By Marcia Hotchkiss
Almost two years into the global COVID crisis, we have lost so much. We grieve the loss of businesses, the loss of connection, the loss of socialization, and — most importantly — the loss of so many of our family members, friends, and neighbors.
Yet amid our grief, some of us have discovered that we received an unexpected gift. This might have felt less like a gift or a grace because we were forced into slowing and stillness by the pandemic.
In the past few years, my husband, Tom, and I have experienced contemplative spirituality as transformative of our lives and those around us. After we moved to Dallas for Tom to be the vicar of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, I attended a three-year training program for spiritual directors.
The first year focused on contemplative prayer practices, the second on Ignatian spirituality, and the third was a spiritual direction practicum year. This program, Heart Paths DFW, and the people I met there helped me stop living life at breakneck speed and experience a personal and loving God who wanted me to be still so that I could know him (Ps. 46:10).
Tom has been in ministry for his entire professional life and was deeply affected by Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline beginning in college. He investigated many contemplative programs and found the best match for him was the Renovare Institute’s program for Spiritual Formation, founded by Foster. The two-year program was extended to three due to the restrictions on travel caused by the pandemic. The bonus was further immersion in contemplative spirituality.
As we have been involved in various types of ministry for the 35 years we have been married, we have seen repeatedly that contemporary Christian culture often pushes us into busyness and performance in our spiritual lives, rather than into the unhurried, restful, deliberate life exemplified by Jesus in the gospels, as well as ancient and modern mystics. This causes Christians to feel like we have to measure up to receive the approval of others and even of God. What a tragedy! How sad that most of us spend so much time and energy in doing that we neglect simply being with the One who longs for our presence.
As we reflected and prayed on these truths while quarantined at home, seeds were planted for the beginning of an urban abbey. We knew of a few similar places that already existed. The Rev. Lynnsay Buehler is an Episcopal priest and the director of the Julian of Norwich Center, based at St. Bede’s in the Diocese of Atlanta.
Buehler’s primary work is providing spiritual direction to individuals and groups. An estimated 50-60 people per year benefit from this service. Priests answering to many expectations in busy parishes do not have the time or training to provide such services. Buehler also leads quiet days, teaches classes on prayer around the diocese, and is in the rotation of clergy who serve as presider and occasional preacher for services at St. Bede’s.
Our oldest son and his family live in Indianapolis, where we discovered and subsequently visited Fall Creek Abbey. Dave and Beth Booram provide spiritual direction and a training program at the abbey. Before COVID, the Boorams also provided space for individual overnight retreats, as well as day retreats for various groups. Fall Creek Abbey is not associated with a particular church or denomination, which was a bit different than the direction in which we felt led.
Closer to our home base in Dallas, we learned about The Sabbath Life, an urban abbey in downtown Tulsa. The Sabbath Life was founded by the Rev. Peter White, who came out of a busy, large church background and is now ordained as an Anglican priest. Like Buehler and the Boorams, White began this ministry modestly by providing spiritual direction. Then he felt led to also provide quiet and rest in a place that was accessible to people living busy and sometimes chaotic lives.
After some time, he was able to lease a historic house in downtown Tulsa. The Sabbath Life has provided stillness and solitude to professional ministry workers who often experience burnout and fatigue with little emotional or spiritual support.
These urban abbeys, as well as ancient and new monasticism, influenced the founding of the urban ministry here in Dallas, the Abbey on Lovers Lane. The house we are using is the rectory of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, which is near Southern Methodist University. More than 600,000 people, including a wide range of ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, live within a 15-minute radius of the Abbey on Lovers Lane.
If we ever doubted the hard truth that life can be difficult, this pandemic has clearly shown us that suffering appears in every life, and that we have very little control. Those who have learned to be still and know God by “talking at him, talking to him, listening to him, and simply being with him” (Mark Thibodeaux in Armchair Mystic) are able to sustain real faith and hope in the midst of pain and loss. Contemplative spirituality reveals that it is who you know and who you abide with, rather than how you perform, that helps us remain in the true vine (John 15:5).
As we dedicated and blessed the Abbey on Lovers Lane last August, a wise board member advised us to be open to the ministries God wanted to develop. We are now offering spiritual direction, prayer counseling for people in crisis, training in contemplative practices, clergy and clergy spouse support, and an inexpensive and accessible respite place in the middle of a chaotic city.
The Episcopal Church, along with others, is aware that fewer people are attending church now than in years past. This trend has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic. The Abbey on Lovers Lane seeks to reach out to those who have never been church members or those who have stopped attending due to fatigue, negligence, or pain.
In Even the Sparrow, Jill Weber recounts her experience in the founding of the Greater Ontario House of Prayer. She was feeling quite overwhelmed and prayed that God would show her simply how to begin a house of prayer. Then two thoughts came to her mind: first, become a house of prayer yourself, and second, help one person at a time.
Richard Foster reminds us in Celebration of Discipline: “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” We at the Abbey on Lovers Lane want to grow depth in ourselves and others in our spiritual lives together. We begin our mission with being houses of prayer ourselves and ministering to others, one person at a time. And in that we pray we are faithful to the Great Commission: to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).
Marcia Hotchkiss is program director for the Abbey on Lovers Lane, Dallas (abbeyonlovers.org).