A Joyful Feast: A Q&A with Companions on the Inner Way Director Carolyn Foster

I count as one of the greatest blessings in my life the day I went to work for The Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in my late 20s. Not only did I get to join forces in youth ministry with the incredibly gifted Mark Yaconelli, but I was also introduced to an entirely new way of practicing my faith. I learned to be a “contemplative Christian” at SFTS and to date, I still consider that the greatest spiritual gift I’ve been given.

Through contemplative prayer and practice, I was introduced to a God who was not only omnipresent (out there) but also imminent (as close as my breath). I learned to listen for God’s still, small voice through the Bible, through prayer, through others, through nature, and through silence, and it changed my life. I went from a “Sunday Christian” who got her gas tank filled once a week to get through life, to a 24/7 Christian who sought out God’s voice and guidance in every moment. You may laugh, but that was a huge revelation for me! I had never known God to be that close and had never experienced myself as God’s beloved so fully.

My “contemplative conversion” all started at this extraordinary event called Companions on the Inner Way. On my first day at the new job at SFTS, Mark announced that he was sending me to a spiritual retreat in Lake Tahoe for a week to get a better sense of the culture of our program. An all-expenses paid spiritual retreat at Lake Tahoe in August? I thought a minute. Uh … OK! I knew it would be interesting, enjoyable and relaxing. What I didn’t know is that it would also be be life-changing, re-introducing me to the Bible, God and Jesus, and my own prayer life, in new and deeply intimate ways.

Companions is celebrating its 24th year of leading guided contemplative retreats this summer, August 10-15, at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center in Lake Tahoe with guest speaker Brian McLaren. (Past speakers have included J. Phillip Newell, Jan Richardson, John Bell and Jane Vennard.) I spoke with Companions director Carolyn Foster recently and asked her to give us a brief history of the retreat, and tell us what why it’s still so special today.

What is Companions and how is it different from other church conferences?

Companions on the Inner Way is a guided retreat grounded in the Christian tradition. By honoring body, mind and soul, retreat participants are invited to the inner journey with the Spirit.

Conferences tend to focus on issues and deliver intellectual content; Companions retreats explore a single theme in multiple modalities and activities intended to engage body, mind, and spirit. Companions exists as a community of spiritual journeyers as well as a venue for spiritual learning and growth. Long-time participants and first-timers alike are guided into an intentional experience of welcome and belonging.

How and when did Companions on the Inner Way start … and what has it become today?

In the early 1980s, Christian mystic Morton Kelsey joined with Professor Roy Fairchild to develop the concept of Companions on the Inner Way. They saw the advantage of offering a retreat experience that gave people the time in which to address their spiritual issues and attend to their own personal growth. Roy was assisted by Andy Dreitcer and later, Elizabeth Liebert, in providing Companions and other programs under the umbrella of San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Center for Christian Spiritual Disciplines, as the Program for Christian Spirituality was then called. In those early years, Companions was eight full days, and drew many SFTS students during their January intersession to what was often their first spirituality course.

By 1993 Morton was ready to retire, and Howard Rice, Chaplain as well as Professor of Ministry at SFTS, became his successor. The length of the retreat was cut back to five days and now held off campus at various retreat centers. In March of 1995, the program saw its way clear to hiring a part-time director; Joan Currey stepped into that position, joining with Ann Pope, the Program Manager. A core staff was soon developed with the addition of liturgist Jeff Gaines, musician Ruthanne Svendsen, and Marjorie Hoyer Smith who brought an art and movement component to the Companions experience.

It was at this time as well that a second event was added to the year and even an occasional third. The Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center on Lake Tahoe became our summer location while our winter site included retreat centers in Sierra Madre, San Juan Capistrano and Malibu in Southern California. On one or more occasions Companions traveled to Portland, OR; Issaquah, WA; and Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

In March of 2004, Companions went through another transition, moving to San Francisco and coming under the auspices of the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, where it enjoys a close relationship with both the congregation and its pastor, Jeffrey Gaines, while still co-sponsored by SFTS. In 2012, Joan Currey retired, and I was hired as the new Director. In late 2013,  Ruthanne Svendsen stepped down as Companions musician, although we continue to use her music at retreats and sell her CDs. Seventh Avenue Church Music Director Luba Kravchenko is now Companions’ staff musician and is carrying on the tradition of sung and instrumental beauty at the heart of retreat.

You call Companions a “guided retreat.” What do you mean by that?

We call it guided because we very consciously interweave the elements of retreat to offer participants opportunities to deepen their spiritual journey through each part of the day, with each day building on the previous one. The retreat elements include: movement prayer before breakfast; the presenter’s morning talks, which are amplified by integrative group and individual activities before lunch; free time in the afternoon for playing in the art room, reading, resting, or being out in nature; ending the day with small group Lectio Divina (sacred reading) facilitated by a staff member; worship with Eucharist; and a brief meditative Compline service.

Your August retreat features popular speaker and author Brian McLaren. What is the theme he’ll be speaking on? 

We are proud and excited to be featuring Brian McLaren as our presenter for the August 10-15, 2014 retreat at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center in Lake Tahoe. Brian’s reputation as an author and activist whose work bridges mainstream and emergent churches and who speaks equally powerfully to progressive and conservative Christians intrigued us.  We are fortunate that our retreat coincides with the publication of his new book on spiritual formation, We Make the Road by Walking. Brian’s theme for our retreat is “God, Save Me from God!” He will be addressing the tension between our conventional images of God, our language for God, our formulations about God on the one hand, and our intuitions of, experiences with, and hopes about God on the other. Rather than trying to suppress this tension, he will help us explore it as an arena for spiritual growth. To find out more or to register for our August event, go to www.CotiWay.org.

Lectio Divina – divine reading – is a central practice of the Companions retreats. What does this spiritual practice of listening to – and responding to – scripture in a small group setting offer participants?   

The practice of Lectio Divina gathers all the threads of each retreat day and makes them personal to each participant. The day’s scriptures that the presenter addresses are excerpted into brief passages to be read slowly multiple times, pondered, and responded to in groups of five or six with a facilitator. These same scripture passages are preached on at each daily worship service and guide the choice of the hymns and chants we sing. In the small group, God’s message comes through differently to each person, but the images, feelings, sensations, and insights are held in reverent listening and compassionate acceptance. The group process of listening to scripture this way can be extremely healing.

Similarly, communion is a powerful daily experience at your retreats. What does Communion embody at Companions?

As a non-ordained person of faith, daily worship with Communion at Companions immerses me in a ritual of welcome, remembrance, gift, and response that nourishes me deeply.  When I participate in one of those services, reading scripture or bringing the elements, I feel the presence of the Holy and the ties to ancient times and far-flung contemporaries. Our liturgist, the Rev. Jeffrey Gaines, writes this about our Companions worship with Eucharist:

From the Gospel of John we read that Jesus said: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” 

“What I am doing you do not know now” … only through memory, through recollection, will we understand. The Table is outward and visible of something that is inward and invisible: God’s very presence. It is a still point, if you will, a place where heaven and earth meet; a place where we remember that we are loved. Yes, it is a Table of Memory.

• only through memory do we get it and know we are loved.

• only through memory do we begin to understand faith.

• only through memory are we are able to re-enter, through the re-telling of stories, God’s presence in our lives and world.

• only through memory do we understand this meal [this sacrament] called the Last Supper, Communion, the Eucharist.

Memory connects us with our past, supports us in the present, giving us strength to move into the future.

At Companions, Communion/the Eucharist is a meal that is like none other: it is a passageway, a threshold if you will, allowing us to access corporate memory and experience corporate mystery: it is the joyful feast of the people of God.

What else can one expect at a Companions retreat? 

The group movement practices and the multitude of art supplies to explore in a room dedicated solely to creative play are staff member Rev. Marjorie Hoyer Smith’s unique gifts to the retreats. Overall, Companions retreats are marked by laughter, lively conversations with deep listening, lots of music that opens hearts, spacious freedom to be oneself, and opportunities for solitude and silence as well as community.  Even before I became Director, I identified Companions as a place that offered me healing and renewal.

Who is welcome to Companions? And who will feel welcome?

Companions participants reflect a diverse cross-section of faith communities and spiritual seekers. Men and women, clergy and lay people, couples and singles, straight and gay, younger and older generations are welcomed and represented at our retreats. We are slowly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. We work to live out this saying of our sponsoring congregation: Our unity is not found in our conformity but in our diversity.

Learn more about Companions on the Inner Way – and register for the upcoming August retreat with guest presenter Brian McLaren- here. 

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  • maya7

    Hi Deb– I love “Companions,” and so wish I could be there this year! Hopefully will get there again, in the not too distant future.