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Retreat offers chance to learn from the ancients

Retreat offers chance to learn from the ancients

FRUITLAND PARK – For Lew Arnold, the Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation is all about the rhythm.

And it’s an intentionally slow beat.

“You have to slow down,” said Arnold, a retired pastor who remains active in prison ministry and who has participated in the academy for 10 years. He will lead the 2014 retreat at the Florida Conference Life Enrichment Center (LEC). 

Group of past participants in the Five-Day spiritual formation academy at LEC
Participants of the Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation typically use the labyrinth and other facilities at the Florida Conference Life Enrichment Center to enhance their spiritual journey. Photo from Lew Arnold.

“It’s the rhythm of the day that is really attractive,” Arnold said. “It’s kind of a cool thing if you buy into the immersion environment.”

Developed by The Upper Room, a United Methodist ministry, the daily program starts with silence and then worship, followed by educational opportunities and a chance to mingle with others on a spiritual journey to become closer to God. The Eucharist is celebrated daily.

The Florida Conference Spiritual Formation Team has been organizing the annual event, which typically attracts 40 to 50 participants, since 2001. Registration is open to clergy and lay members for this year’s academy, scheduled for March 9-14.

Leading workshops will be Rev. Dr. Kay Mutert, a recognized expert on the spiritual significance of labyrinths, and Rev. Dr. Roger Owens, an author and associate professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Mutert will discuss “Celtic Spirituality: an Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World.” Owens’ topic will be “Journey to the True Self.”

Arnold said church leaders in particular get a lot out of the retreat.

“One of the things about being a [spiritual] leader is you don’t always pay attention to your own spiritual journey,” he said.

“There have been times I really have come there very broken. …  The rhythm and immersion environment of the academy have given me a safe place for exploration and expression of my own unique perspective and expression of spiritual formation.”

Jim Cook, prayer and chapel ministries director at Trinity UMC, Gainesville, and this year’s Spiritual Formation Team chairperson, said mixing clergy and laity at a retreat like the Five-Day Academy is healthy.

“We’ve been seeing more and more clergy coming,” he said. “It’s a neat thing for clergy and laity to be together for more than the Sunday morning touching-base sort of thing.”

Participants will be divided into small covenant groups that stay together and meet daily all week long, Cook said. 

Rev. Dr. Kay Mutert headshot Rev. Dr. Roger Owens
Kay Mutert Roger Owens

"The depth of spiritual conversations and personal conversations is extremely important over those five days,” he added.

Cook said he is impressed with the presenters this year. Both will discuss the spirituality of ancient practices that hold value for modern worshipers, who probably have more in common with past societies than they realize.

“In actuality, they [past worshipers] were disenchanted with the way their lives were going and what the church said their spirituality should be,” Cook said. “Many things they did in the past really do still work.”

Mutert is a master teacher and council member of Veriditas, a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing people to the spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth.

Cook said he attended a seminar led by Mutert in Jacksonville recently and let her know about the living labyrinth at the LEC. He expects her to incorporate the fixture in her workshop at the academy retreat.

Frances Jennings of Jacksonville has attended the Five-Day Academy for more than 10 years and signed up early for this year’s event. A member and former chairperson of the Spiritual Formation Team, she is involved in other efforts specifically aimed at developing a spiritual relationship with God.

“I think it’s a very spiritual time for both clergy and laity,” Jennings said, adding that the event often draws participants from out of state and from other denominations besides Methodist.

“Yet it’s a time of learning. It’s a time of fellowship. It’s a time of contemplation, meditation. It’s an excellent, excellent time all around.”

Because the program was modeled after the ways of the monastic order, including lodging participants in a room alone for enhanced meditation, the Five-Day offers a spiritual development opportunity that differs from some other experiences available to Christ’s disciples, Jennings said.

The faculty usually comes from out of state and offers a glimpse into spiritual practices across time and the globe, she added.

“It’s a wide variety of topics, so each year is a little bit different.”

Registration costs $75, with additional costs for lodging. Scholarships may be available for those who need financial assistance. Participants may be eligible for three continuing education units. For information, click here.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.