A few days ago I was able to spend three days in semi-silent retreat at a genuinely wonderful place called ‘The Belfry’ near Lexington, Virginia. The Belfry is the vision come to life of Anne Grizzle, family therapist, author and our host, guide and companion. Anne met us with warm smiles on arrival and in an act of hospitality as shocking as it is ancient, washed our feet.
You can read more about The Belfry here: http://bellfry.org
The house is a superbly designed and finished modern building. The wood and stone, the blend of indoor and outdoor spaces, the generous hospitality, the great food and the open-hearted spirituality blend seamlessly to make an atmosphere such that a group of mostly silent strangers soon become soul friends.
The most spectacular aspect of the building is the tower, about which the orientation material says this:
The tower is meant for quiet study, reflection, prayer. Please take off your shoes and feel free to slip on slippers that are inside on the right of the tower door.
The Library is for reading, writing, studying, relaxing in quiet.
The Meditation Room with stained glass beatitude windows for prayer and meditation.
The Bell Tower for waiting, watching, viewing the wonders all around.
And there are indeed many wonders all around. Deer are often seen and bears are spoken of. We were told how to behave if we encountered one while out walking. The days were very hot, so times after dark were especially pleasant. The stars were superb, and the planets too. In the evening we could see Saturn and Mars, and before dawn Venus and Jupiter were shining brightly. Several of us sat out in silence watching the unforgettable sunrise on two beautiful mornings.
‘We’ were a mix of Mennonites and Episcopalians (Anglicans) with a Baptist and a Presbyterian too, though denominational allegiance was far from our minds. We were silent a lot of the time but had focused conversations at the meal table – several of which I was asked to start. Together we took walks twice a day and were introduced to the birds and plants of the area, and to the various aids to prayer and meditation that Anne and various helpers have developed in the extensive grounds. There was a Labyrinth, a Hermitage, a ‘stations of the cross’ path and a ‘stations of the resurrection’ path through the rich and diverse woods of the area. Hidden in the woods, a peaceful wooden hut serves as a simple chapel.
Wandering around early on our first morning I noticed sign for a a ‘Barefoot Path’ and thought, ‘what a strange coincidence’ – given the title of two of my books. And turned back to go to breakfast without exploring it.
A few hours later that I discovered that this was not a coincidence at all. The path was marked with stones carrying words from a number of the poem-prayers in ‘Barefoot Prayers’. Not only that, laminated printouts of about a dozen poems were suspended from trees, and as we walked the path together so different people read them out.
The challenge of describing this humbling and moving experience is beyond me, but that’s not a problem because one of our number (Mary Lou McMillin) put her own poetic pen to paper and wrote what follows. I share it with her permission, and with deep gratitude for a transformative few days.
The Barefoot Path
The barefoot path
is an invitation
to take off one’s shoes
to experience the sacredness of this space
the holiness of this ground.
Lush green moss
as do the pine needles.
of leather-soled boundaries…
Free to feel the earth
to feel its coolness
as well as the sharp sting
of rock & twig.
Not unlike the path of discipleship…
to which this path invites contemplation.
itself an exercise in risk-taking and in trust…
in reality or attitude…
Slows the pace…
heightens one’s senses
connects one to the various wonders of creation:
Dust and dirt…
Strangely colorful mushrooms…
Arresting wild flowers!
Along the path…
to ‘ground’ one’s spiritually
to guide one’s footsteps
in ways of learning
“As I stoop to take off my shoes… I ask for just one thing… The gift of love’
“Breath of God…flow into me, through me, from me…
as grace, as love, as Spirit, as life…breath of God, breathe me.”
“Let me follow you as bread…Let me be 12 baskets-full when your work is done!
“Jesus, bread of life…feed me with a fragment, fill me with the smallest crumb. ”
“Make me simple… That when people see through me they might glimpse your trace. ”
“Give me a heart of grace”
“Untie my depths”
“Amen…pause for breath, look up, take another step…”
Resting at last
upon the ‘Infinity Rock. ‘
So, the journey continues…
beyond space & time…
Mixing dust and divinity…
Calling us to passionate humility
Calling us to be earthy- barefoot-disciples
Of the living Christ.
mlm 8/28/14 – The Bellfry
Poem and path inspired by Stephen Cherry’s books: Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility, 2011 and Barefoot Prayers, 2013. Quotes above found in Barefoot Prayers, pages 19, 26, 27, 92, 88, 107, 131.