The hermit's cabin sat in a snow-blanketed clearing in front of a grove of ramrod straight birch trees, standing with the kind of rectitude that suggested they felt responsible for holding up the sky.

The tidy little house would be my home for the next four days. Like the birches, it had a distinctive posture. The oddly angled, double-gabled roof and the bowlike bay windows made me think of a seaworthy, small boat, huddled in a harbor.

I was embarking on a three-night retreat. One part of me looked at the scene and relished it; I would be alone here, with time to relax and forget about the world I normally live in, with its endless litany of checklists. But another part of me felt a little scared.

I do a silent, solitary retreat of some kind almost every year, and I always look forward to it. But I also dread the first day, when I'm actually confronted with silence, no distractions available. Doing nothing sounds appealing until I'm actually on the verge of having nothing to do. Then even a few hours can seem like an ocean of time.

I had arrived at the Dwelling in the Woods, a nonsectarian retreat center about two hours north of the Twin Cities, on a clear and cold Sunday afternoon. I unloaded my clothes, a bag of groceries and my camera gear at the cabin, called the Birches.

The soft-spoken director, Judy Kreag, had given me a brief tour of the compound. I checked in at the main building, which houses offices, a large kitchen and dining room. The rate, with meals, was $85 a night. She showed me the Octagon, a larger wooden building with an open room where a guided meditation is given each morning. Five cabins, called hermitages, are set as far from each other as possible, tucked into niches in the woods that surround the compound. The nearest town, McGrath, is 13 miles away.

"Enjoy your peace and quiet," she said, and left me in my hermitage.

On the ground floor, there was a galley kitchen, a bathroom, a couch, a table and chairs, a wood stove and an easy chair facing the big bay windows. A hand-hewn spiral staircase led to the loft, which had two single beds.

A fresh loaf of whole wheat bread, still warm, rested on the counter in the kitchen. My dinner -- squash soup, salad and a piece of cake -- had already been stashed in the fridge. I didn't even need to cook. I built a fire in the wood stove and sat down.

Now there was nothing to do but sit and do nothing.

By the next morning, the uneasy sense that I should be doing something productive was fading, and I settled into the silence, which unveiled the everyday beauty of the place. I watched the red squirrels, chickadees and woodpeckers feud over the sunflower seeds in a bird feeder while I enjoyed my coffee.

Kreag had told me that Mondays at the Dwelling are "Hermit Days," and unnecessary conversation is discouraged. That didn't preclude the daily meditation practice at the Octagon. At 9:25 a.m., I walked across the compound and joined Kreag and another guest who were sitting in front of a small altar table. Kreag began by asking us to relax, to feel the muscles in our scalps and necks letting go.

"Focus on the breath," she said. "Feel energy coming in with each inhalation, and tension leaving with each exhale. Feel a grounding cord running into the Earth from your spine. Feel rooted in Mother Earth and at the same time lifted upward."

I could hear the clock ticking, and smell the cedar incense in the room. I thought "OK, now I'm meditating." Then I thought, "Don't think." My mind quieted for a minute or two, then I drifted into planning the day ahead. Then I thought, "Why am I planning a day in which I have nothing to do?"

I focused on my breathing again. My knees started to hurt. I focused on my breathing again, and a kind of peace descended for a few minutes.

I've been meditating for years, and I've never been able to sit with a quiet mind for more than about 10 minutes at a stretch. But I don't feel bad about it. Meditation in its most generic sense is a practice of training the mind to be quiet and still, to be open to what is happening in each moment. Most of the time our thoughts are digging through the past or pondering the future. Getting the mind into the here and now is a lifelong practice.

Kreag rang a bell to end the meditation. She offered a simple prayer for past hermits and their loved ones, and we went our separate, silent ways.

'The Dwelling miracles'

On Tuesday, when we could talk again, I interrupted my solitude briefly to interview Kreag in her office. A former Head Start coordinator at the Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet, Minn., she'd come to the Dwelling four years ago, stressed out and looking for refuge. She fell in love with the place and with its mission -- "to nurture and support the healing, growth and transformation of the human spirit."

The Dwelling was founded by three Catholic sisters of St. Joseph from St. Paul, she said. These sisters had spent a lot of time in prayer and solitude, sometimes at retreat centers that were quite austere. They wanted to share the power of silence, but they wanted to create a place that was more comfortable than the typical retreat center, a place where people would be fed good meals, where they could get a massage, where they wouldn't have to go outside to use a bathroom.

Because the sisters had taken vows of poverty, they decided they wouldn't be able to take a rational approach to building a retreat center, Kreag said.

"They had no money, no property and no collateral," she said. "They came up with the intention and had faith it would be filled. Then these things started happening that we call the Dwelling miracles."

First, they heard of a piece of land for sale near Solana State Forest, 100 miles north of the Twin Cities. Then, when one of the sisters was praying, she kept hearing the name of a man she knew. She called him and asked if he'd help raise money for a retreat center. "He said, 'I don't really like raising money, so I'll just buy the land for you and you can do the fundraising for whatever else you need.'"

Kreag described a series of coincidences and odd happenings, including an improbable bank loan for $100,000 for buildings. By 1989, their good intentions had coalesced as a working retreat center. Over the years, nearly 3,000 people -- referred to by Dwelling staff members as hermits -- have stayed at the center, sometimes for just a day or two, sometimes for a week or more.

"Our society doesn't value sitting and doing nothing," she said. "But not taking time to do nothing, you're not connecting with yourself. It's that still small voice in your heart. You need silence to be able to hear it."

Sacred details

That made sense to me. The longer I stayed quiet, the more time slowed, the more I felt connected to the beauty of the world around me. Without the constant cacophony of other voices in my ears -- TV, radio, cell phones, computers -- I started to hear and sense subtler rhythms, ones that aren't dependent on the false urgencies of our consumer society.

I walked on the snow-packed trails through the woods, and things that I normally would have overlooked, I savored: the sharp air, clarified with the smell of pine resin; the delicate footprints of a raccoon who'd stopped at the bird feeder, and at night, the way the bright stars seemed just out of reach of the extended arms of the birch trees.

Sunrise and sunset were major events of epic beauty. They happen every day, but most of the time, we're too busy to notice.

Chris Welsch • 612-673-7113