Hill Abbey home

All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.
By reading we learn what we did not know;
by reflection we retain what we have learned.
--Isidore of Seville

From all your readings strive to make progress in virtue.
--Stephen of Sawley

Hill Abbey Summer Hall



What is Summer Hall?
What will it do for me?
Why is it called "Hill Abbey"?
Why read the early church fathers?
Who may attend?

What is Summer Hall?

Hill Abbey's Summer Hall is a short (one to two week) summer program devoted to the slow reading of the early church fathers (and occasionally other great Christian writers) with a small group of like-minded people in pleasant, quiet, rhythmic, structured circumstances, anchored by Scripture reading, singing, prayer, and varied with walks in the woods, evening fires, and star-gazing. The program is more like a short-term monastery than a college or summer school. It's purpose is not "fun", although delight is one of its chief characteristics. The daily time is devoted to many hours of slow reading aloud together, periods of private contemplation and prayer, gathering together over good food and around bonfires and under stars, and conversation and fellowship. Hill Abbey is dedicated to the idea that wisdom and happiness require periodic times of withdrawal like this from the hectic pace and numerous distractions of "normal" life for the sake of reflection, meditation, and focus in the rhythm of a simple, daily routine.

 The main work of each day involves about five hours of reading, distributed over the course of the day.  We read aloud, taking turns, together in a group, reading slowly and stopping when necessary to discuss what we'd just read, or just to stare off into space and wonder over the words - but the emphasis is always on simply reading and listening to what the great author has to say, and to each other's voices as we read. We try to read with ears quick to hear and mouths slow to speak. We read in the library in the cool of the morning, and later in the heat of the day move out onto the lawns under the trees, wherever there is grass and a place for our lawn chairs or blankets. We have snacks and meals together. There is plenty of time for evaluation and questions of application later as we walk, eat, look at the fire, and gaze at the stars. We read with pencils in our hands and journals in our laps, and ooh-ing and aah-ing and even woohoo-ing and amen-ing are encouraged; laughter is welcome, and I don't think St. Benedict would object.

There are times set aside each morning and afternoon where all have solitude for contemplation and reflection on the reading or anything else, and we hold Morning and Evening Prayers (Matins and Vespers) in communion with the majority of the Christians in history who framed their days this way. We have a rest time in the afternoon, as well as some exercise, sometimes including working in the yards and gardens, and walks in the nearby woods and fields in the afternoon. Dinner includes some great outdoor meals, and after dinner there are short stories and poetry around the fire, and stargazing. We get plenty of rest - this isn't summer camp, so late-night shenanigans are not part of the picture.

What will it do for me?

There are far too many things to do in life, and though we try to do them all, we can't. So we have to choose. But instead of choosing well we choose the immediate, the urgent, what's directly in front of us, what's in our face, what shouts loudest for our attention.

Hill Abbey's summer session offers at least three things that very few of the other things demanding attention do. The first is peace. Real peace of soul comes of course from an ordered relationship with God. But two weeks of deliberately ignoring the urgent, tyrannical, frenetic daily demands that modern culture seems to impose on us illustrates how unimportant those things often are and how much more we can focus on inner peace when external peace is enjoyed.

And with this peace comes the second thing - perspective. The tree or hill that rises above the surrounding terrain gives a better view, and a fortnight without the tyranny of the urgent is like climbing to that height. Then we begin to see how trivial and foolishly wasteful are many of the things that clutter our daily lives. This is not to say that everything should be momentous - but without perspective we can't even enjoy the merely pleasant or delightful. We waste our lives with shallow busy-ness when we could be doing something truly important - like staring at the sky, listening to a friend's voice while he speaks, and thinking. Really thinking. Long, slow, leisurely thinking about anything or nothing, just being still.

And this leads to the third thing which Hill Abbey's summer session offers: wisdom. The program is primarily about reading one very great author from the history of the church but in a slow, contemplative manner, at the human pace with which it was written, aloud in the voices of brothers and sisters, and with long periods specifically set aside for reflection - all so that the wisdom of the great book can sink deeply into our thoughts and souls. We all need, and want, wisdom. Wisdom sees the big pictures, judges the priorities of things and orders them rightly, and chooses and acts well. But without peace and perspective there can be no wisdom. Hill Abbey's summer session attempts to create the circumstances where the wisdom can be heard and flourish.

One participant put it this way:

How does one sum up absolute peace, deep contentment, wild enjoyment, and true inspiration in one sentence? 'Praise the Lord' is all I can come up with. Hill Abbey was one of the most wonderfully renewing experiences I have ever had. The act of sitting in a circle with several other people reading Augustine out loud for many hours a day cannot fail to work magic in a tired soul. And yet (stupidly) I never quite expected the miracle of it all... the steady, peaceful rhythm of the Hill... as to telling about these last two weeks... I can't quite seem to figure out a good way to sum up long summer days, myriad voices, songs and stories, sweet moments of total peace... dancing, the smell of ripened wheat, moon risings, star gazings, midnight fires, wine tastings . . . pure joy.

Another said:

For the past two weeks I deliberately abandoned (almost) all electronic communication, in favor of reading carefully one of the greatest works known to Western literature and Christendom - Augustine's 'City of God' - with several other like-minded individuals. This statement is not meant to reflect pride in an accomplishment, but joy in what I think was a wonderful opportunity and a gift... I find this medium wholly inadequate for attempting to summarize those two weeks. The closest I think I could come would be to commend Psalm 133 for earnest reflection.

"1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore."

And another:

So happy having been a "nun" for two weeks of reading, talking, laughing, singing, contemplating, fellowshipping. The walks, the woods, the willy-nilly whimsy, the water, the wisdom, the wildflowers and the slow, slow, wonder.

And still another:

I was surprised to find how many pre-soaked ideas I had--thoughts that I had meant to consider, but hadn't had time or space to do so. I was also surprised to find how difficult it was to cultivate ideas like one cultivates a garden, in contrast to my usual habit of gathering ideas from the wilds of inspiration as I wander haphazardly through the world. Inspiration is easy--as easy as finding a fruit tree in a forest. Cultivating ideas, on the other hand, takes far more effort, but yields a greater intellectual crop. The current circumstances of my life allow me little silence and solitude, but having seen their benefits, silence and solitude have now become priorities, and I can't imagine living a serious intellectual life without them.

Why is it called "Hill Abbey"?

We are situated on a low, lovely hill on a neck of land surrounded on three sides by a bend of a river, and the summer session is more like a temporary monastery (a fellowship with an "abbot", which just means "father", at their head) than like a college. We're following, in our own limited but appreciative way, a very old tradition which began in early Christian Egypt, continued through medieval western Europe, and still holds on in a few places scorned by the modern world.

Why read the early church fathers?

When we read the writings of the early fathers of the church - those great authors from the first five hundred years of Christianity, or even a bit later (St. John of Damascus in the eighth century is considered by many to be the last of the early fathers) - we get an inside look into the questions and answers that we take for granted in the modern world, or never even think about, but that were new and profoundly exciting when the church was young: questions like "what is the Trinity?", "who is Jesus?", "what is evil?", "what should the Christian life look like?", "should Christians participate in politics, culture, and the world, and if so, how?", "how should we worship?", "what is the church?", "what is prayer?", "what is wisdom?", "what happens after we die?" Most modern Christians might consider these questions silly, if they ever even think about them, because they've all been answered already, haven't they? But how did we get those answers? We did not get them straight from the Bible; we got them from having been taught to think about the Bible by a long tradition of thought and teaching stretching over the past two thousand years. Arguments, debates, councils, long serious thought, and many profound books have all gone into the way we think about the Scriptures; we have most certainly not read the Bible uninfluenced - that is impossible. And the greatest influence on how all of later Christianity viewed these and many more questions, whether later Christians agreed or disagreed, were the early church fathers in the age of the undivided church. If the Bible is the foundation of our Christian thought, the early fathers are the foundation of our thought about the Bible, and about all of Christian belief and practice. We need to know the church fathers for the same reasons that we need to know about our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents; they are the trunk from which we later branches have grown.

Who may attend Summer Hall?

Anyone interested is welcome to inquire.