#16 – The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

Convent LogoThe (Anglican) Convent of St. John the Divine in Toronto is one of my spiritual homes.  I’ve been making an overnight retreat there at least four times a year for the past 27 years.

On my most recent visit, Sr. Dorothy greeted me by name when I arrived at the guest house office.  Then Frisca, the guest house administrator, welcomed me warmly.

Mandella1I checked the board and found that Frisca had assigned me to St. Helena – the room with a view of three majestic pines, my favorite. I lugged my bags up the steep flight of stairs and settled in by playing a Scrabble game, my usual pattern….

My spiritual director, Ruth, arranged my first visit to the convent 27 years ago. With her guidance I started going on silent retreats. At that time the convent was perched just across a ravine from the furiously busy Highway 401.  I could hear the muffled roar from the chapel. Getting off the 401 and immediately entering sacred space was jarring but most welcome!

At first the convent seemed so foreign to me.  But over time I learned the Anglican prayer book.  As I chanted Psalms to musical tones my mind and my body slowed down; I felt at-one-ness with the Sisters in worship. Since I was a pastor at that time, I looked forward to receiving the Eucharist simply as a worshipper. Eventually it felt natural to eat meals with others in silence and to not make eye contact in the hallways.

Mandella2From the convent’s site on Botham Road, I took long walks in a residential neighborhood undergoing gentrification. I tried to guess which old houses had been razed for a new start, and which ones had been gutted and renovated almost beyond recognition. On those walks, I mused how God’s Spirit gently and sometimes not-so-gently renovated me and the congregations I served.

My retreats continue at the convent’s new site on the quiet grounds adjacent to a rehab hospital they used to run. I sense “prayer in the walls,” as the guest house used to be the residence for nuns who worked at the hospital.

I always look forward to a forced break from the tyranny of e-mail and from all social media, as well as a forced break from speaking, other than during worship. At the beginning of a retreat, my hope is that sinking into outer silence will begin to still my inner clamour as well. I always sleep very well.

Sometimes my retreat offers a chance to discern something at hand.  More often I assume that God will provide whatever I need – sometimes through a book for sale or one I’ve brought with me, sometimes through a hymn or a Psalm we’re chanting, sometimes through walking the labyrinth on the lawn.

I could worship with the Sisters four times a day in the chapel – Morning Prayer at 8:30, the Eucharist at 12:00, Evening Prayer at 5:00, and Compline (or Night Prayer) at 8:10. I usually skip morning prayer, since my pattern is to get up early, watch the light increase through the trees, then write for a long time in my journal and go for a walk.

Over 27 years, I’ve gotten to know some of the Sisters and their varying personalities, even though I’ve rarely spoken to any of them other than the Guest Sister and the second-last Reverend Mother. I greatly respect the Sisters’ way of life. I’m impressed with their social conscience and with their Benedictine hospitality. While I have no formal relationship with them – I’m neither an associate nor an oblate nor a residential “alongsider” – I see them as my sisters.

Mandella3I vividly remember some of my encounters with the Holy One while on retreat. Other times feel more like a calm oasis, preparing me to step back into a full life at home. Or perhaps some discomfort in me begins, signalling a shift, with much more work to do after I leave.

For the last five years or so, I’ve coloured a mandala towards the end of each retreat, letting the colours choose themselves.  I look at it when I’m finished, and a title presents itself to me –  such as “Spinning Out New Life – expressing the theme of my 24 hours there.

While I was a pastor, I urgently needed these times away to focus on my own spiritual life. They are still an enormous gift of God’s grace to me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever gone on a spiritual retreat? If so, how did you experience that time away?  How has this focus on your inner life nourished your spirit?
  2. What other ways have you found of taking a time apart for your spirit to be nourished?

Next week: Summer Reading Discoveries

One thought on “#16 – The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

  1. The first retreat I was on was at Mount Carmel Monastery 16 years ago in 2001 when I began seminary. Since then I have been on at least 1 retreat every year at Mount Carmel. I also have attended a number of retreats through Menno Spiritual directors Eastern Canada. My spirit has been nourish especially through the practice of Walking the Labyrinth, through practising silence and through participation at the chanted Compline services.I have found wilderness canoeing to be another fine way to nourish my spirit.
    Heather Whitehouse


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