retreats


DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.

 

 

My friend pastor and jazz pianist Bill Carter wrote an evocative composition called “The Consolation of Snow.” I don’t know that Bill and I ever talked about what was consoling about snow. After hearing the piece, no words were necessary. B0004636.JPG

When I ran across this photo, it reminded me of the quiet peace that the cover of snow brings. Apart from the pesky inconveniences that come from snowfalls, and notwithstanding the dangers of icy roads and slippery sidewalks, there is most certainly a quiet beauty that surrounds the neighborhood when a fresh blanket of snow cloaks the winter landscape.

Here in our part of the northeast we missed that gift this year. We had a inch here, maybe as much as two one day. But we never got that heavy storm that kept us from work or school, that gave us an excuse to retreat from daily routines, to get cozy inside while the snow fell (or blew), and then to bundle up, boot up, and enter the scene pictured here.

The snowy cover muffles the everyday sounds of the neighborhood. Other than the occasional plow, there’s little traffic to interrupt the serenity of a walk down the road. It’s just very quiet. And peaceful. Full of peace. Just what we need.  I say again: peace and quiet.

When snow falls in abundance, things stop. So do we. That forced rest is healthy for us. And, yes, consoling.

That common phrase “a blanket of snow” is ambiguous, isn’t it? Blankets are for warmth, and snow is, well, freezing. So we can think of that other meaning attached to blanket: it is a comforter. Whether it is a child’s security blanket (think Linus) or an adult’s heavy cover against the chills of a cold house, it does calm and compose us enwrapped in its snugness.

Freshly fallen snow, maybe a foot or more, calms and composes too. Stop thinking frigid! Stop those negative thoughts about shoveling, plowing, slogging, and the ugly melting that will inevitably come. Please turn your thoughts to that quiet and that peace amidst the beauty of a white thick insulating blanket over the yard. Imagine the warmth of layers for protection, bundled up, and see yourself walking in silence, then just stopping in your tracks and listening to the quiet.

Those seasons of tranquility contribute to our deepest humanity. If we do not find those times, or if they do not find us, how sad. Lord, have mercy.

Do we not crave respite from political noisemakers, haunting headlines, and nettling newscasters? This just in: peace be with you…

Without the peace that comes with the snowfall, we will just have to carve out some small “peaces” that allow us time to breathe, sense the Spirit’s gentle touch, savor the silence, and find refreshment in the quiet, consoling corners of our lives.

If we cannot, or will not, make room for such peace, then I will pray for snow! Lots of it.

 

Today’s image, among the forty I’m choosing from my vast array of photos taken from my teen years ’til today, continues a short theme for this series: mountains. Yesterday I wrote of following blazes as a hiker. Today, a peak I’ll never attempt.

This is Denali, the highest peak in North America. On our first trip to Alaska, the weather was overcast most of the time, and on one particularly gray day we joked that we’d have to go back to Alaska again sometime to see its beauty in color. 380-1_edited-1

It was 2006, and as our guide drove us toward Denali (even then we heard no one refer to it as “Mt. McKinley”), he noted the clearing skies and told us that the majority of tours he led wouldn’t get a clear view of the mountain during that time of year. But it looked like we were in for a treat, he remarked. A “treat?” It was far more.

I know that the overused adjective that modifies the word mountain is “majestic,” and that one could say this was a breathtaking view, or we could go back to my earliest of these forty essays and apply “awesome” to this scene. Maybe it’s best to just let the image, flat and tiny as it is here, communicate the wonder that is Denali.

While in the area, we heard a climber describe  all it takes to get to Denali’s peak. The physical prep, the training, the equipment, the team…commitment, determination, trust, endurance, obviously a high degree of climbing skill, weather-watching, and even some luck — all contributed to his successful climbs.

Personally, I added all that to the list of things I would never put on my bucket list (along with deep sea diving and sky diving). But I admired the combination of bravery and foolishness that got that guy from the base to the summit. Good for him.

As for me: gape, wonder, focus, and take a few slides to preserve the moments.

I’ll spare you the meditation on mountaintop experiences in life. But I am led to think (and write) a little about what mountains meant to the life and ministry of Jesus. Oh, compared to Denali, the mountains Jesus is said to have climbed were mere hills. But they afforded him “retreat” from needy, pushing crowds, away from often dull-minded disciples and suspicious religious leaders. He knew that the occasional escape from the busy-ness of ministry would do his spirit good.

Mountains in those days were seen as holy places, for they were closer to heaven than the dusty roads and everyday routines of the low lands. Today it’s mostly cartoons that picture pilgrims climbing mountains to find the meaning of life from some “holy man” at the peak. In his time, Jesus made it clear that God preferred no particular mountain as a sacred place for worship.

There are several references in the gospels to Jesus heading up this mountain or that, “withdrawing” not to be closer to God, but to be alone, to pray, to meditate. The mountain trek provided fresh air and new vistas. Sometimes, he’d invite friends along, but that was to give them time to breathe too. Look how such higher vistas play into his story: the sermon on the mount, his transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, and, the story we hear as Lent begins of that vision where he is taken up on a high mountain to survey what might be his if he would but worship his tempter.

Yeah, I’d say that Jesus was a mountain man! But, no. On second thought, the mountains were only temporary havens to which he withdrew. He didn’t put down roots there and then withdraw into the valleys to serve for a time. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude, the vistas of the mountains and hills empowered his ministry back in the valley villages and the lower lands we now call “holy.” The main thing is that those higher elevations had high purposes for him and his work down below.

Today, then, we have lifted our eyes to the hills…and on Monday (after tomorrow’s Sabbath) we will see the view from the summit. And breathe deeply of creation’s, well, “majesty.”

 

 

 

 

For the next couple of days, I want to celebrate mountaintop experiences. Choosing a handful of images for this Lenten discipline of mine, a photo or slide for each day in Lent (2016) from a sixty-year accumulation, is hard when it comes to my scores of mountain views.

From journeys along the Appalachian Trail, to our Alaskan trips, to the Canadian Rockies, and to Lookout Mountain over Montreat…some Matt Matthews on the AT_edited-2.jpgmountains I’ve climbed, some I’ve just framed in my viewfinder. Today, I thought I’d start with this image of my good friend Matt. This hike was so many years ago, I can’t tell you where we were, except it was in the heart of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.  I do remember gently chastising Matt about his “hiking shoes” though. Old sneakers? Really? Turns out, his youthful energy bested my hiking-booted aging body, and he bounded ahead of me up one switchback after another.

Hiking the AT, even for just a day or two, can be both hard work and exhilarating. Climbing can be a challenge, yes, but the views, only hinted at in this picture, make every blister worth it. I’ve climbed with many youth groups (admittedly not recently, mind you) and I always encouraged the teens to spend some quiet time at every summit they reach.

I’d say something like, if a helicopter had flown up here and dropped you off, the view would be exactly the same. But you all struggled your way here, you followed a trail that was sometimes rocky and steep and you wanted to stop and rest, but we had to push you to keep going. You got scratches and blisters and you’re achy and maybe cranky, and your packs seem so much heavier than when we started. But look what you’ve achieved! Just look! No one can appreciate this view like someone who has earned it! So, let’s spend some time here before we head down. Rest awhile. Find your own spot if you want, and say a prayer, marvel at all you can see, respect the mountain and its gifts. Look down into the valley and find the river.

One thing that makes these treks easier is the blazes that guide us along the way. Learning what the various markers mean is simple. Then you just keep your eyes open to them as you go. Now and then, a marked tree has fallen or a blaze has been obscured, but for the most part it’s hard not to find your way if you watch for the guides.

I’m smiling as I remember a “talk” (that’s the quaint word we used back then) by an upper class student in college, a short meditation he was leading at a Christian fellowship meeting. Here it is over fifty years later, and I can still hear George’s voice as he exclaimed over the importance of the “white markers” along hiking trails, and he used them as a metaphor for life’s journey. George urged us to watch for the markers placed by God along our paths in college, in social relationships, and in moral decision-making.

I was pretty impressed by his “talk.” And only decades later did it occur that he may have gotten the idea from some Christian resource for campus fellowship leaders. Still, George’s guidance was useful then and remains so, all these years later.

For one thing, those blazes along the trail were put there by people who had gone before us, and who knew the best way to go. And the blazes marked well-worn paths that had kept others from getting  lost. Further, the markings on trees and rock formations had to be kept fresh, repainted now and then, for future hikers.

I realize as I type this that GPS may make those primitive blazes obsolete. Oh, I hope not. Because there’s a lot to be said for hiking along the trails and looking closely at the rocks and trees and formations and footpaths of nature, not at some damned gizmo’s screen. Keep looking at your phone as you traverse the trail, and you may find yourself tripping over a root, or falling into a deep ravine. To me, the whole point of being on a hike is to appreciate the wonders of nature. And experience the quiet beauty of peaks and valleys.

More about that tomorrow…

 

 

This photo hangs on the wall of our bedroom, a reminder of a visit to the Isle of Iona, Scotland. There are other images from that trip, arranged in one of those collage frames, showing the Abbey chapel, an ancient stone Celtic cross, and the Abbey grounds, each arguably more “artistic” than this picture. Yet this image has special meaning to Joan and me.

Each Tuesday, visitors to Iona take a hike over hill an3512-1d vale, through heather and between thistles, with pauses along the way for some history lessons, singing, and meditation.

St. Columba founded a monastery on Iona in 563 A.D., so, yes, there is some history here. And the singing? At each stop along the way, our guide taught us a song and its harmony, drawn from the Iona-based Wild Goose Resource Group’s repertoire. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to join our voices in sung prayers along that pilgrimage route. And, while we enjoyed the laughter and gentle conversation of a community hiking a path around the island, when we did stop to gaze out at the sea or stand among ancient ruins, quiet reflection helped us center on the “thin places,” the spiritual height and depth and breadth of holy encounters in sacred surroundings.

Among the places we stopped…this stone-blanketed beach at Columba’s Bay. We listened to theories behind Columba’s arrival here, sang a song together, and then walked among these stones, with much rattling and cobbling breaking the silence of our meditation time. We were given an assignment: look for a stone, and name it something you’d like to be rid of. A sin, a bad habit, a hurtful memory, some brokenness. Pick up that stone, let it symbolize that which you would let go of, be totally rid of, repent of, fling away forever. Hold that stone, feel its heft, say your prayer, and then go to the water’s edge and with all your might, throw it away, far away, into the deep waters. Be free of it.

And then, walk back among the stones and choose one to take home, a keepsake of your pilgrimage…a stone that reminds you of your freedom to choose, and your liberation from a weight that kept you from celebrating God fully present in your life. The stones Joan and I brought home in 2007 are still there in the room with this picture, hers on her dresser, mine on a window sill.

I’m no geologist, so I can’t tell you why my stone is so full of greens, grays, pinks, and whites. But I chose the most curiously colorful stone on that beach, a most unusual rock, one that says something about me…something. Sure, it’s a souvenir of an important week in my life, a reminder of a day-long Iona hike, part of the spiritual pilgrimage that is my whole life. But, more, that stone is also the opposite of that one I threw so far away, the thing I prayed to let go of. This stone is blessing, gift, and grace.

And when the sun rises each day, it shines into my east-facing window and falls first on this stone. Its colors come alive. And, thank God, so do I.

I am writing each day during Lent (2016), focusing on a photo I took somewhere along my life’s journey. Today, a Virginia highway leads to a narrow riverside road that takes us to a long dusty driveway, and at its end, Holy Cross Abbey. The photo shows some foothills of the Blue Ridge, a meadow that leads down to the banks of the Shenandoah, and there in the grass in front of the main house is Father Stephen.

He’s in conversation with two visitors, and I have no doubt the three of them will leave that spot smiling. Father Stephen was the Guestmaster at that Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia for most of the years I enjoyed week-long retreats there.

(I wrote a meditation about Father Stephen Usinowicz  in a previous Leimg442nten blog series called “Forty I Have Followed.” The link is at the end of this reflection.)

My visits to the Abbey were, pardon the expression, Lent-like. I would retreat not for forty days, but for a mere six. And far from being Jesus’ wilderness, as you can see here, I was surrounded by serene hills and pasture land. The Abbey once operated a 1200 acre farm, lodged its retreatants in an old tenant farmhouse, and provided peace and quiet for this young minister taking a break from his three “half-time” ministries. (I know; it didn’t add up, did it?)

My disciplines during those retreats were like those of Lent. Prayer, worship, reading, and silence. Technically, we didn’t fast, however. While the 35 (or so) monks did follow a dietary discipline, we at the retreat house enjoyed three square meals a day. The only fasting was from our back-home routine of snacks, drink machines, and before bedtime treats.

There was another “fast” of sorts for me, and it was difficult the first few retreats there. No radio. No TV. For six days. But I held to the restriction. As soon as I turned onto the monastery driveway, I turned off the car radio and left it off for the week. One caveat: the guesthouse did allow personal media devices with ear phones, and in those days that meant cassette tape players. Father Stephen was especially pleased that I limited my use of that tape player to listening to the voice of Thomas Merton as he delivered addresses to novices at the “mother house” in Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Now I didn’t conduct these yearly retreats during the Lenten season. I usually carved out a week in my summers, counting the time away as “continuing education.” However, looking back, I do realize that these days away from family and work, while not exactly a vision quest, did include intentional practices that enriched my personal spirituality and ministries. As mentioned above, I prayed, learning from Father Stephen the benefits of contemplative prayer. When it came to worship services, I admit to skipping the first “office” of each day, 3:30 a.m. vigils. (I tried it once. Enough said.) But I did join the monks for all the other offices each day, beginning with Mass at 7:30 a.m. and ending with compline at 7:30 p.m.

In addition, I spent hours each day reading, especially the theology I neglected in my normal day-to-day routine back home. I took long walks, sat by the Shenandoah, shared the monks’ vow of silence, and joined in the breaking of that silence along with the breaking of bread at mealtimes with the other retreatants. Father Stephen’s vow of silence was relaxed since he was our host at house and table, sharing good humor, explaining the way of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and making this Presbyterian feel at home in a Trappist setting.

No, it wasn’t Lent. But I took the practices of Lent to Berryville, and after my sojourn there, I came home renewed, refreshed, and even, resurrected. Those retreats were many years ago, but I remain deeply grateful.

[I have used the corrected name of Fr. Stephen in this entry. The link below was created before the misspelling was pointed out by a reader.]

https://jeffkellam.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/forty-i-followed-father-stephen-usinowitz/