For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Retreats were never part of my spiritual heritage. The closest that I came to a time away for spiritual refreshment was the annual Sunday School trip to the seaside. It was a welcome change in our normal routine, and I did enjoy going the beach with all of my friends, but there was nothing particularly spiritual about it.
During my preparation for ordained ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, we did have two occasions when we went away to reflect on some of the challenges that awaited us. The format, however, was more like a business conference, with lots of information to be digested and little or no time for reflection.
My first intentional retreat was in the early 1980s during our time in Lafayette, Louisiana. We were busy, very busy, raising our family and planting Church of the Holy Spirit. There was very little time to pause and regroup, even less time to read and pray, so Angela encouraged me to take a personal retreat at the Saint Charles College Jesuit Spirituality Center in nearby Grand Coteau. Founded in 1821, the center is a beautiful, historic facility in the middle of delightful rural setting – it seemed as if I had travelled to another world. There were various options for personal retreats … with or without a director, alone or in a group … but in all of them, the participants were expected to maintain silence. I chose the “alone” option and settled into a pattern of personal prayer, study, silence, and solitary walks, interrupted by meals and corporate worship.
My few days at Grand Coteau proved to be a most rewarding and refreshing experience, and I managed to repeat the experience several times. Perhaps the most vital part of the retreat was the opportunity to listen to the voice of God in Scripture, in creation, and in that still, small voice that I have come to know and treasure. I can still remember the time I was struggling with an invitation to become rector of All Angels Church in New York. I was overwhelmed by the thought of leaving this Cajun community that we had come to love and who loved us so profoundly. It seemed like a step too far, too soon. But as I sat praying and listening, the words of the 1981 song by Dan Schutte, “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky,” flooded my mind:
I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
As I sat alone and in silence, I knew that I could trust “the Lord of sea and sky” to lead me in this new adventure. I could trust that all the people we loved would be secure in His love. It was a costly decision, but one that we have never regretted.
This past week, 69 clergy of the ADP took part in a retreat at the Antiochian Village Conference and Retreat Center in the beautiful Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania. It was a perfect location for us to be together for a brief time of rest and return, restoration and renewal. Maintaining silence proved to be an almost impossible task because everyone present was so pleased to be together again and had much to talk about! We had three presentations on the retreat themes – RETURN, RESTORE and RENEW – and time to reflect on what these meant for us personally. One of the most meaningful aspects of the retreat was worship in the chapel, one of the most glorious examples of Orthodox iconography that I have ever seen. The beauty of the room and the prayerful attention to every aspect of the liturgical furnishings felt like a glimpse of heaven. We were also blessed to have Lina, Jacob, and Sarah, musicians from Seeds of Hope, who filled the room and our hearts with glorious music every time we gathered.
There was also sadness as we remembered all of those who were missing and recalled some of the painful times that the diocese has undergone over the last few years. We were reminded of the ever-present scourge of COVID-19 as we prayed for those who were unable to be with us because of illness and those who had lost loved ones to the pandemic. On Wednesday evening, time was set aside so that those in attendance could share their personal sadness and grief over the untimely departure of Bishop Hobby and his wife Shari. It was painful for everyone present, but there was a beginning of healing and restoration as we looked to the future. We also received a report on the search for a new bishop and were reminded of the many healthy and hopeful dimensions of our life together.
The retreat itself lasted little more than 24 hours, yet we all knew that we had been in the presence of the One who has promised that in returning and rest we will be saved, and in quietness and trust we will find strength.
May I encourage each one of you to set aside regular times to be quiet in the presence of the God who loves you more than you can ever imagine? It doesn’t need to be in an actual retreat center – although they do offer a wonderful setting for renewal and healing. It can simply be a quiet corner in your living room, in your garden, or in a nearby park. What is most important is that you take time, make time, and “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46: 10-11)
Your brother in Christ,