I’ve proven who I am so many times
the magnetic strip’s worn thin
and each time I was someone else
and everyone was taken in.
– Bruce Cockburn
As clergy I was always above all an advocate.
Shepherding means meeting other’s needs on their terms. You cannot expect people to be able to give what they do not have the capability to give. Eliciting the abilities that they do have while simultaneously meeting their needs on their terms is a reflection of God’s compassion for us in the person of Christ.
That was my job. And I enjoyed it.
But over time I began to realize that while I was caring for others, I was not caring for myself. The churches I served were small. I was on call every day and at all hours. We were poorly paid and had no money to use to re-create in any meaningful fashion. Over time my own spiritual life was suffering and as that suffered I had less and less to give to others, that and the fact that I was not not myself in church ministry. And the churches I served had no concept that clergy needed resources to recharge themselves if they were to serve others well, nor that they had their own distinctions when it came to spirituality. A large part of our starting a retreat here had to do with what we personally needed. The other large part of it came because we also realized that many people in the churches we served also needed to be able to learn to decompress from their social environments that were clearly increasingly higher pressured.
At first living on this farm came with a sense of guilt, as if we were somehow betraying the values that we had been enculturated into, which in truth we were.
In the beginning we spent a lot of time in solitude. Reading. Contemplation. Mentally removing ourselves from the piles of notional garbage that had been imposed on us and that our minds had picked up over the decades. Sorting. Evaluating. Discarding. Divesting, Distancing.
We had built a cabin out of salvaged balsam logs that had originally been floated out of the south mountain in 1931 and used to build a 25′ x 25′ cabin on the banks of the river in which nine children had been raised. These had been donated to us along with all the
necessary lumber needed to make it into a retreat cabin of smaller proportions without amenities: gravity fed water, cast iron stove, oil lamps and candles, outdoor shower, privy. People who heard that we were building a retreat and imagined it to be a modern spa were disappointed; people who were familiar with the desert tradition of the first few hundred years of the church were delighted. Since then we have built a bunk house, chapel, and a live-in, more modern weaver’s shed, although all are again without modern amenities.
This is still the core of who we are. We offer a simple place of solitude – no cell phone service here. Three-quarters of a mile of walking trails are in twenty acres of our own woods with access to many miles of Crown Land above us, and wildlife…moose, elk, deer, black bear. There are numbers of smaller species. And a good view across the valley to the north. In spite of the presence of industrial agriculture, it is still a good place – cleaner and much less congested than virtually any other region – where we offer free hospitality in the Benedictine and Catholic Worker traditions and do not impose ourselves on our guests who come from a wide range of backgrounds, protecting their solitude and providing meals for free, either in the cabins or around our own table. We accept no donations. And we have found ourselves in doing so, both in terms of our own ability to access the personal freedom, spontaneity, and love that we so need, as well as in the personal fulfillment we so much value in caring for others.