retreatThe students from the Edge House were singing as we hiked into Conkle’s Hollow.  Sandstone cliffs rose up on either side, striated by the lapping waves of an ocean that disappeared millennia ago.  Thin trees clung to them, and when the wind blew yellow leaves shook loose and scattered like the rain that was occasionally falling.  A thin waterfall trickled down at the trail’s edge, and small fish darted in the shallow pool at its base.  And the song reverberated through all of this, as other members of our group arrived at the big rock where the Edge House students were perching, and joined them in singing.

We sang pieces from the paperless music tradition that Alice Connor teaches at the Edge House, and then Amazing Grace at the request of a student from OSU, and then songs by the group Psalters, that Alice lined out for us, giving us each verse in turn and waiting until we’d repeated it before weaving the whole song together.  A few years previously, my friend Jared Talbot, who is a post-doc in biology at OSU, had proposed to his wife in the Hocking Hills, and after she’d said yes they’d hiked to the Rock House, where a Mennonite group had sung song after song together, a gift to any stranger walking through the rock formations.  Our singing in Conkle’s Hollow that day allowed Jared to pass that gift on to all the other hikers who had braved the rain and came down the trail behind us.

We were on retreat as a community of campus ministries in the diocese. There were students from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University, Mount Carmel College of Nursing, Xavier University and Ohio University.  We had conceived of the retreat as a response to the pressures and anxieties that afflict everyone in higher education these days.

The anxieties that plague campuses aren’t unreasonable. Students worry about the future, about the amount of debt that they’re taking on, about the availability of jobs in their field when they graduate. They worry about who they are and who they’re becoming, who they’ll love and how they’ll manage to love themselves.  When planning the retreat, the campus ministers talked about this anxiety and turned, as we always do, to scripture to help us make sense of the present mood and frame a response to it.

We looked at Jesus’s words in Matthew 6 – “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  We talked about how Jesus’s words might have multiple meanings.  Yes, they’re a call to rest faithfully in God’s grace, but they’re also direct advice – go and look at some flowers. It will make you feel better. And, we added, extending the thought, consider who you really are responsible for.  There are so many voices demanding our attention that we can’t possibly respond gracefully to all of them. If we can become clear about our true responsibility, we can choose not to answer the demands of those whom we really aren’t responsible for, and give ourselves more fully to the things that truly call us.

So we gathered at a rented house in the Hocking Hills on a weekend in late October. When we gathered on Saturday morning, we introduced ourselves by naming things we were grateful for. Then Alice led us in a meditation on Ruth, who is responsible both to Naomi, her bereaved mother-in-law, but also to herself, going to Boaz in the night and requiring that he pledge his protection to her before she lays with him on the threshing floor. Out of the grace of this meditation, we went to Conkle’s Hollow, where we sang together at the base of the sandstone cliffs. Granted, it was October, and the only lilies in evidence were in a vase back at the house. But when the singing ended we all felt the profound stillness of the light rain of an October day. Later that afternoon, some of us hiked again, to the Rock House, and sat in the ancient hollowed out cliffs that had once served as a tribal fort, watching the play of color on rock and drift of leaves as they fell.

That evening we gathered for public story-telling, asking first who had taught us responsibility in our lives, and then telling stories about the time when we came into our own sense of deep responsibility.  These stories proved to be intense and powerful and often very sad. A box of tissues was passed along from person to person.  And it occurred to me, listening to them, that there is often something lost in the moment when we come into our responsibility. They are so often moments of crisis, when the old dispensation, under which we’re free from the responsibility that someone else bears for us disappears, and we find the weight of that responsibility shift onto our shoulders.  And yet every one of these stories was a story of gain as well, since receiving and accepting responsibility is an act of love.  By accepting responsibility, we grow in our ability to love.

[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”formation-pullq-right”]”can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”[/su_pullquote]

George, one of the Downtowners Campus Ministry group, pushed us to think beyond the responsibility we bear toward ourselves and those we love, and consider the responsibility we have for the world at large. The next morning, Dr. Ellen O’Shaunessy brought the point home in her homily as she talked about a trip that she and her husband had taken to Mother Emmanuel in Charleston after the murders this summer. How do we move beyond the confines of our own narrow world and realize that we are responsible for strangers, some of whom act and look in ways that are very different from us? And how, and most challenging, do we learn to feel responsibility for those who have done us grievous harm – the killers who pick up guns and take innocent lives?

After she was done speaking, we found an answer to her question in shared Eucharist and shared singing, which teaches us that greater responsibility that encompasses the whole world.  It’s a lesson we learn bit by bit – by learning responsibility to ourselves, how to rest and how to discern our heart’s true call, and by learning responsibility to our loved ones by taking on their burdens in moments of crisis.  We learn through listening carefully to each other, as singers do when matching their voices, and by looking carefully at the world, at the shape of cliffs and the fall of leaves.

When we consider the lilies, it’s not a small or insignificant act.  It’s a moment of preparation for the coming Kingdom of God, a way of glimpsing that Kingdom, resting in it, and confirming that we’re willing to do whatever is required to help bring that Kingdom about and have it reverberate through other people, as if it were a song.

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Tagline: Karl Stevens serves as Campus Missioner for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at