catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 6 :: 2008.03.21 — 2008.04.04


Land of abundance

Our friend James was talking recently in London, England, with a noted Catholic theologian and priest.  After explaining that he moved to London from Grand Rapids, Michigan within the past year, James was surprised at the priest’s response: “Is that anywhere near Kalamazoo? Or Three Rivers?”

Grand Rapids, if it’s on a person’s map at all, is usually identified as being the home of mega-church Mars Hill or the mecca of Christian publishing—not usually with Kalamazoo and exceptionally rarely with the small town of Three Rivers, which lies 80 miles south of Grand Rapids, a straight shot on US 131.  But for a small community of pilgrims around the world, Three Rivers is a significant destination.

When my husband Rob and I moved to Three Rivers in the autumn of 2002, it was only with a slight awareness of what lay west of town in a mythically beautiful tangle of hills and woods.  According to local legend, Native American tribes whose homes were on the shores of Lake Michigan traveled to this land to observe certain sacred rituals.  There’s a spirit about the place, people say. 

Though that spirit is certainly marked with sorrow at the absence of the tribes who first recognized its character, it continues to draw a diverse community of seeking individuals and groups.  The proof is in the tour: traveling north on Abbey Road, the first thing you’ll come to is St. Gregory’s, an Anglican monastery in the Benedictine tradition.  Turning the corner onto Dutch Settlement, you’ll pass The Hermitage, a Mennonite retreat community focused on silence and listening.  Next-door is the interfaith Gilchrist Retreat Center, a project of the Fetzer Institute.  Across the street from Gilchrist is the EarthSong Peace/Sound Chamber. You’ll also find The Fen Sanctuary, a new women’s retreat founded by the Canadian folk singer Ferron, and another women’s community called Apple Farm. Among the official institutions in “the neighborhood,” as it’s referred to by some, live oblates and mystics and hermits and those who simply desire a little distance between themselves and the nearest town—some notably eccentric, others more ably blending into mainstream society.

With those who know Three Rivers for its retreat reputation, I try to avoid my sheepish confession—that while I’ve spent a bit of time at The Hermitage for other purposes, I’ve never actually gone on a retreat at any of these places, even though I lived within five miles for nearly four years.  And it gets worse: I even have some bartering capital with one of them for some design work Rob and I did.

Unlike some I’ve talked to, who shun the idea of retreat because they can’t imagine appreciating a period of silence, I have a natural inclination toward quiet solitude. So why haven’t I pursued this experience for myself yet?  I even realize that being “too busy” is not an excuse.  We prioritize our lives according to the things we love.  While taking a retreat is something I know would be a worthwhile experience, I clearly love the idea of retreat more than the act itself as I fill my hours with dozens of other chosen obligations. 

Our friends at the Hermitage, and I imagine many retreat directors, talk about entering into retreat as a response to prayer and a perceived urging by God.  Perhaps I would have embarked on that journey long before now if God treated me with the same tyranny that many of my responsibilities do, with a threatening, “Now! Or else!”  However, the being characterized throughout Scripture as a dove, a cloud, a silence, a lamb simply stands at the door and knocks—knocks not to berate me for all that I’ve done or not done, but knocks to sit down and eat with me, even when I fail to realize that I’m desperately hungry.

Even as I write this piece, I’m pausing to check the weather, write e-mails and flip through the West Michigan Whitecaps baseball schedule I picked up last night, which all serves to delay my commitment to answer the door in this particular area of my life.  I’ve been hearing the knocking for a while now and this issue on engaging monasticism might just be the final encouragement for the one who least expected it.  Whether I meet there the still small voice or the burning bush or even just a more terrifying version of myself, may the meal be nourishing and the conversation revelatory.

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