The following is a reflection from the Rev. Justin Lanier, rector, St. Peter’s, Bennington
Last year I met with a graduating college student who told me that he was considering a vocation as a priest or as a lay minister but wanted to undergo some serious contemplative training before studying at a school of divinity or seminary. He asked if there was anything like the Zen training in Japan or the Trappist formation I had talked about during a lecture I gave at his college. He wanted some intensive hands-on spiritual formation in an immersion context. He had questions about how to practice the “Cloud of Unknowing” and frequented regular centering prayer groups throughout the year as well as Holy Week liturgies. I told him about the Order of Julian of Norwich and Society or Saint John the Evangelist and the Holy Cross Monastery, but he was not looking for a monastic life, he was looking for monastic training. Having myself lived a monastic life and undergone monastic training, I could hear the difference in what he was asking for. Our monastic life tends to be a long slow and steady approach to spiritual formation, very balanced. The Zen approach (in particular the Rinzai Zen tradition in Kyoto’s Tofuku-sodo monastery where I trained as a resident monk) is more of a training. You do the training for 3-10 years then you move out of the monastery and enter a temple where you live a more balanced life. One of the hallmarks of this training time in the monastery is what is called the sesshin 攝心 (translation: To touch, receive, convey the mind-heart) which is the most intense period within the training season. In a sesshin monks and lay practioners come together to focus one pointedly in the practices of contemplation, chanting and walking meditation within the well disciplined monastic structure.
I heard the same question asked years ago from another young Episcopalian who was visiting the seminary I attended in California. This student was from Harvard Divinity School and had just returned from a trip to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center a Soto Zen Temple not far from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, my seminary. His question, “Where is our Green Gulch?” This question comes up again and again from lay people and clergy alike. Recently a young priest mentioned how wonderful it would be if we didn’t have to go to Buddhist retreats for this kind of training. A devout laymen said, “it would be great if we didn’t have to leave the prayer book behind.”
So I proposed a training-retreat similar to what the Zen tradition’s sesshin but within our own Anglican tradition. I wrote a grant to cover our food and lodging and to our surprise we received a “Stirrings of the Spirit Grant.” We scheduled an intensive contemplative retreat at Church of Our Savior at Mission farm in Killington where the Rev. Canon Lee Crawford accepted our reservation, and with enthusiasum fixed the bell for our arrival. She got to hear it first thing each morning at 3:15am our call to prayer.
From June 7th to the 13th 2015, a small group of us trained together in this retreat. We stayed in the Heminway House and ate our main meal each day together catered from Mission Farm Bakery where Mr. Tim Owings provided our daily supper. This was not a retreat for “new-beginners” but “seasoned-beginners”. The pilot group each had sustained daily contemplative prayer practices and some experience in sustained silent prayer as a prerequisite. All of the retreatants needed to be familiar with the liturgical prayer and have some stability with the stage of prayer called recollection which is Theresa of Avila’s first stage of contemplation. (the expediency of this kind of retreat often shows the retreatant experiencing both the prayer of quiet and on into the prayer of infused recollection.)
God’s indwelling presence and action are at the heart of the Baptismal life. The development of the spiritual life is at the heart of our Baptismal ecclesiology. The openess to God’s presence and action in the soul breaks down our resistance to God’s own love for us through the Word made flesh, and breaks down alienation between God’s people. We were all intent on using the expdient means of chant, centering prayer, scripture, and sacrament in this intensive monastic training environment. The prospective retreatants were all in their twenties and thirties, though as the planning went on we opened the retreat up for one day to folks of all ages who had some stability with contemplative prayer practice. The schedule was rigorous by design and meant to push the limits of the retreatants. Prayer is a full body practice which becomes extrememly evident after a few days of this training.
This form of intensive training-retreat is a small model of a kind of religious formation and community common among some of the young spiritually minded Christians, though it is all but absent in the Episcopal Church at present. This is not an intentional living community, this is an intentional training community. We come together to train; to pray, to chant and to support one another’s Baptismal identity in Christ for a short and intensive period. Then we return to our own parishes, schools, jobs, families or monasteries perhaps with a stability in deeper prayer and with the great encouragement of being together; brothers and sisters in Christ having practiced our faith together in this intimate way.
I have already begun to collect feedback from the pilot group and we have begun planning the next retreat and some of prepatory workshops for the chanting and for the long stretches of silent prayer. If you would, please pray for this ministry. If you have a sincere interest in this kind of practice please get in touch with the Reverend Justin Lanier, Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Bennington, 802.442.2911 or firstname.lastname@example.org