“Do you tell the truth?” That was the theme the Northeastern Seminary Women’s Retreat with Marlena Graves this April at the Bethany House at the Abbey of the Genesee. The sun was shining, the air was brisk, and all the women who gathered came humbly open to discern together what God might be wanting to say to us in our various seasons of ministry and life.
Friday evening began with a simple hot soup and fresh bread supper, followed by many of us joining ourbrother-monks of the Abbey for Compline in the Abbey chapel. It was a holy time of prayer, psalmody, and communal quiet – just the right way to begin to step aside from our myriad responsibilities and to start to rest together in God’s loving presence surrounding us. After Esther Gillie introduced us to some ways to continue Psalm-singing, Marlena led us in an evening teaching session with the theme “Embracing Who We Are and Who God Is” by challenging us with the question: “Do you tell the truth?” Do we tell the truth of our still-entangling daily sins? Do we tell the truth of God’s calling in our lives? She reminded us that our hearts are full of so many things that need the life of truth telling, quoting St. Macarius:
“The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace – all things are there.”
As we reflected together on the challenges and gifts of our experiences of real truth-telling, we experienced the good news of it all as our brother Macarius said: “There too is God.”
Saturday morning, we awoke to the smell of pancakes and coffee, and enjoyed the opportunity for a relaxed time of fellowship before our next teaching session together. Esther opened our session with a Morning Office liturgy (that of course included more psalm-singing!), and Marlena shared on the topic “In this Season: Equipped for a Meaningful Life: Priorities & Everyday Conversions.” In this session, she challenged us to continually allow the truth of “God’s priorities” (which are in stark contrast to our cultures’ priorities) to lead us into the practice of “letting go of the familiar death to which we cling” in order to make room for God’s resurrection life to enter our lives. Such practice of “daily deaths” is the stuff of everyday conversion. It is not the result of guilt or “shoulds.” It is the fruit of love. Sharing together the real challenges we were facing in this season of our lives of living into this reality once again seemed pregnant with the presence of the crucified Christ, who beckoned each of us gently to follow him, one step at a time.
After lunch together, we had a time of communal silence. Some of us napped. Some of us journaled, prayed, or took a walk in the cool but sunny afternoon. When we reconvened, Marlena read us a portion of C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce, again urging us to allow God’s Spirit to align our everyday lives with God’s priorities, whether our lives are thus lived in obscurity or at the forefront of what is visible to (and criticized by) others. We closed with a communal reflection on specific aspects of our lives in which we were being invited to follow our crucified Lord, and with praying communal blessings on one another. Before we left the grounds, we “put the house in order” for the next retreatants, a fitting conclusion to the invitation to allow God to put our lives in order so that those who inhabit this life with us will find themselves invited into the waiting presence of God.
In this two part series, Rebecca S. Letterman, associate professor of spiritual formation, reflects and responds to her experience at the 2016 Northeastern Seminary women’s retreat.