Feb. 10, 2015
I’ve just returned from an amazing weekend at Powell House, the retreat center of NY Yearly Meeting. I want to share with Friends the particular message of this conference (that you can read your life as a parable) as well as the unique essence of Powell House conferences (equal parts quest, holiday, and labor).
This conference, “Sacred Journey,” was the first in the Spiritual Nurture series. The facilitator was Mary Kay Glazer, who brought her considerable training in spiritual formation, plus her infectious enthusiasm, to the task of guiding our weekend activities. The elder was Steve Molke, who silently ministered to the gathering by gently holding us in the Light as we labored. The director of Powell House, Ann Davidson, brought her abiding wisdom and humor to the task of keeping us safe and warm.
The twenty-three participants stayed in the cozy rooms of Pitt Hall, a converted but still elegant, turn-of-the-century farm-house. The windows provided views of serene, snow-covered woods and brightly colored birds at the feeder, all framed by the long, glistening icicles hanging from the eaves. In the beating heart of Pitt Hall, the restaurant-sized kitchen, Chris the Cook created delicious comfort food. The tantalizing smell of garlic-chicken and roasted potatoes called us before the dinner gong did!
Our quest this weekend took a number of different shapes: directed activity in a whole group, whole-group circle for silent worship, one-to-one speaking and listening, individual art activity, one-to-one sharing of our art, and directed activity in small groups. The deep inquiry and sharing was intense. However, Mary Kay alternated forms of quest with forms of holiday. A circle of Friendly back massage, a hymn-sing around the piano, and a Spirit-led dance party helped lighten us up. During free time we discovered other forms of holiday: sharing with our room-mates, playing a raucous game of Apples to Apples in the library, huddling in the dining room and talking in whispers late at night because we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from a hilarious conversation about – of all things – betrayal.
The theme of the conference was the story of our spiritual life. But Mary Kay had phrased it as “sacred journey” to underscore the seriousness of the story. Each one of us has a unique story about the way Spirit has worked through us and through our life-conditions. But this story is not only for the individual; it is for the community. For example, as I discover my authentic self, and as I gain awareness of the Divine Presence in my life, I am empowered to live as a witness to Divine Presence. I can bring that clarity to my faith community. I can reflect back to my home meeting the importance of fellowship. The patience and compassionate listening of others allows an individual to be authentic. The encouragement of others creates a safe space, even a sacred space, for an individual to be authentic. An individual who is living authentically, in turn, enriches the community.
A thread running through many of the conference activities was our Cloud of Witnesses, or our spiritual guides, living and dead, who have helped shape our understanding of the Divine Presence. Each of us has spiritual guides who accompany us on our sacred journey. Therefore, as I gain awareness of my sacred journey, I would do well to see it in the context of community.
Mary Kay encouraged us to read the story of our spiritual life, the story of our sacred journey, as a parable. Just as Jesus used parables to explain the mystery of the Divine Presence, so we can use the parable of our own life. For Friends who find meaning in the Christian sacred texts, the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection may be a fruitful consideration. For example, the episodes of suffering in my own life take on new significance if I read them as part of a parable of death and resurrection, or as a prelude to transformation.
One of the highlights of the conference was an activity called Repeating Question. It was surprisingly evocative. We paired up, and first one (for 5 minutes) and then the other (for 5 minutes) asked this question, repeatedly, with reverence and deep attention to the answer each time: “Why are you here this weekend?” Like layers of an onion, the answers were one beneath the other. When it was my turn to answer the question, as if I were indeed handling an onion, I started crying. In the sacred space created by the conference, I was able to be authentic.
Mary Kay taught us a form of prayer – Body Prayer — that was the perfect exercise in being our authentic selves together, as a community. She had us stand in a wide circle. Then, while she described four simple postures and the prayer each represented, we let our bodies express the prayer. The first posture was hands forward, palms up: we were waiting without expectation for what Spirit would bring us. The second posture was arms up: we were receiving the blessings that Spirit would pour down on us. The third posture was hands over heart: we were feeling the blessings of Spirit within us. The fourth posture was arms stretched wide: we were remaining open to Spirit and present in Spirit while going out into the World. I gazed at the circle of Friends in Body Prayer. Each Friend’s unique personality was reflected in his or her style. I thought how easily we could share this prayer when there were no words, no contentious doctrine, to complicate our sharing. Each Friend’s prayer was unique and authentic, but we had no difficulty praying together.
Other highlights of the conference for me were my favorite chores. I am fond of scrubbing pots, but Chris the Cook made it a truly awesome, steamy-sink experience by playing Cab Calloway tunes. We were swingin’ in the kitchen! I claim the compost chore every time, but this weekend it was truly magic. I carried the bucket out to the bin in the woods by walking a trail that had been plowed in the deep snow. I could see the tracks of rabbits, deer, and coyote. One little junco was caught in the compost bin; I tilted the cover and watched a blur of slate-colored feathers streak up into the trees.
On Sunday morning, even as Friends were thinking about leaving Powell House, and driving home in the approaching snow storm, silent Meeting for Worship was a rich experience. For a gorgeous, brief moment, it was a palpably gathered meeting, and Friends radiated the Light of their newly affirmed authentic selves.