My first silent retreat scared me to death. Well, not death, but you know what I mean. I didn’t think I could do it – stay silent for eighteen hours, that is (even though eight of those hours would be spent sleeping.) The occasion was the first gathering of my Bethany Project peer group, pastors from Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. We gathered at historic Bethany, West Virginia.
The Bethany Project was the brain child – or perhaps spirit child – of Martha Grace Reese, and it continues to have a great run in several different iterations. The basic idea is that pastors are better leaders if their spirits are well nurtured in prayer and their hearts well supported by caring colleagues. Bethany Project peer groups retreat together regularly. A centerpiece of each retreat is the significant period – many hours to several days – of silence, so the emphasis is on listening for the voice of God.
Back at that retreat in Bethany, during the waking silent hours, I prayed (in 9 degree weather) in Alexander Campbell’s study, read Henri Nouwen in Campbell’s living room, walked the town and the cemetery praying a breath prayer with each few steps – Come Holy Spirit . . . dance.
It turns out the silence was not only possible but joyfully exhilarating. As we ended the period of silence together, there was much to share about how God had spoken through it.
Close to a decade ago, Dick Hamm, while serving as Disciples’ General Minister and President, introduced the Bethany Project model to a group of his peers. Since then a number of “heads of communion” have gathered annually, just before Christmas, when the travel schedule finally permits it, for prayer, collegial support, and blessed silence.
Yes blessed silence. Welcome silence. Sometimes joyfully exhilarating, sometimes challenging silence, opening our hearts and spirits to make room for the Spirit of God. I write from this year’s retreat in Maryland. I’ve just hiked up to the outdoor worship space at the campground where we are meeting and walked the labyrinth. Snow is falling. A fire is burning in the fireplace. I watch the flames. I wait and listen for God – Come Holy Spirit . . . dance!