“You are about to embark on a wonderful journey through two thousand years of history. Be prepared for big surprises along the way. You will be challenged and changed by what you learn. No one will be allowed to keep a safe distance.”
Students smile at me and exchange knowing glances with each other, remembering I had warned them of the unusual experience for which they had signed up.
“We will start our daily routine tomorrow morning: prayer, study, and work, repeated over and over again. We will be fasting from all media for the month too. There will be no television, radios, iPods, cell phones, email, or video games. The Benedictine way of life is going to have its way with us.”
Students ask a few questions and talk about their sense of excitement. Then everyone falls silent again. Tired from the long drive, they go to bed early but sleep very little.
The daily routine starts the next morning. We gather at the lodge for worship at 7:30 a.m. (matins). I read Psalm 139 three times in a row, allowing for plenty of silence between each reading, which introduces them to the Benedictine discipline of lectio divina. We sing a hymn and pray. A few students set up for breakfast, which begins at 8:00. After food is put away and dishes are done, everyone finds a private place in the lodge for personal devotions. We study biblical passages that address suffering, persecution, and sacrifice; we write in our journals and pray for the persecuted church. We convene again as a group at 10:30 for an hour of discussion and then an hour of lecture. I introduce them to the topic of the day, the spirituality of the early Christian martyrs. I review the biblical texts they studied in their personal devotions and tell the stories of the martyrdoms of Perpetua, Blandina, and Polycarp, explain why these saints were martyred, and make a case for the central role Christ’s Lordship plays in a proper understanding of Christian spirituality. We conclude the morning with the second worship service (terce/sext).
After lunch and recreation (cross-country skiing), we return to the lodge for two and a half hours of personal study. On this particular day, we read a collection of writings from early Christianity. We worship a third time at 6:15 p.m. (vespers), eat at 6:30, and meet in small groups from 7:15 to 8:30. Even on this, the first day, students show no sign of slowing down after the hour is up. We gather one last time at 10:00 for the fourth and final worship of the day (compline). After a snack I read a piece of literature to them (e.g., Jack London, C. S. Lewis, etc.); then the students retire to their cabins, stoke the wood stoves, and crawl into bed. Everyone sleeps well.
We follow this monastic routine for three weeks with very little variation except for the two days we devote to backcountry skiing, the day we spend in total silence, and Sundays, a day set aside for sleeping in and enjoying a late morning brunch. Students respond at first with a sense of eager excitement, largely because the routine is so novel to them. It does not take long, however, before they begin to grow restless, bored, even resistant, feeling as if they are serving time in prison. But after this period of struggle, which can last for a week, they settle into the rhythm and begin to enjoy it. The routine gives them time and freedom to invest in one thing at a time, whether that is reading a book, writing in their journals, talking with a friend, skiing in the backcountry, or doing dishes, for they know they will have plenty of time to get everything done.
They discover at Tall Timber the new and wonderful world of their own Christian heritage—that rich landscape of faith that has developed and diversified over two thousand years. They learn about the conviction of the early Christian martyrs and the heroic feats of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, about icons and sacraments, relics and pilgrimages, about the rhythm of monasteries (which they, in fact, experience during their time away), the poverty of mendicants (Franciscans and Dominicans) and the preaching of the Reformers, about visionary evangelicals, risk-taking missionaries, and courageous activists. They fall in love with these powerful and peculiar members of their spiritual family and learn to value the unique role they played in the history of the church, and they practice the disciplines that emerged out of the peculiar and particular circumstances that shaped the lives of these saints. The entire experience enlarges, enriches, and ultimately transforms their understanding—and experience—of the Christian faith.
The three-week retreat comes to an end sooner than the students expect and want. Then they must descend the mountain and return to the familiar world of school and work, cars and computers and cell phones, family and friends, movies and malls—in short, to the noise, hurry, and pressure of life in modern society. They discover soon enough that the biggest challenge they face is to appropriate and apply what they learned at Tall Timber to life back home, that their monastic experience on the mountain will have little value if it does not transform their ordinary life in the world. My goal as the professor of the course is to use the retreat experience to inspire and equip students to follow Jesus in a culture that is not friendly to the Christian life.