Written by Dr. Tim Basselin, Director of Field Education and Student Life, Associate Professor of Ministry, Theology, and Culture

For two days each semester, Western’s IR and DL students share the same space during our Abbey Retreat. As our team planned for the fall retreat (Oct 17-18), we thought of the increased levels of cultural anxiety, our desire for quick and easy answers, and our absence of hunger for wisdom. We then began to think about holiness. And we decided our theme should be the biblical refrain, The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom. From there, we imagined two days where our students could rest and connect with one another and encounter God. We read the story of Moses’ call, of the burning bush, over and over throughout the retreat. In our opening session, Dr. Tim Basselin made connections between two biblical refrains: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, and we spent time with Ps 81, which ends “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.”

In our second session, Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst led us to consider the Fear of the Lord more deeply, and in our last session, Dr. Carol Bechtel helped us think about the Beginning of Wisdom, inviting us to hear the call of wisdom and submit to her desire to embrace us. Between these talks, we wanted to explore spiritual practices that connect fear of the Lord and wisdom: practices of holiness. For one of our mornings together, we designed three spaces and divided the students into three groups and had each group stay in each space for about 40 minutes before rotating to the next.

Dr. Carol Bechtel playing the harp

One space was Dimnent Chapel on Hope’s campus, a large 100-year-old cathedral with stained glass windows and gothic architecture. Dr. Wes Hill invited students into three experiences of silence in this cavernous space, one broken by the reading of scripture and another guided by Dr. Carol Bechtel playing the harp. There were no spotlights and no mics. The session ended with three of our students acapella singing Rich Mullins’s’ I Will Sing. I encourage you to take 1 minute and 26 seconds to listen. 

Students helping to make bread

A second space-centered table — set with bread students had helped make the night before, honey harvested by the chairperson of our Board of Trustees, Steve Spoelhof, and apple butter made by Student Life’s Beth Smith and made with apples picked by students Professor Ron Rienstra took apple picking earlier in the month. The conversation centered on tasting and seeing that the Lord is good and on the concept of rememory, which Toni Morrison uses to describe the importance of intentionally reentering our history. Kate Bareman, from the Student Life office, and our Dean, Kristen Johnson, led students to consider their encounters with holiness and to imagine ways of ritualizing those into their futures: for example, a yearly feast that remembers an act of God in their life.

The third space took advantage of the architecture, art, and beauty of our library. Professors Tim Basselin and Ben Connor invited students to develop their poetic imaginations. We noted C.S. Lewis’ encouragement in An Experiment in Criticism that when approaching art we must “listen first” and “get ourselves out of the way.” Dr. Connor brought a print of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son from his home and talked about its significance in his family’s life. We noted that the architecture in the library deliberately duplicates the architecture in our chapel to make a statement about the connection between worship and study.

Students reflecting on paintings in the library

We invited students to spend time listening to the six vibrant paintings on the walls of the main floor, paintings commissioned specifically for that space that intend to say something about who Western is and who we can be. Paper and pens and crayons lay around the room for people to respond in some way if they chose.

And we spent the last 5-7 minutes making space for people to share their writing. The following poem was not shared. I found it on a side table afterward, unsigned: a gift to whoever might stumble upon it. 



I used to be a poet, a songwriter, an artist, and a lover of stories.

Until I began keeping a list of all the books I need to read to be well-read

of all the countries I need to visit to be cultured

I submitted myself to a discipline and made my imagination fall in line

I lashed poems to chairs and beat the meaning out of them

I sang only other people’s songs because they were written “right”

and mine were wrong

I needed to be right, never wrong. 4.0 GPA.

Then God gave me a two-year-old, a fairy princess tiger cowgirl, a baby snow leopard

who plays on the mountainside and does not care whether she summits

Then God said, “shut your mouth, close your eyes, and stop. I am.”

Here’s a story to chew on slowly

A song to dance to

A painting you feel more than see

I am a story, a song, a brushstroke, a feeling

Now open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.


To learn more about the fall Abbey retreat, visit wtsem.info/abbey-student-reflection