Making a home for artists and writers in the Church

By Donald Schell

Sometimes a tradition begins by accident. I was thirty-five years old, and eighteen months into founding our new congregation, and I invited congregants to a weekend silent retreat I’d hoped to launch a practice of silent retreats in my new congregation. The Spirit had something else in mind.

Someone had suggested we go to a retreat house tended by a vowed Episcopal hermit, Maggie Ross. Sister Maggie’s retreat house was deep in redwood forest north of the Russian River. She lived in a cottage some distance from the house where we’d be staying. We’d have to cook for ourselves – with propane, like the lights, because the house was off the grid. It sounded perfect.

I told our congregation of twenty somethings about my previous experience with silence in community and common prayer in a setting of silence. I said we’d be roughing it a bit and that we’d get to meet a hermit who had a pet raven, but she wouldn’t talk with us because she was a hermit and we’d be in silence. I may have mentioned that Maggie Ross was a writer, but it was the year before she published The Fire of Your Life, so all I knew of her writing was that it was part of her daily practice as a vowed solitary.

It so happened that a few months before the retreat we’d started a congregational writers’ group. We did writing exercises in the group and shared what we were working on, whether fiction, poetry, memoir, or essay writing. As we packed up our food and gear to drive up to Cazadero together, I noticed that everyone coming on the retreat was part of our congregation’s writers’ group. When we gathered after our first long silence on Saturday evening, everyone had journals and notes, prayers, poems and reflections from the day’s silence. We read and listened in wonder. We’d mostly used the writing to get to a place of deeper truthfulness. I think that was Sister Maggie’s observation. Watching us during the day in the embracing quiet of the redwood forest, she’d decided to break her usual pattern and sit down with the weekend group.

As it turned out, our shared prayers that weekend were very simple – sung grace at meals and a quiet Eucharist one evening. By the end of the weekend we knew we’d begun something we wanted to continue. What had been planned as a silent prayer retreat had become a writers’ retreat, a weekend of luminous silence for creativity. We scheduled with Maggie to return the next year and planned how to invite other writing friends.

In time Maggie left the country to live her hermit’s life the edge of a regular monastic community, and we moved our annual weekend to St. Dorothy’s Rest, a retreat center that offered us the additional support of a cook who prepared our meals. Gradually other artists joined us – composers, a dancer, painters, a potter-sculptor, photographers, and an iconographer. We’ve gathered every Labor Day since 1982, continuing to fold new participants in to the group. Sometime in the early 1990’s we added a second weekend in the spring. The group grew to twenty-five or thirty people. We continued to welcome beginners and professionals, people bringing work in progress or people wanting to try something. We asked everyone to declare on the first night of the retreat what he or she’d be working on. To encourage people to explore creative practice outside the safety of their familiar medium and spark something new, a composer might offer a music composition workshop or musical improvisation workshop for writers and painters, or an actor would lead a couple hours of expressive movement work. In such offerings, writers regularly found quirky, inspiring, provocative invitations to write.

When we opened the retreat to writers and artists beyond our parish community, we had to define ourselves and how we were gathered. If we were no longer a church group of artists and writers, what would we be? Our core group of planners decided we could welcome all kinds of artists and writers so long as we made clear that some of the work presented might be Christian or explicitly spiritual, and that prayer at meals and a Eucharist open to all would be part of our gathering.

Welcoming artists and writers who weren’t Christian stretched our own openness to hear experience and imagination shaped by those artists’ visions and hopes. We came to recognize how essential the Spirit was to all creativity, but we didn’t worry whether our non-Christian participants welcomed that language to describe what we experienced together (though many did). Sr. Maggie’s wisdom confirmed our ongoing discovery that even when experience is truthfully told, what we personally believe, and what the church teaches are in a dynamic tension. The Spirit is present in that tension challenging, enlarging, and re-defining us and our faith.

Over the decades, this gathering helped shape the spirituality of our congregation.

– We learned that anyone can be creative.

– We learned that the desire that moves us to create is never satisfied

– We learned that faithfulness to vision for a work may carry an artist through passionate trial-and-error, and into frustration and failure on the way to realizing the vision.

– We learned that faithful desire makes people patient with suffering and fires that patience with hope.

– We learned that creativity CAN be shared before work is done if a welcoming, encouraging community is willing to see or hear another’s unfinished work and say “I wonder…”

– We learned to respect and listen to the artist’s vision as we shared experience of new work, and that made us readier to collaborate with anyone taking a new initiative in the congregation.

Two years after we started the retreats, a painter attended our St. Gregory’s Sunday liturgy for the first time. She told me she kept coming back to St. Gregory’s because it was the first time she’d felt like an ordinary, normal person in church. She felt welcomed as an artist: we had learned something of the essential humanity of creative work.

Later, when people visiting St. Gregory’s began saying they were amazed at how many artists and creative people we’d attracted to the congregation, I responded that the congregation had helped many of those artists and creative people emerge. Some visitors couldn’t believe that this many creative people hadn’t walked into church as artists. But even skeptics, if they stayed, learned startling things about their own God-given creativity. All kinds of other creative and collaborative projects sprang up in the church’s life. We learned to gather around vision and help people articulate it. Sometimes we found ourselves growing into the discipline of moving gracefully from a leadership role in one project to a supporting, following role in another project. We found that creative practice, like contemplation, moves us again and again to say, ‘Thank you.’ We glimpsed why our Great Thanksgiving is our response to God’s creative gift of God’s own presence to us in the flesh, Jesus.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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