The Christian Liberal Arts as Spiritual Retreat

I’m about to head up to the second and final day of Bethel‘s annual faculty retreat, a venerable tradition meant to help us reconnect after a summer away, engage in some professional development (e.g., yesterday I sat in on a session about open access publishing and digital humanities), hear from our leaders, and worship together. Given the size of our faculty, we’re no longer able to decamp to anything more isolated than a neighboring megachurch; we no longer go leave the Twin Cities and spend a night together in cabins by a lake. Which is a shame, because there are surprisingly deep connections between the kind of education we provide and the Christian understanding of a spiritual retreat as a kind of wilderness experience.

William McNamara
Fr. William McNamara – Earthy Mysticism

Consider, for example, this analysis of the modern condition from Fr. William McNamara, a Discalced Carmelite monk who founded and edited Spiritual Life magazine and then withdrew to Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon to establish the Spiritual Life Institute:

A real God escapes us too, as long as we refuse to take time, enter into positive leisure or holy repose, and contemplate. We miss him in the busy hustle-bustle of a complicated, unintelligible liturgy. We miss him in our self-propelled, overrationalized meditations. We miss him in sermons and books that are moralistic, legalistic, negative, and childish, where there is no splendor or glory, no epiphany—“a shining forth of the Godhead.”

We miss God, above all, in our education, the goal of which is supposed to be contemplation, according to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, the fathers of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, and all other ancient and modern educators worth listening to. Our word “school” comes from the Greek word schola, which means “leisure.” The Greek schools provided the opportunity and established the discipline necessary for contemplation. Today the schools have expelled leisure; and American students, after sixteen to twenty years of schooling, have never learned to cultivate the attitudes and predispositions needed for contemplation…. (“The Prolonged Retreat: A Contemplative Experience,” pp. 91-92)

On the one hand, this is a critique of American education — and to the extent that Christian colleges like Bethel participate in its tendency to instrumentalize and commodify learning, to convert knowledge into one more product churned out by an assembly line for the smooth functioning of the marketplace, then what’s most needed is retreat from education.

But I pray that, at our best, the education we provide is itself a retreat.

Carl Lundquist
Bethel University Digital Library

I came across McNamara’s essay in a 1967 collection edited by Raymond J. Magee, Call to Adventure: The Retreat as Religious Experience. It’s one of eighteen books on spiritual retreats in the personal collection of the late Carl H. Lundquist (president of Bethel from 1954 to 1982, then founder of the Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart), bequeathed to Bethel Seminary and now housed in the Flame Room of its Lundquist Library.

I was recently exploring that collection as part of my research into Lundquist’s 1976 sabbatical, when he visited over forty retreat centers, monastic communities, and other “centers of spiritual renewal” in the United States and Europe, seeking to understand how a school like Bethel might learn from such renewal movements. Lundquist’s proposal – that Bethel establish its own spiritual retreat center and integrate retreats into the curriculum — never came to be, but philosopher David Williams and I will argue that the spirit of his proposal survives in certain off-campus programs like the High Sierra program he helps direct for Azusa Pacific University and the array of travel courses that Bethel professors like the one on World War I that my colleague Sam Mulberry and I teach in our January term. (That paper would be one chapter in a proposed book on Pietism and higher education — I hope to have some news about that this fall.)

Here though, let me return to McNamara (incidentally, while Lundquist’s trip started at two Catholic centers in the Phoenix area, he did not head two hours north to the Spiritual Life Institute), who argued that the ultimate purpose of the spiritual retreat — if it was inspired by the example of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness or retreating to mountains and gardens to pray, or by the tradition of Anthony and the other Desert Fathers and Mothers — was not just contemplative, but disruptive:

Mar Saba
Mar Saba, a 5th century Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley in Israel – Wikimedia

The desert evokes a man’s latent capacity for initiative, exploration, evaluation. It interrupts his ordinary pattern of life. It intercepts the stultifying process of a conventional, routine piety. It disengages him from the regular round of respectable human activities. Man learns to be still, alert, perceptive, recollected so that issues become clear, reality becomes recognizable and unambiguous. He knows God, not abstractions about God, not even the theology of God, but the much more mysterious and mighty God of theology—the God of Abraham, of Moses, of Elias, or Peter, Paul and John, of the fathers of the desert, the God of saints and the God of sinners.

Going to college on an exceedingly comfortable campus in a genteel Twin Cities suburb isn’t much like following Jesus and Anthony to the desert (one reason why David and I will argue for the particular value of relocating temporarily to the Sierra mountains or the former battlefields of Ypres and the Somme), but the Christian liberal arts education that students receive in places like Arden Hills, MN (or Wheaton, IL, Santa Barbara, CA, Mechanicsburg, PA, or Wenham, MA, to name a few other non-deserts housing Christian liberal arts colleges) does evoke “initiative, exploration, evaluation.” Choosing to spend time discussing metaphysics or creating a sculpture or conducting a chemistry experiment does interrupt our normal patterns with something more like the leisurely contemplation prized by the Greeks. Reading about the Holocaust or reflecting on the atonement very much disengages students from “the regular round of respectable human activities.”

And when we can hold back the forces that would accelerate what we do, or turn it into an item for sale, our education accords students the stillness and perception that provide clarity, perhaps even to the point when reality — if only in glimpses — “becomes recognizable and unambiguous.” More importantly still, I pray that what we do as teachers helps our students to know God: “not abstractions about God, not even the theology of God, but the much more mysterious and mighty God of theology….”

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3 thoughts on “The Christian Liberal Arts as Spiritual Retreat

  1. Thanks, Chris. What a perfect challenge to begin the year with. This idea of being both disruptive and contemplative is just the paradigm I have been looking for as I leave for Europe Term.

  2. Digital Illusion is not only a great Christian retreat center PA but they also make sure that their visitors during the retreat will get to learn important things out of the activities they conducted. It is a good thing that they make sure that they leave a significant mark, especially to their younger visitors in terms of spiritual aspect. Digital Illusion makes an outstanding Christian retreat center in PA because not only do they offer a solemn and quiet place but they also conduct activities that are worth your time. Visit us now and experience the greatness of God in your life!

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