The first Reading Retreat for BU School of Theology students was held Winter semester 2007 at the Cambridge monastery of the Society of St John the Evangelist, by the Center for Practical Theology, Spiritual Formation and Church Life Project. The idea for the retreat was born from a desire to provide a space for students to integrate study and prayer. The schedule for the retreat was open, with students encouraged to bring their books and projects, and then participate in prayer times through-out the day with the monks. The retreat participants gathered briefly each evening helped round out the retreat, allowing students to discuss their projects and their struggles balancing the demands of theological education with their various practices of prayer. A brief introduction to the monastic practice of lectio divina as a way of engaging theological texts and papers was also offered.
The Reading Retreats have been an enormous success, with 7 retreats in the last two years. They have also spun off the Saturday Reading Retreats at the School of Theology. Getting away for 2-3 days is not possible for many students due to work and family responsibilities. The Saturday retreats take the same basic components of the longer monastic retreat and compress it into a nine-hour experience. Students arrive at the school for bagels/coffee, engage in large group sharing about their projects and goals for the day, pray a brief psalm-based Morning Prayer and then start their days of intensive study. Noon prayer followed by lunch provides a break mid-day. Students study until 5:30, when they gather together to review their progress and close the day with Evening Prayer. This version of the Reading Retreat brings about 25 students and is held once a month.
The challenges of integrating prayer and study during theological education are many. The Reading Retreats are one important way to help students build a rhythm of practice into their lives which allows both prayer and study to not only exist side by side, but to become mutually informing practices. A key component is also the building of the learning community–the Reading Retreats allow students to share their struggles and joys of study with each other and helps dispel the potentially isolating experience of study by providing a space for fellowship, prayer, and nourishment.