Corey’s Corner: The abbey makes space for the soul

Barry Corey breaks the silence after month of study leave.

President Barry Corey

At this time during the fall semester, most Biola students are about to ramp up for finals in order to wind down for Christmas. Winding down is a discipline good for the soul.

Last month I took a study leave, decelerating my pace in order to rest and to ponder, to look back in order to look forward. For those four and a half weeks, gone were the meetings and the emails, the routine and the decisions.

The month started with a sudden stop, 60 to zero in one red-eye. My flight from LAX to Boston arrived on a Monday morning, and my first stop was Glastonbury Abbey. There, with the monks of St. Benedict, I spent almost a week in virtual silence. At my first lunch, Father Timothy gave me that permission, “Barry, when you’re here you can say as little as you want.”

Some of my friends feared I would get cranky or bored. I got neither. Instead, I got space. Each morning came with a Gospel: Tuesday in Matthew, Wednesday in Mark, Thursday in Luke and Friday in John. I took in each chapter, each verse, each word. And I walked for miles and miles through neighborhoods and along the Atlantic coast, often in cool drizzling rain. Wet did not matter.

When I was not walking through the streets or through the Gospels, I wrote. In my journal scribed at the abbey are pages and pages of prayers.

“Renew me, O Lord. And lead me through this… season by your right hand, on which I need to learn to trust and to grasp. As I fast this morning, reading your Word and writing these thoughts and walking the roads, continue to restore my trust [in you] and renew me from the soul outward.”

The afternoons I would read deeply—the kind of books that need hours and not minutes. I thought about Biola for a second decade, having just completed my first. Through my readings of an Italian philosopher named del Noce and a University of Pennsylvania professor named Rieff, I came to a renewed understanding of who we are as a university grounded in a divine moral authority: God’s word. Sometimes contemplating the deeper issues takes an intentional carving out of uninterrupted space. Truth is, a time or two my head would fall back as my eyes closed, the book resting open to the same page longer than normal.

A few minutes after five o’clock, the bells began to ring from the abbey’s chapel, reminding us that it was time for the afternoon vespers. Acapella in that simple space, we sang psalms with words like, “Hear the voice of my pleading as I call for help, as I lift up my hands in a prayer to your holy place.” With the monks, I began to sing words sung for thousands of years by the people of God. After the benediction, the Benedictines headed for supper and I followed. The evening meal was silent, save for the opening prayer and the memories read of monks long gone.

As I gave myself permission that week to detox from the agendas and disconnect from the digital, I was restored. I have come to realize that I—and we—need to practice the discipline of simplicity and presence, for if our outer life of work and performance and our inner life that craves for meaning with God are not in congruence, we will be anxious and not at peace.

I invite you to ponder this as you ramp up for finals and wind down for Christmas.

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