Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone


Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

Redeemer's Benedictine Retreat, part one

“Benedict did not write his rule to an elite group. What he wrote was rather a small rule for beginners who are on the way toward Christian perfection. He wanted to teach his monks how to lead at least a half-way respectable life in which they would perform the usual, everyday things well.”
--Abbot Primate Viktor Dammertz OSB

I spend a week every year at a Benedictine monastery. I find this time to be deeply nurturing to my soul. I am blessed through the sacred order of each day: singing the psalms, eating in silence, working with my hands, practicing prayer at all hours of the day.

Each time I am there I wish every member of my congregation would spend time on a Benedictine retreat. Most of these thoughts end up with me recommending this to my congregation, knowing that only a very few of them will take the time and energy to go to a monastic house (like Getsemani in Kentucky or “my” monastery, Christ in the Desert).

“The Rule of St. Benedict” was written in the 6th century as a guide for living in a monastic house. However, the Rule is also rich with insight into the Christian life outside of the monastery. Benedict teaches us about the sacredness of time, of work, and of hospitality. He guides us in humility, obedience, and in transformation of the heart through the grace of Christ. As a pastor and teacher, I want people in my congregation to learn some of these lessons. I want us to be instructed in a grace-filled discipline.

With these two things in mind--spending time on retreat and learning the way of Benedict--I was led to the idea of teaching a class which culminated in a retreat. On this retreat, we would not go to a monastery. Rather, we would endeavor to live for 48 hours according to the Rule of St. Benedict. We would be brothers and sisters together. We would share silence, several prayer services a day, manual labor, meals, etc.

I had this idea a couple of years ago, but I did not see it as a true possibility until a few months ago when I had a conversation with Jenna Martin (our church’s Music Worship Pastor). She had a similar vision and was willing to pitch in. Little did I know that she would end up doing a huge amount of work. Not only did she have to prepare for 15 prayer services which revolved around the singing and chanting of multiple Psalms, she also brought together all the details of the weekend. She took initiative in every area and most of the organization of the event came down to her efforts.

Bob and Jeanette Veile were the first non-church staff members to come on board as leaders. They led hospitality, coordinated indoor work, and lent their wisdom on many issues. Then there was Debbie Taylor, who designed the chapel but also transformed the sleeping rooms into monastic cells. All her work was behind the scenes (she wasn’t even able to make it to the retreat) but here contributions were invaluable. Susan and John Eames were crucial leaders. John led our outdoor work and Susan both led group Lectio Divina and did tons of work as kitchen and dining assistant (more on all many of those things in my next post).

The one thing I think no one expected was the high quality of the food we ate. Benjamin Surmi both gathered the ingredients and led the cooking of the meals. Those meals were incredible. Benjamin started with local food, fresh vegetables, free range chickens and their eggs, and fair-trade fruit. He then took these ingredients and formed them into substantial, healthy and truly tasty food for us. Further, he gently taught cooking to those who volunteered in the kitchen. We were all blown away by his character and competence. In many ways, he set the tone for the entire weekend.

All told, there were 19 of us who committed 48 hours to live together according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Each of us truly entered into this process. Everyone worked, cleaned, sang, prayed, kept silence, and contributed themselves to the greater good. One of the most astounding things about those who came was our diversity. There were a few more women than men, but not many. More than that, our age range was wide. Our youngest member was 23, our oldest was 78. Within that 55 year range was an even balance of all the other age groups. It was a remarkable gathering of people from all walks of life.

That seems to be enough for now. In my next post, I will write about some of what we did and how we did it.

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