When I first moved to Georgia in June 1983, it wasn’t too long before I discovered the existence of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga. I visited once during the day and there discovered that one could stay overnight at the guesthouse for a modest fee.
I don’t remember when it began but, eventually, I made it a practice to do an annual “pilgrimage” to the monastery and spend several days. It was a time to get away from parish life, to disconnect from church and family for a brief time, and to focus on my relationship with God. I often would visit when I was near burn-out or facing some crisis.
In the early to mid-1980s the church I served at the time burned. The sanctuary was destroyed and, as I stood there on a cold winter night at 2 a.m., surrounded by fire trucks, I had no idea what to do.
We gathered our people on Sunday morning, thanks to the grace and benevolence of Christ our Shepherd Lutheran Church, who loaned us their sanctuary, and, the next morning, I was off to the monastery to try to find some answers. I did receive some guidance and the church not only survived but thrived in the aftermath. That was near the beginning of the annual visits.
The last time I went on the pilgrimage was August of 1996 when I had some serious and life-changing decisions to make. Again, I came home with a pathway and a plan that continues to be walked out to this day.
Try hard as I might, I couldn’t seem to get back to the monastery save for daytime visits on an infrequent basis. Until last week.
After months and months of saying, “We need to do this,” David Simpson, Bishop of Florida, and I headed to Conyers for a three-night stay. We talked about what we should do, whether we should have a certain study, have Holy Communion in our rooms each day, take walks … but we didn’t do any of that. We went to church services, read, listened to music, ate in their dining facilities, and rested.
The monastery has five services each day. Vigils are at 4 a.m., Mass with Lauds is at 7 a.m., Midday Prayer is at 12:15 p.m., Vespers, or Evening Prayer, is at 5:20 p.m., and Compline is at 7:30 p.m. We attended all the services each day except for the Vigils.
The heart medication I take at night makes me sluggish in the morning, so it was about 5:45 or 6 a.m. before I could get going. We sat in choir with the monks and participated in the chants, prayers, and lessons and traveled back a few centuries in the worship experience.
Alone in my room, between the services, I read the life of Father Dimitri Klepinin, a Russian Orthodox priest, married and the father of two children, who was arrested by the Nazis at the age of 39 and was martyred in the death camps. His exemplary life, even under such torment, was such that the Patriarch of Constantinople declared him to be a saint of the Church.
I also prayed, listened to mostly instrumental Christian music (especially John Michael Talbot), and I rested. There are no televisions, no radios, no electronic distractions and, at 8 p.m., the wi-fi is shut off.
As if by miracle, my telephone rarely rang and almost no texts were received. I did check email once a day and tried to respond. Bishop Simpson and I took our meals together and enjoyed some fruitful conversation.
Years ago, a denominational official urged his clergy to “take some time apart so that you don’t fall apart.” That was sound advice and we are already planning another visit to a monastery in Alabama next May. At that time it seems that two other bishops are going to join with us.
Vacations are not enough, in my estimation. Even those are often frantic, hectic, tension producing, filled with schedules and activities, and, when they end, we are often as tired as we were before they began. Often conferences, even church conferences, can be the same.
This wasn’t a vacation and it wasn’t a conference. It was a pilgrimage and I left feeling relaxed and refreshed.
One doesn’t have to be a member of the clergy to go on a retreat or a pilgrimage. One does, however, have to make the time. For almost 20 years, I didn’t find the time and the loss was mine. I do not intend to make that mistake again.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]