What is Hill Abbey Hall?

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Hill Abbey Hall is a one year resident study program in which a small group of students read contemplatively, write thoughtfully, discuss ideas leisurely, and work with their hands – all in the quiet rural atmosphere of Hill Abbey.  The Hall is designed for unmarried high school or college graduates, or those taking a year off (or who have graduated) from college, who want a slower-paced, non-graded, meditative study experience with little pressure and more space and time in which to pray, sit and think, read great books, and reflect on the great ideas of “Old Western Culture” (a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis is his essay “De Descriptione Temporum“) and of historic Christianity, before the onset of the greater pressures and high-speed demands of college, career, or family life.  The program presumes a good high school level liberal arts or great books reading program, such as Schola Classical Tutorials, although this is not an absolute requirement.

 

What Does it Look Like?

Hill Abbey is not a college except in the original sense of that word – a company or fellowship of colleagues associated for a particular purpose, in this case study and reflection on Old Western Christian Culture. There are no grades or tests. The program is really more like a short-term monastery. The daily time is devoted to slow reading individually and aloud together, periods of private contemplation, studying language and music, gathering together over good food and around bonfires and under stars, and conversation and fellowship. There are times set aside each afternoon where all have solitude for contemplation and reflection on the reading or anything else (we call this the “Trappist Hour” – it’s a bit like the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina), and we hold Morning and Evening Prayers in communion with the majority of the Christians in history who framed their days this way. Students do house or yard work in the afternoons, and have time for daily walks in the nearby woods and fields. Students read with pencils in their hands and journals in their laps; they read in the library, on the deck, out on the lawns, under the trees, or in the living or dining rooms of the Hall. There is plenty of time for evaluation and questions of application later as we walk, eat, stare into the fire, and gaze at the stars.

The students meet individually with the tutor once a week for discussion of work and assignment of essays. They listen to a lecture by a visiting local professor or clergyman once a week. We have a Friday Seminar every Friday morning for two to three hours during which we discuss the week’s work and the students read their weekly essays aloud for discussion. This Friday Seminar sometimes includes others from outside Hill Abbey who are doing some of the reading while maintaining a work or family schedule and do not live at the Abbey but join us Friday mornings. At noon on Fridays all the participants share a meal.

 

What will it do for me?

Hill Abbey Hall is dedicated to the idea that wisdom and happiness require periodic times of withdrawal from the hectic pace and numerous distractions of “normal” life for the sake of reflection and meditation on great books and ideas – such as wisdom, worship, virtue, purpose, beauty – in the rhythm of a simple, daily routine. There are usually far too many things to do in life, and though we try to do them all, we can’t. So we have to choose. But instead of choosing well we choose the immediate, the urgent, what is directly in front of us, what’s in our face, what shouts loudest for our attention.  Hill Abbey Hall offers at least three things that very few of the other things demanding our attention do.

The first is peace. Real peace of soul comes of course from an ordered relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But an extended period of deliberately ignoring the urgent, tyrannical, frenetic daily demands that modern culture seems to impose on us illustrates how unimportant those things often are and how much more we can focus on inner peace when external peace is enjoyed.

And with this comes the second thing - perspective. The tree or hill that rises above the surrounding terrain gives a better view, and a extended period of time without the tyranny of the urgent is like climbing to that height. Then we begin to see how trivial and foolishly wasteful are many of the things that clutter our daily lives. This is not to say that everything should be momentous – but without perspective we can’t even enjoy the merely pleasant, the delightful, the fun. We waste our lives with shallow, trashy busy-ness when we could be doing something truly important – like staring at the sky, listening to a friend’s voice while he speaks, and thinking. Really thinking. Long, slow, leisurely thinking.

And this leads to the third thing which Hill Abbey offers: wisdom. Not that Hill Abbey embodies wisdom but rather that we offer a place to find it where it really resides – in hearing and heeding the voices of the past, and especially in those of the historic Christian church. The program is primarily about reading the very great books that make up what C. S. Lewis calls Old Western Culture, but in a slow, contemplative manner, at the human pace at which it was written, and with long periods specifically set aside for reflection – all so that the wisdom of the great book can sink deeply into our thoughts and souls. We all need, and want, wisdom. Wisdom sees the big picture, judges the priorities of things and orders them rightly, and chooses and acts well so that the soul can attain its proper end. But without peace and perspective there can be no wisdom. Hill Abbey Hall attempts to create the circumstances where that peace, perspective, and wisdom can be heard and flourish.

 

Why is it called “Hill Abbey”?

We are situated on a low, lovely hill on a neck of land surrounded on three sides by a river and a creek – thus the “Hill”. And the program is as much like a temporary monastery (a fellowship with an “abbot”, which just means “father”, at their head) as it is like a college. We’re following, in our own limited but appreciative way, a very old Christian tradition of learning (traceable from the early catechetical schools of Egypt and Syria through the medieval monastic and cathedral schools and great colleges and universities of Europe up through Lewis’s “St. Anne’s” in That Hideous Strength) which has at its heart the idea that all truly good education is about reading good books and thinking and talking about them with like-minded people, in a structured and peaceful environment, anchored in a disciplined attempt to order the soul to God.

 

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