Don’t get me wrong: The place is gorgeous. An asymmetrical box set on a wooded hillside, the structure’s clean, modern interior resembles a boutique eco-hotel room. But there’s more than a smidgen of home mixed in there, with just about every conceivable need anticipated. Washer and dryer? Check. Teabags — caffeinated or herbal — and sugar? Check. The lighting options are varied, the reading chair is cushioned and all of the necessary cooking implements have been provided. It’s a fully self-sufficient space where guests can relax and tune out the world.
Which is the whole point.
A hermitage is traditionally a place where monks and other spiritually inclined folks can retreat from worldly concerns to contemplate God, something the leaders of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington felt was sorely missing in this driven, not-a-moment-of-downtime city.
But they’re not preachy about it. Besides a cross on the wall, a Bible on the desk and the keys to a small chapel nearby, the 350-square-foot space appears to be geared toward promoting contemplation, not necessarily of the spiritual variety.
I arrived at the one-room structure ready to take a bit of time for myself. Friar John-Sebastian, a jeans-and-hoodie-clad monk who helped me get settled, was informal and friendly. “Don’t hesitate to call if you need something, really,” he said while showing me around.
He encouraged me to explore the grounds, and I did. The hermitage is tucked away on the monastery’s 42 acres and there’s a fair amount to see, including well-tended gardens, a small hillside cemetery and a cluster of beech trees that surround the building. It’s set in the middle of the city and the hum of traffic never quite goes away, but the site nonetheless feels peaceful and safe.
But the small, welcoming space kept calling me back from my short ramble. The hermitage is intended for single-occupancy use. Created by architecture and design students from nearby Catholic University, the room has an overwhelmingly intentional feel, its layout and contents clearly chosen to provide an authentic experience — an almost Zen vibe, you might say.
It holds a sleeping area, desk, small kitchen and rocking chair, plus a bathroom at one end, but the room doesn’t feel the least bit cluttered. Virtually nothing in the space is made of plastic: Sleek cooking utensils are metal or wood, and simple bowls have the rough appeal of homemade pottery. The bed’s headboard is made of reclaimed boards and its mattress is covered by a fluffy down comforter.
It’s designed to encourage guests to settle in, to sink inside themselves and listen to the small internal voices they may be ignoring in their daily life. The room lacks television, radio and an Internet connection, which helpfully cuts out a number of potential distractions.
But a quiet mind doesn’t come that easily.
In my case, I was so excited to have time away from work and family that I could barely stick with one activity for more than a few minutes. Read? Meditate? Do yoga? Every guest is provided with a blank notebook for writing thoughts, and that added another option. Each appealed to me, and I sampled them all before deciding I was hungry for dinner.
Other than coffee and tea, food is not provided at the hermitage, so visitors must bring their meals. There’s a refrigerator, stove and microwave; cooking is easy.
It was eerily still at night. I felt surprisingly reassured that the gates were locked and a couple of security cameras tracked movement around the hermitage.
But by 10 p.m., I couldn’t hold off any longer. I crept into the cozy single bed and stayed there for almost 10 hours, waking to clear grey light filtering in through the trees.
Morning on the property is placid, and I finally got in that much-needed meditation session. Visitors are encouraged — but not pressured — to attend Mass in the main church. There are multiple services daily.
Apparently a vast number of Washingtonians agree that their lives could use a little more peace and quiet. One of the few urban hermitages in the country, the Franciscan Monastery’s retreat has been almost fully booked since it opened last October.
But those seeking calm might want to register for more than one night. If they fall into the common category of overworked, sleep-deprived Washingtonians, they might need that first night simply to rest their bodies before beginning to consider restoring their souls.
Abrams is a freelance writer.