like all good things, come from God.
By Celeste Behe, a parishioner of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, Hellertown. Find her online at www.CelesteBehe.com.