By Kathy Berken
I love trees so much that when I received an email from Father Ron Rolheiser last year telling me about a pilot program he initiated, all he had to do was tell me the title, “Forest Dwelling,” and I was in. Even after receiving more information I told him I didn’t care what it was about, the title was enough to get me to say yes.
Once we get our Medicare card and begin to receive Social Security, we are officially senior citizens. Anything else we use to describe growing older is essentially based on how we view ourselves. Since we are all “aging,” that word did not suit me. “Elder” describes somebody who has it together more than I do. I am a Baby Boomer grandma who has been around the block a couple of times and have the scars to prove it. Ah, that’s more like it!
The notion of forest dwelling has roots in ancient India where life is divided into three stages: student, householder, forest dweller. In the last stage, a person lives more simply, has time for reflection and increases wisdom while lessening activity. Sounded good to me.
I applied for the certificate program, based at the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio where Fr. Rolheiser is president. Here is the description from their webpage: “Forest Dwelling: Spirituality for our Wisdom Years is designed for more mature seekers who desire to mindfully embrace the challenges and opportunities of aging and diminishment by accessing the deep wisdom embedded in the world’s great mystical and contemplative traditions. The goal . . . is to prepare participants to live wisely and well during their remaining years so that . . . ‘they might be able to give both their life and death away’ for the sake of the world. This two-year program of education and formation will include two week-long gatherings on the campus of OST each year, directed online study, monthly participation in a small process group, regular spiritual direction and regular contemplative practice consistent with the participant’s primary spiritual tradition.”
In early January, more than 120 of us gathered at OST for our first week of retreat-like conferences, activities, discussions and fun. Some folks are retreat center directors who hope to start Forest Dwelling in their locales; some want personal enrichment. Others, who are in ministry and healthcare, want to help the people they work with through their wisdom years. Some 50 of us are spiritual directors who desire a deeper look at our own lives as we age so we can listen with the heart of wisdom to those who come to us needing to tell their stories.
We are required to put in 30 hours a month, in addition to the four retreat weeks. Half of those hours are centering prayer/mindfulness meditation, two hours of video conferencing with our eight-person “Elder Circle,” one hour to meet with our spiritual director and the rest for required reading and journaling.
What I have enjoyed most is meeting dozens of like-minded people with similar goals and intentions about our wisdom years, who desire to have a deeper spirituality, and creating bonds among us that can help us move into these later years with support and friendship.
What will be most important to me moving forward? A continued, disciplined practice of centering prayer in order to deepen my awareness of the presence of God and to stay connected with other Forest Dwellers. We are having fun with the idea of forest, so many of us already have necklaces, earrings and shirts with trees on them. The books are also intriguing. “The Grace in Aging,” by Kathleen Dowling Singh, describes the significance of mindfulness. Christophe Andre’s “Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment through Art,” teaches meditation through seeing: “Visio Divina,” similar to Lectio Divina, but in pictures.
If you are interested in learning more about the Forest Dwelling program, go to https://ost.edu/forestdwelling/ or just search for “Forest Dwelling, Oblate School of Theology.”
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)