Sophie's Well Guided Forest Therapy Hiking Retreat
A reflection by Librarian Ellen Dowling P '08, '10
Have you ever experienced the wonders of guided forest therapy? Well, I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for a seven-day guided forest therapy and hiking retreat offered under the auspices of Sophie's Well, a ministry of the Society of the Sacred Heart U.S.-Canada Province. Many Princeton Academy faculty and staff members are participants in the yearly Busy Persons Retreat sponsored by Sophie's Well and/or are guided spiritually by Sophie's Well spiritual companions.
The retreat was held on August 8-15, 2021, and based at the RSCJ's vacation house in Plymouth, MA. Our team of nine intrepid hikers included five RSCJs (including Jinyoung Lee, RSCJ, a teacher from Korea studying in the United States, and Deasy Hartanto, a novice from the Australia-New Zealand Province), three associates from Chicago, Greenwich and Washington, respectively, and me.
This was the 6th Annual Summer Hiking Retreat sponsored by the RSCJ... Each retreat has taken place in a different part of the United States.
Jane O'Shaughnessy, RSCJ, a Sophie's Well core team member, helped to organize the retreat. On two mornings, Jane and Jinyoung conducted Qi-gong sessions prior to our daily hike.
The forest therapy and hiking sessions were led by Mary Frohlich, RSCJ, a professor of spirituality from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who recently relocated to the Boston area. Mary is also a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. Research has demonstrated the many psychological and physiological benefits of nature immersion. One method of exploring nature is through the use of a Forest Therapy Guide leading a standard sequence of sensory awareness activities to expose participants to natural environments in a safe but effective manner. As our Forest Therapy Guide, Mary facilitated safe gentle walks, providing "invitations" for sensory opening activities along the way. Some days we were given explicit forest therapy guidance while other days we practiced using our newly-awakened sensory skills independently. Each session of Guided Forest Therapy ended with drinks of delicious herbal tea with the first drops from each cup being gratefully shared with the earth.
Every morning, we each prepared and ate our breakfast (along with coffee lovingly prepared at 6 a.m. each day by our resident early-bird, Diane Roche, RSCJ) and grabbed a quick lunch or snack and full water bottles for the adventure ahead. Full water bottles, sunblock, hats, and bug spray helped us through the days of sun, heat, humidity, and bug bites. We are still awaiting the creation of poison ivy itch prevention lotion! After each day of hiking, a short walk from the house brought us to beautiful and sandy White Horse Beach for a swim. Each afternoon, we each took a turn making dinner for all. Dinner was preceded by quiet time and followed by a prayer session and free time. The library at the house was filled with wonderful books on a variety of spiritual and religious topics along with a few good novels!
A prayerful reflection began each hike during which included an expression of gratitude to the Native Americans who had lovingly cared for the land on which we stood. Each day, we hiked a different trail, all of which were within 45 minutes of Plymouth. Parks visited included Wompatuck State Park, Myles Standish State Forest, Great Esker Park, and World's End. A highlight was when we saw a seal in Plymouth Harbor. Later, Jane found an acorn with a portrait of the seal created by nature. I found shamrocks on the edge of a trail. My favorite small moment was the 35 minutes I spent at World's End watching a winged insect (a damselfly?) carry a large grasshopper across the ground in front of me to an underground tunnel with a hidden door. The damselfly uncovered the door and carried the grasshopper down the tunnel. Upon leaving the tunnel, the damselfly spent 10 minutes placing the door back in position and covering it with tiny grains of sand until it was completely hidden from view. The forest has magical gifts to discover if we just take the time to observe.
Prayer and reflection sessions after dinner were led by a variety of community members. On Saturday evening, we attended Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Weymouth prior to enjoying a delicious fish dinner prepared for all by Kathy McGrath, RSCJ.
The retreat was my favorite activity this summer. It was an amazing experience to live in a community of faith for a week, sharing the spirit of the Sacred Heart, while experiencing the wonder and beauty of God's creation, combined with great exercise and the pleasure of each other's company.