some water and a grove

“The American of the 1870’s faced, as we do, a bewildering number of complex problems… the arrogance of…the trusts, a prolonged and severe economic depression, political corruption in city, state and federal government…and a wave of bitter strikes which shocked the nation and created wide fear for the safety and permanence of American democratic institutions.”  To many Michigan Methodists, 1875 seemed like a good time to seek “some water and a grove” where they might get away from the stress and distress of the day… “some place where recreation and devotion can be combined.”[1]

In the years that followed the devastation wrought by the American Civil War, a wounded nation labored to piece itself back together despite enormous challenges.  The healing came, in part, through two strictly American phenomena: the camp meeting and the Chautauqua assembly.  These national movements swept across a grief-stricken country reviving the spirit of a broken people and nurturing the bonds of community life.  The Bay View Association has its roots in both of these movements.

“Camp meetings” or “revivals” were a popular form of religious service during a period in this country known as the Second Great Awakening.  People would often travel from a great distance to camp out at a particular site, sing religious hymns, listen to itinerant preachers, and pray.  The goal was conversion and renewal of faith.  As a result of these gatherings, church attendance increased during the first half of the nineteenth century and a desire to reform America arose among the people.

Pleasantville Church was founded as the result of just such a revival.  In September of 1840, a small group of farmers gathered for ten days of evangelistic services.  These “camp meetings” gathered in a grove of trees on Jacob Cassell’s farm.  The revival was a mission of Boehm’s Reformed Church in Blue Bell (now Boehm’s United Church of Christ).  It went on for 10 days, and by the end of it the people who had gathered there felt called to establish Pleasantville Reformed Church (now Pleasantville United Church of Christ).

The Bay View Association was founded in 1875 as a Methodist camp meeting.  But by 1885, the era of the camp meeting was coming to a close.  Another movement was afoot in the nation: the American Chautauqua movement – and soon the identity of Bay View would begin to shift as this new American institution began to take its place.

[1] Keith J. Fennimore, The Heritage of Bay View: A Centennial History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) 15-16.

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a family tradition

In the summer of 1986, Rob and I met his parents in Bay View so that I could see first-hand what a “Bay View Day” was.  It had been over 15 years since his family had been back and the visit was filled with reminiscence.  Within a few years, Rob’s parents decided that the pull of Bay View was too strong to resist and in the summer of 1990 they purchased a cottage in the place that had, by now, become a National Historic Landmark.  Our son, Samuel, was six weeks old when he made his first visit to the new Scarrow Cottage.  He has spent some, or all, of every summer since, making him the 5th generation of the Scarrow family to fall in love with Bay View.

The Scarrow Cottage

Many families have a beloved place that they go back to year after year.  Bay View is that place for our family.  It’s the place where Samuel’s height has been faithfully recorded each year on the kitchen door jamb, and the place where the great procession of family photos- in-front-of-the-cottage takes place.

Over the past few days I’ve been listening to people share their stories of Bay View.  One thing that comes up repeatedly is how greatly people value a place like this, where they can gather each year with those they love.  There is a rootedness here that enables friendships to form over time, and families to know that – wherever they are – they will do their utmost to return here for some portion of the summer.  Bay View is not unique in this way.  I know many families who find the same rhythmic solace by the lake in Northern Minnesota, or at the house on the Jersey Shore, or in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania.  Those places we return to year after year can become such important touchstones in our lives.

Last night, Rob and I and our 13-year-old Jack Russell Terrier waited for the arrival of Sam’s inbound bus from Chicago.  After a year of living abroad, it seemed fitting that Bay View would be one of the places where Sam would need to touch base.  Despite the fact that it was 11 o’clock at night, Samuel’s grandmother – who had not seen him in six months — would need to do one important thing: stand him up against the kitchen wall and mark his height on the door jamb.

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bay view

The first time I heard about “Bay View” was on a beautiful autumn day – just after Rob and I had moved from California to Minnesota.  The sun was bright, the sky a cloudless blue, the air cool and crisp, when Rob declared with joy: “It’s a Bay View day!”  Bay View, it turned out, was a picturesque place along the shores of Little Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan.  It was a place of great history for the Scarrow family.  And it was a place where, in the summer, the weather was remarkably hospitable: cool breezes, fresh air, blue skies, low humidity – a wondrous contrast to the oppressive heat of an urban Michigan summer.

My acquaintance with “Bay View” came as the result of having married into the Scarrow family.  Rob’s grandmother, Edith, first came here around 1910, when she was a young woman.  Edith was plagued by hay fever severe enough to cause asthma and the Detroit summers played havoc with her health.  Her brother and sister-in-law resided in Petoskey, a city in Northern Michigan bordering a small Methodist Chautauqua called, “Bay View.”   They invited her north to find relief for her allergies.  She stayed at “The Bark,” a local cottage which let rooms to tourists.

The experience must have made a deep impression on Edith, because in 1920, Edith and her father bought a summer cottage in Bay View called the “Woodland Villa.”  It was a “tourist home” – a bed, but no breakfast.  (Today, that cottage is known as “The Gingerbread House.”  It still functions as a modern-day ‘tourist home,’ but with the benefit of a morning meal it is now what we call a “Bed & Breakfast.”)  Of the old Woodland Villa, Rob’s father (Edith’s son), writes this: “She ran it as a tourist home and a haven for her sons…as we passed from toddlers to college freshmen.  She sold the cottage in 1945 and bought what is now the Daus cottage, where she lived happily for another 25 years.”

Edith Scarrow spent more than 60 years summering in Bay View, Michigan.  After the death of her husband, Carman, she sold the cottage overlooking the lake and Rob’s family stopped summering there.  While he hadn’t been back since he was a boy, Rob still had fond memories of Bay View, the Scarrow Cottage, and the heavenly clime of Northern Michigan.

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I left Saint John’s Abbey a week ago.  It’s the strangest thing: I really miss the monastery.  I miss the silence.  I miss the rhythm of worship – both the daily interruption of it and the exceptionally slow pace of it.  I catch myself humming some of the tunes that I learned there – they sing the Lord’s Prayer in a way I’ve never heard before; they chant the psalms in ways I’ve never learned before.  Once those phrases get inside your head, they seem to stick around for a while.  This brush with the Benedictines has left its mark on me.

Things seems louder right now — louder and faster.  To be in such quiet for eleven days was delicious.  In his Rule, Saint Benedict cautioned again “unnecessary speech.”  He says that “anyone who is forever chattering shall not escape sin.”  I cannot deny it.  When I look upon the times that I have done the most damage to those I love and care about, it is when I was ‘forever chattering.’

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.”
(James 3:5-6)

Silence, it turns out, is very healing for me.  I trust that Saint Benedict is right: if I keep my mouth shut, I am far less likely to sin.

We arrived in Bay View, Michigan in time to be in worship on Sunday morning.  It was good to sing next to my father-in-law who, at the age of almost 86, still has a beautiful tenor voice.  When the Scarrows line up to worship the Lord, they do it in four-part harmony.  But with the monastic chants of the psalms still singing within me, Divine Worship felt like a race to the finish.  Everything was fast – the reading of scripture, the delivery of the sermon, the pace of worship — and with the exception of the Prayers of the People, there was no time for silence at all.

The truth is, the pacing of worship was probably as it would have been back in my own congregation.  Nowadays, we preachers are schooled to believe that silence is the enemy; silence is dead time — time when we lose our congregations’ attention; time when we lose momentum and energy in worship.  This is the generation raised on Sesame Street we are told – and we’ve got to learn to move worship along in tiny sound-bite-sized pieces.

Eleven days isn’t a long time.  But it did make – what I hope will be – a lasting impression on me.  I hope my time at the Abbey will continue to remind me of the importance of silence.   I hope I will remember that savoring the Word of God slowly can lead to profoundly nourishing worship.  And I hope I remember that, if the Benedictines have been worshiping this way for 1500 years, they might have gotten a few things right by now.

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I’ve been here long enough now that when new guests arrive they think I know what I’m doing.  It’s such a hoot.  It is the pace of worship that seems to throw new people off the most – that, and the deliberate periods of silence.  I’ve already spoken about the psalms, which are read or chanted, slowly and deliberately, each time we gather.  What I hadn’t mentioned is that, in between each reading there is silence – lasting between one and two minutes.  The silence between each reading slows us down on purpose; it stills us; grounds us.

The confirmation classes – both youth and adult – will remember the practice called lectio divina (“divine reading” or “spiritual reading”).  Lectio divina is a slow and deliberate way of reading Scripture which allows time to ponder and meditate upon words and phrases in the text that seem to shimmer.  It is a central practice of monastic life and while public worship is not the same as lectio, the intentionally slow pace of worship here at Saint John’s lends itself to a kind of lectio process in the gathered community.

Another lectio practice integrated into worship is lectio continua (“continuous reading”).  In lectio continua, the scriptures are read in sequence – with the lesson from today picking up where the lesson from yesterday left off.  Since the monks worship four times a day, there are four opportunities to make progress through the biblical text.  During the time I’ve been here, we’ve been making our way through Genesis, 1 Kings, and 1 Corinthians — with the Gospel always read at Community Eucharist.

I’ve never read the scriptures in quite this way before – slowly, deliberately, continuously, out loud, in community.  (When our congregation gathers, we are picking up where we left off one week ago – and frequently, where we pick up is not exactly where we left off.)  This deliberate and prayerful way of hearing the scripture affords many opportunities for the text to shimmer, and when it shimmers, it speaks.

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I had forgotten how much I love Minnesota.  Rob and I spent more than three years here when we were first married.  That year, the first snows fell on September 21st.  Two months later, on Thanksgiving morning, we opened our door to 22 inches of snow, fallen overnight.  I remember our neighbor at the time describing the weather changes in Minnesota as, “Wagnerian.”  (That’s a highfalutin way of saying, “epic.”)

The weather has indeed been epic over these past eleven days.  Last night there was yet another severe thunderstorm that put us all on tornado watch — the thunder, the lightning, the wind, the hail, the rain so dense you could no longer see the lake even through the flashes of light.  This morning, the skies were clear, the water a gorgeous shade of blue, soft breezes rustled the trees and the loons called from the lake.  It makes me remember one of the better chamber-of-commerce-type sayings about the state:

Where the lakes meet the trees
and the trees meet the sky
and the sky meets the sun
and the sun shines down on Minnesota.

It was great to be back in the Twin Cities again – to remember how infinitely livable and civilized they are – so many lakes, so many paths, so many bikes traveling safely along roadsides, so many old hippies.  It felt like home.

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getting ‘little’

Worship here at Saint John’s Abbey centers on the reading of the psalms.  Other biblical texts are read each day as well, but the psalms form the largest part of worship.  Over the course of one week, Benedictine monastics will either recite or chant the entire Psalter.  In order to accomplish this, every service incorporates multiple psalms – with the repetition of some psalms every day, namely Psalms 3, 94, 66, 50, 148, 149,  and 150 (in addition to 4, 90, and 133 which are the traditional Compline psalms prayed before sleeping).

What is striking for a guest is how slowly the psalms are recited.  In fact, there’s even a brochure produced with the following notation:

The pace of recitation at Saint John’s is fairly slow and deliberate.  Please listen to and follow the pace set by the monks.  Guests sometimes tend to go faster than the monks.

The goal is for all the voices to be as one.  No one voice should stick out.  This is not the place to make your mark.  It is not the place to distinguish yourself from others.  On the contrary: this is the place to become invisible – in the best sense of the word.  This is the place to take up less “space” than one might ordinarily.  It is very counter cultural.

When my son was little, he would sometimes want and need a lot of attention – as children do.  Occasionally, this would happen when we were with other people or in situations that also needed my attention.  One day – when were in this tug-of-war – I said without thinking: “Sam.  Get little.”  To my surprise, he understood right away what I meant, and it was OK.  It wasn’t hurtful or dismissive.  It didn’t convey that he wasn’t important.  It just meant that – at that moment – he was taking up too much space.  It became a phrase that we used with one another for a time.

Monastic worship requires that we ‘get little.’  The pacing is slow and deliberate and quietly set by one monk in each of the two choirs.  All of us (monks and guests alike) listen carefully for the prompt of his voice.  When done well, you can hear the in-breath as all aim to make their voices one.

It is soul-repairing, sanity-restoring worship.

Who knew?  No PowerPoint.  No video.  Not even a sermon.  Just the Word of God, and the wisdom to know when to get out of the way.

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“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me.”
(St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Chapter 53)

The Abbey Guesthouse at Saint John’s is a beautiful place.  In truth, it is the most beautiful place I have ever stayed and allowed myself to consider it a “spiritual retreat.”

First of all, what’s not to love about a room that looks like this?

abbey guestroom



Or a view that looks like this?

view from abbey guestroom

Stained glass that looks like this?

What’s not to love about trails that look like this….

path to stella maris






or this…

bridge to stella maris







leading to chapels that look like this?

stella maris chapel




The intentional practice of hospitality is a fundamental value of Benedictine communities, practiced for 1500 years.  It’s more than a way of welcoming visitors.  It’s a deep conviction that in welcoming the stranger, we are always welcoming Christ himself.

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sabbatical stats

OK, I’m 19 days into a 3-month sabbatical and by now I should have accomplished a number of things…

  1.  Lose weight.  (I haven’t — hey, if you saw what they’re baking at a Benedictine monastery you wouldn’t either.)
  2. Read all the books I’ve been meaning to read.  (I’ve completed five.  I’m in the midst of four.  I’ve stalled out on one.  And I just ordered one more from Barnes & Noble – thank you, Natalie Keck.)
  3. Stop checking my e-mail.   (It is absolutely a disease.  I cannot say anything more about it – except, there needs to be a 12 Step Recovery group for it.)
  4. Achieve peace of mind.  (Yeah, right.)
  5. Worship the Lord with gladness.  (Well, I’m doing pretty good with this one.  In the last 7 days, I have attended formal worship 21 times.  For those of you keeping track, you will realize that I have missed worship 3 times: once because I was overtaken by a 24-hour virus and felt terribly ill; once because I had gotten my days and nights mixed up again – I was sleeping during the day because I had been reading during the night; and once because… um…I was checking my e-mail and I forgot.  Oy.
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praying without ceasing

The schedule of worship here at Saint John’s Abbey – four times a day in addition to the regular interruption of the bells every 15 minutes – is a reminder to be spiritually attentive.

At our home in Ambler we have a wall sculpture by the artist Brian Andreas.  It’s supposed to be an angel – you can tell by the oddly-shaped wire wings.  The sculpture comes with a message:

Most people don’t know
there are angels whose only job is to
make sure you don’t get too
comfortable and fall asleep &
miss your life.

As far as I can tell, the spiritual journey is pretty much all about waking up.  Over and over, the life of faith encourages us to wake from our slumber; to pay attention to the signs of God’s presence that daily surround us.  Falling asleep – spiritually or emotionally – is the most common way we can miss our life and damage the ones we love.   But even when we want to, it’s hard to stay awake; to be present; to keep caring; to pay attention; to watch and wait for and believe in the signs of God’s in-breaking in our world and our lives.

That’s what I like about the Liturgy of the Hours.  To be interrupted four times a day; to have to get up from what I’m doing and walk to the Abbey Church; to take my place in the choir alongside the monks and find my way through the (count them) eight different volumes of liturgy and song; to have each hour broken up into 15-minute segments and to be summoned from my reverie and distraction by the call of bells – these are such sensible ways to stay awake.

To ‘pray without ceasing,’ the Apostle enjoins us (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  This seems to me to be a very good way of trying to do just that.

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