The larger monthly meetings in our Arkansas-Oklahoma region take turns hosting fall, winter, and spring quarterly meetings, while the other "quarter" is yielded to a yearly meeting. Each host meeting strives to find a place, such as a state park or lodge, that is within driving distance for Oklahoma and Arkansas Friends. In years past, we have met at such beautiful places as Robbers' Cave and Dwight Mission in Oklahoma. Little Rock Friends lost our go-to hosting spot when Dwight Mission near Stillwater, OK, was acquired in 2021 by the Cherokee Nation. We hold out hope that the Cherokee Nation might return to running it as a camp, retreat, and conference center. Meanwhile, finding a place that isn't booked years in advance has been a challenge that resulted this year in our plan to gather at Subiaco Abbey's Coury Guesthouse in Western Arkansas, a place that has served many in this area as an oasis of spiritual renewal and silent retreats for decades. Our decision was bolstered by how well Sister Cecilia Brickell's presentation was received during Winter Quarter 2023. Yet this was not an easy decision. It came about through a long process of spirit-led discernment by our Meeting and the ad hoc committee, the reworking of the contract by Subiaco's legal team, the gathering of input from LGBTQIA+ Friends across the quarter, and a series of first-hour activities meant to improve our capacity for good allyship and awareness of religious trauma.
With AR-OK Friends being accustomed to paying roughly $25 to $45 for an entire weekend where we share the jobs of food preparation and dishwashing, the cost of lodging and meals at this guesthouse would be more than triple that. On the positive side, we imagined the older Friends' appreciation for a bed with a real mattress and bathrooms/showers that can be accessed without a trip through the cold of night, as is the case at lovely Lake Wister State Park. On the other hand, we did not want even one Friend to stay home due to cost. Thus fundraising began. Thanks to the generosity of several donors, including Stillwater Meeting, we were able to lower the cost of the weekend to around $80 for two nights' lodging and six meals if a Friend shared a room. A private room was a bit more.
Those Friends who made it in time for Friday supper were greeted by Abigail, who has toasty warm accommodations right outside the guesthouse door. She loves skritches and coming on walks, but chooses not to come into the guesthouse. Also there to greet us was Fr. Patrick, whose assignment at the abbey includes taking care of the Coury House guests. He was a charming host full of funny stories, including that the other monks find it ironic, given his portliness, that he wants to put Abigail on a diet and exercise regimen.
By the end of breakfast Saturday morning, we had all pretty much learned our way from Coury House across to the main building and under the red awning to go either up to the chapel where one could follow along with the monks at Vespers and other services using an electronic tablet or down to the basement to the guest dining room where kitchen staff hiding away in an enormous kitchen and pantry that ran the length of the building prepared meals for three sets of people three times a day: students, monks, and guests.
After breakfast and worship sharing, Fr. Jerome Kodell joined us for a dialogue in which we learned about each other's traditions. He learned about the SPICES, and we learned about the Rule of Benedict, in particular mutual or reciprocal obedience. Fr. Jerome also told us about how monks receive assignments, and how that can change over time. He had never worked in a wood shop before, and now he makes all the coffins, allowing the abbey to have less expensive and at the same time more beautiful coffins.
After lunch, some of us took the tour of the abbey with Fr. Francis. We left Coury Guest House at 1:00 and didn't get back until 3:00, very tuckered out and ready for snacks. We spent an hour just in the museum. Some highlights were: the hundreds of relics that made their way to Arkansas from Switzerland at a time when they were at risk of being seized by the government; decades' worth of farm implements, kitchen utensils, chasubles, habits, gifts, clocks, newspaper clippings; and an impressive collection of salt and pepper shakers. We also saw the altar in the church, which was vandalized in an incident that went viral globally. The original altar was made with a piece of imported marble lowered in by a crane before the roof was put on, but the abbey opted for a less costly and cumbersome method of replacing it.
After the tour, those who went had about half an hour to refuel and get settled in for the workshops: Les Brelsford got us all up to speed on AFSC and other national Quaker organizations. Then Ruth led us in worship sharing around the Israel-Palestine situation. That was a heavy topic, so we chose to chant right after, which proved to be just the right transition activity before the sharing of favorite poems.
Sunday morning at sunrise, some could be seen taking a walk--led by Abigail. At 8:00 a.m., we trekked back over to the guest dining hall for another delicious vegetarian meal and thanked the head of the kitchen team for making an exception for us to their usual "we do not accommodate special diets" rule. Worship was at 9:30, after which Jack clerked the Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, giving all meetings a chance to report on the health and state of their meeting.
Living alongside Benedictine monks for a weekend was an experience we won't soon forget.