Author shares experiences from contemplative retreat
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/06/2021 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After about 18 months of forced isolation, the last thing pandemic-weary Manitobans might want to read is a book about the benefits of solitude.
But that’s the subject of Jamie Howison’s new book A Kind of Solitude: How Pacing the Cage with an Icon and The Book of Common Prayer Restored My Soul.
Howison, the priest and founding pastor of saint benedict’s table, an Anglican church meeting in downtown Winnipeg, wrote the book as a way to sharing what he learned during a five-week contemplative retreat in 2017.
He embarked on the retreat following the unexpected ending of his 18-year marriage in summer 2016.
Consumed by deep grief, Howison found himself anxious, unable to sleep or eat and pacing the streets near his home through the night hours. In addition to seeking medical assistance, he spoke to a close friend and mentor who suggested he seek help from a spiritual director.
A short time later he was contacted by his old friend Father Gary Thorne, the chaplain at the University of King’s College in Halifax, who had learned about his situation. Was this the spiritual director who could help? It turned out he was.
Thorne suggested Howison come to King’s College for a silent retreat. During that time he would have a room to himself — his “cell” — and attend morning, mid-day and evening prayers.
He was to keep a journal, but do no other writing. He would be expected to take one long walk a day, since exercise was important. And there was to be no internet, except once each morning to connect with family and friends.
But what if he grew bored? That, Thorne suggested, was the whole point; boredom was listed as one of the key points of the daily routine.
“Spending unproductive time in your cell is important,” Thorne wrote, adding it would be difficult but, ultimately, a place of “divine restlessness” where Howison could encounter God.
In January 2017 Howison flew to Halifax to begin his retreat. The book tells the story of that experience, and what he learned from it — how he was able to come to terms with his new reality and let go of his resentment and anger to find peace and restoration.
He decided to compile his experienced into a short manuscript. “At first I wrote it just for friends,” he said, adding the writing wasn’t easy.
“I had to go deep into my memory and relive the experience again. It was tiring to write. I could manage maybe only an hour or two at a time.”
Later, he asked a few people if they thought it might be suitable for a wider readership; they answered affirmatively and the book is the result.
His goal in publishing the book is to share the message that “there’s no shame in being a wounded person,” whether that’s for any personal failing or the ending of a marriage.
This can be especially true for clergy, who are sometimes put on a pedestal by their congregations — with the result that clergy can be tempted to pretend everything is perfect in their lives.
“Hurt and burnout can happen to clergy too,” Howison said, adding clergy are sometimes so consumed with being a shepherd to their congregations they forget “they need a shepherd, too.”
When that happens, “we shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help,” he shared.
In addition to praying, reflecting and journalling during the retreat, Howison was expected to create an icon — or, as it is called in the Orthodox tradition, “writing” an icon.
During the time he spent making the image, he was expected to see the effort — the drawing, mixing the paint and each brushstroke — as a form of prayer, meditation and reflection.
This was a challenge. “I’m not a drawer or painter at all,” Howison said. “It put me out of my comfort zone. But that was the point. As I painted, all the stuff in my subconscious came out. I became aware of the things I needed to process.”
Today the icon hangs on a wall in his study. “When I look at it, I am reminded of my story of restoration,” he said. “I see all I went through in the icon.”
Looking back, Howison said he doesn’t take the experience for granted.
“I know not everyone can take off six weeks like that,” he said. “But there may be other ways to seek restoration, through a counsellor, therapist or a spiritual director, or creating structures and habits to help you get back on your feet.”
His big takeaway was giving himself permission “to take time to attend to my needs and the things I need to keep me whole,” and to “take time for prayer, writing and reflection, make it a priority, not see it as a luxury. That is huge for me.”
As for the book, writing it “was another way to complete the journey,” he said. “I want people to know “recovery and restoration are possible. I still have scar tissue, but I feel restored.”
Howison’s book is available at https://jamiehowison.ca.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.