For three days last week Nashotah House took time off classes and enjoyed a silent retreat. Students were advised to use their time wisely, seeking God’s presence without the distraction of homework, electronic devices, and other duties our normal busy schedule requires. I remember vividly the moment silence commenced. After Monday’s Evensong service and a brief opening address from our retreat speaker, students and staff exited St. Mary’s chapel in a silence devoid of the usual chatter that marks the end of the day’s work and prayer. I felt I was suddenly transported to a different world (Nashotah House is the Anglican version of Hogwart’s, right?). Besides the noise of birdsong and tree leaves ruffled by the autumn breeze, a transcendent quiet encompassed our woodsy campus. It was powerful. One could immediately experience a heightened awareness of the Lord’s presence. This communal silence reminded me that we are all in this together, united as a body for the same purpose – to converse with the living triune God. It was a sign of our collective obedience and reverence for the majestic Creator of the world. How easy it is to forget that that Creator desires to communicate with us in silence!
Our retreat speaker was the Very Reverend Heidi Kinner, Dean of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Helena, Montana, an ex-Marine chaplain, and Daughter of the House. Needless to say, this godly woman brings a lot of experience and passion to the table. Rev. Kinner used Elijah as a model and discussed the necessity of a personal prayer life, bible study, Eucharist, and retreat in the life of a priest (or priest-in-training). She warned against a “secularized” ministry that gets over-burdened with trivial tasks, losing sight of God, and emphasized how Elijah’s ministry was always firmly grounded in God through his prayer life. He didn’t hesitate to speak to God conversationally, and he knew how to listen to God: “And the word of the Lord came to Elijah…” When Elijah became disillusioned with his prophetic ministry, begging the Lord to let him die, God sent an angel to feed him a cake. Rev. Kinner returned to this story several times and emphasized the necessity of feeding on the Lord in the Eucharist, especially during times of ministry “burnout”. Our speaker didn’t just talk at us about what a God-centered ministry consisted of; she fleshed out the kinds of practices – lectio divina, contemplative prayer, etc. – we ought to consistently engage in, and shared stories from her own experience. I personally appreciated seeing her offer spiritual direction and happily chatting (very quietly, of course) with students during meals in the refectory. All who spent one-on-one time with Rev. Kinner would testify to her encouraging and passionate spirit, and I’d venture to say we were all refreshed and challenged by her series of addresses.
Following chapter 38 of The Rule of St. Benedict – “Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers…only the reader’s voice should be heard there” – our Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Rick Hartley read Holy Scripture during our silent lunches. We heard from 1 John, Phillipians, and James, while we quietly munched down plates of salad, pasta, and grilled chicken. The experience challenged me to remember that we do not live by bread alone, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
During the retreat, cassock-clad students could be spotted reading on the library’s porch, praying silently on the campus beach of Nashotah Lake, or contemplatively drinking a cup of coffee while gazing at the beautiful grounds through the refectory windows. If Nashotah didn’t already feel like a monastery, these three days added a whole new level to the Benedictine spirit of the House. More importantly, students were graced with a time to set academic books aside and seek the Lord’s still, small voice that reminds us to “be still and know that I am God.”