Jamie Howison shares some reflections from his retreat
Sunday morning, November 6, and I’m now into day five of a twelve-day personal retreat in Collegeville, Minnesota. I’ve got some writing to attend to while I’m here, but mostly these days are all about reading, praying, resting, walking, and simply “being.” The bright morning sun is shining through the wall of windows in my apartment at the Collegeville Institute, a steaming cup of tea sits on the table beside me. I’ve been up for a couple of hours—the shift back from daylight savings time always does that to me—and in another hour or so I will make the ten-minute walk up the hill to attend mass with the community of St John’s Abbey. It seems a good time to offer a few words on how things are unfolding.
I always find it a good thing to break from the usual routines and demands of day-to-day life, and to move into a space in which my entire rhythm can change. This is not so much an opportunity to escape the day-to-day as it is a stepping back in order to see it all from a different vantage point. That’s a big part of what a retreat is meant to do, you see; to provide a kind of Sabbath, which rejuvenates and enlivens you to return to the everyday with new insights, new perspectives, and renewed commitments.
For me there is no better place to do that than in the context of Collegeville. It is a remarkable place, set on 2000 acres of wildlife reserve and anchored by the Benedictine monastic community of St John’s Abbey. Here the community owns and operates St John’s University and St John’s Prep School, The Collegeville Institute, The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (home of the St John’s Bible), a pottery studio with the renowned potter Richard Bresnahan in residence, and the Liturgical Press, but it is the Abbey Church stands at the centre of it all. In fact, much as I love spending time here at the Institute, if it weren’t for the Abbey Church and its community, I don’t think I’d find myself so drawn to this place.
My pattern when I’m here is to join the monks for both Midday Prayer and Evening Prayer. The liturgy at noon is simple and brief: a hymn, three psalms, a reading, and prayers, taking no more than about fifteen minutes. Evening Prayer is longer, with a longer reading, more psalms—some chanted, some spoken, but in both cases very much prayed—and more space and stillness. That’s the thing that really draws me in these liturgies… the space and stillness. The pacing of those psalms is slow and deliberate, marked by long pauses between verses, which can catch a new visitor a bit off guard. For me, though, as soon as I walk into the church I begin to feel as if I’m breathing more deeply than I normally do. By the time I find my space in the choir stalls set aside for visitors (full disclosure… creature of habit that I am, unless somebody has beat me to it I always end up in the same stall… my stall…), the gears have utterly shifted. I look up at the great wall of coloured glass that runs across the back of the church, and prayer just happens.
And then the liturgy begins, and my prayer moves from personal to corporate. I pray psalms everyday as part of my own practice of Morning Prayer, but in the Abbey Church I’m often quite struck by how a particular psalm or verse will pop out at me, as if I’d never seen it before. That’s partly because the community uses a different psalm translation from the one I use, but it also has much to do with that pacing, that chanting, that stillness.
Last night at Evening Prayer we chanted Psalm 49, and one verse definitely popped. In the liturgical translation I normally use, this is how it goes:
I will incline my ear to a proverb
and set forth my riddle upon the harp. (49:4)
Now this is how the liturgical translation used at St John’s renders it:
I will turn my mind to a parable,
with the harp I will solve my problem.
“With the harp I will solve my problem;” that is the line that just jumped out at me. I thought immediately of all of our saint ben’s musicians and songwriters, all of the people connected to our community for whom writing music is a way of solving or resolving or working things through. That kind of songwriting is both a way of prayer, and a way of doing theology; of thinking about God or contending with God. I’ll never read that psalm in quite the same way again, because for me it now marks a kind of honouring of the gift of the musician.
It is the kind of thing you see when you step back and make space for a retreat. You see and you hear and you pray just a little differently, and then suddenly you see something anew.
It is good to be here. Pray for me over the coming week, that this time and place will continue to do its work in my soul, and that I will return both rested and renewed.
Under the mercy,