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Northern Light

For this professor, HoneyRock serves as a renewing force—a retreat where the Holy Spirit blows freely. by Dr. Matthew J. Milliner ’98, assistant professor of art history



As an art historian who specializes in the Middle Ages, I find that Wheaton’s academic and spiritual intensity reminds me of a city of praise founded a thousand years ago: the Cluny monastery in central France. But that’s not entirely a compliment. Cluny was so successful—the liturgy so scrupulous, its library so well stocked, and its monks so intelligent—that it grew overconfident. As a result, some monks headed north. One of them, Bernard of Clairvaux, founded a monastery north of Cluny—just as HoneyRock is north of Wheaton. 

There at Clairvaux Abbey, Bernard returned to the Benedictine order’s emphasis on manual labor, simplicity, love, learning, and self-denial. The monks that came from Clairvaux, and from Cîteaux before that, were known as Cistercians (Cistercium is Latin for Cîteaux). Together they saved the Benedictine order and renewed Christianity in Europe. They maybe even saved Cluny itself. 

For me at least, HoneyRock is to Wheaton as Clairvaux was to Cluny. It serves as a renewing force—a northern place of retreat with an emphasis on the physical, as well as the life of the mind. 

As a struggling sophomore in the late 1990s, I found participating in a semesterlong program at HoneyRock to be like medicine, without which I may have bidden Wheaton a bitter, permanent good-bye. 

Now a new faculty member, I was reminded last summer of HoneyRock’s invigorating effects while leading “Passage,” Wheaton’s Northwoods orientation program for new students. The highlight was a worship service that included a long procession of students walking through the considerable darkness of the Northwoods. 

The light from torches placed every 30 feet or so along our darkened path bounced delicately off the smiling faces of student leaders. For years I had been studying the same phenomenon in Eastern Orthodox icons. In a darkened church at night, candles flicker in front of images of the great Christians who have gone before us, symbolizing the bright spots through the spiritual darkness of the world. And here I was, witnessing the same thing at HoneyRock—except these Christian “icons” were, of course, alive. 

As we processed, we ascended HoneyRock’s “ski hill,” enshrouded in a heavy evening mist illuminated by our torches. Our voices, unified in song, were so full-hearted it seemed as though the hill itself was radiating praises to Christ (which, of course, it always is). 

Weeks after that intensive liturgy on ski hill, in the thick of fall semester, I was checking out a pile of books from Buswell Library. The day and the pace at Wheaton had wearied me. I looked across the desk at a student whose face I recognized from our torch-lit procession, and I was reminded of how the Holy Spirit sometimes blows more freely in places set apart, whether in northern France or northern Wisconsin. 

I took a deep breath and said to him, “We were more alive up there, weren’t we?” He looked me with courteous compassion, smiled, and said, “Yeah, but the point is to bring some of that back down here.” 

It is good counsel.

Dr. Matthew J. Milliner ’98 is assistant professor of art history and holds a master’s and Ph.D. in art history from Princeton University, as well as a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His scholarly specialization is Byzantine and medieval art, with a focus on how such images inform contemporary visual culture and theology. In 2013 he was appointed a member of the Curatorial Advisory Board of the United States Senate. Photo credit: Greg Halvorsen Schreck.

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