Hill Abbey home
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
all your readings strive to make progress in virtue.
--Stephen of Sawley
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.
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.
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
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.
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
3 It is like the dew of
Descending upon the
mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded
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:
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.